On Everyday Filipino Heroes

Excerpt from a book-length essay for 5 Years of Looking for Juan, a monograph aimed at educating secondary school-age readers on nationhood, art, and its publics

Tadeo, Si Rosita
Brendale Tadeo, Si Rosita at ang Anatomika ng Sari-saring Bagay sa Kanyang Kaisipan (2010)

Forthcoming from CANVAS, aka The Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development; for more information, visit CANVAS.ph or like their page on facebook

Not so long after Looking for Juan began reaching out to the public in 2009, shirts, stickers, and posters proclaiming that “Where I am from, everyone’s a hero” were released, alongside the outreach operations that alleviated the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Ondoy. That was the year a great number of citizens linked arms against complacency, with a common cause to uplift those whose lives had wiped out by the storm and submerged under meters and meters of floodwater, in good faith that the Filipino spirit was indeed–as later versions of the campaign said—waterproof.

Linking arms against common enemies are what make an island into a country, then into a nation – bound not only by borders, but by a common vision for a future that will do justice to our past. Considering our country’s troubles, it is possible we still do not know what it really means to be part of a nation, except for the short bursts of unity we experience in the wake of disasters. For 2010, the theme “Everyday Filipino Heroes” attempted to express what it meant to go beyond these short bursts of nationhood and to translate heroism into everyday acts.

But should the term “heroism,” even accommodate the everyday acts that could—and should—be part of our duty not as Filipinos, but as part of this global community called “humanity”?

Through art, we are brought closer to what it means to be human. Paintings, photographs, and prints allow us to see this, but we must not forget that art engages all our senses. We hear music, we touch good sculpture and good design, we enter architecture. Through its efforts to occupy public space, Looking for Juan reminds us of art’s role in changing the environment—socially, politically, and culturally – all of which are integral to this question of our humanity. In its own seemingly small way, art has that capacity to transform the everyday. […]

Like heroes, the act of Looking for Juan puts us on a quest. To quest is about agency and going beyond one’s limits. The hardships we endure on this quest test our mettle, or the stuff we’re made of. The choices we make each day that bring us closer to what lies beyond could be filled with heroism. This is what everyday heroism is about: as everyday heroes, we move in pursuit of something greater.

Asking “What is a hero?” is not a simple matter of looking for an answer, but a process – a way to both prolong the search and expand the conversation. Our eyes in this sense are the windows not only of the soul, but of the mind, through which we can observe possible outcomes, without overlooking the fact of the ever-broadening horizon of what heroes are, as well as what they will be.

The hero is often cast as an ideal—and should remain so. The many ways we form our ideals make it difficult to come up with a single answer to what makes a hero. But true heroism, as shown by these Everyday Filipino Heroes, is a matter of how every step we take should bring us closer to the humanity that nurtures a community – whether that community is the nation or the world.

Looking For Juan: Revolution

I did the notes for Looking For Juan, Vargas Museum’s annual collaboration with The Center for Art, New Ventures, and Sustainable Development [CANVAS]. This year’s theme is “Revolution”, in commemoration of the 150th birth year of Andres Bonifacio.

Rolf Campos, “Blood and Politics of Our History” [2013]
There is a photograph of Andres Bonifacio that has turned iconic: an undated headshot in black and white of a man with a furrowed brow and a clenched jaw. The same photograph was rendered as a sketch in February 1897, shortly after Bonifacio was installed as the President of the Tagalog Republic—and shortly before his execution. With a coat on his shoulders and what appears to be a cravat tied under his closed collar, this picture is a far cry from the open-mouthed, bloodthirsty supremo carved into the national consciousness through monuments and history books.

It is upon a single photograph of a man whose remains were lost amid the chaos of empire and insurgency that the story of a revolution continues to construct itself. By lending a face to an otherwise anonymous multitude, Bonifacio’s legacy continues to this day in the need to personify the complex problems at the root of every struggle, problems that bear the threat of being abstracted by their own complexity. That Bonifacio’s name now conjures up images of both the everyman and the elite (think of High Street) speaks of an irreversibly fragmented society for which terms of the revolution must be redefined.

While the supremo’s hardened gaze, as seen in that exceptional photograph, has come to signify the struggle and heroism of the Filipino, this signifier fails to address the fraught subjectivity of this personhood that persists to shift as the source of oppression/revolution becomes harder to identify.