To Be Free, And What It Means

By Lourd De Veyra 

This year, the Philippines celebrates its 119th year of independence. Just a reminder before you treat it as another excuse to go to the beach or on Netflix marathons: thousands of our forebears suffered so we don’t have to bow to foreign invaders in the streets.

There was a time the “Filipino” did not exist. Both the term and the idea. We were either indios, (natives), mestizos, or insulares(Spaniards born and living in the colonies) or peninsulares (pure-blooded Spaniards born in Spain, conio). Before the arrival of colonizers, we were classified according to kingdoms and tribes. Many of them often warring with each other.

There was a time when the flag did not exist either. Neither did we have a national anthem. These things did not exist until 1898. For many of us, June 12 is just one of our many holidays. Predictably, major thoroughfares, government offices, would be flooded with red, white, and blue.

Independence Day. One of the things we now take for granted. We think these things have been there all throughout.

Just to be clear: June 12 is the proclamation of independence. The actual attainment of independence is another matter altogether. After declaring ourselves free from Spain, the Americans came. Three hundred years in a convent, 50 years in Hollywood—that’s how one writer described the Philippines under Spain and the US.

And it also wasn’t always June 12.

From 1946 to 1961, the Philippines always celebrated its day of independence on July 4, same as the US. It was President Diosdado Macapagal who changed July 4 to June 12 via Proclamation no. 28. July 4 simply became Fil-American Friendship Day.

Here’s more: The Flag Law of 1907. Under the American colonial government, from 1907 to 1919, it was unlawful to display the Philippine Flag. You could be punished with jail time of up to five years and a fine of up to P5,000. And it didn’t have to be just the actual flag but anything—pins, buttons, and badges—that remotely bore some semblance, or had red, white, and blue.

Now, some students treat it like a mop—literally. Or just another pop star’s onstage fashion prop. Yes, the flag deserves our respect. These are not mere pieces of cloth. Every thread, every fiber should remind us of the sacrifice of every Filipino who suffered under foreign conquerors. All uprisings, even failed ones, were steps toward a free nation. “Sa manlulupig/ ‘Di ka pasisiil” we always sing as we watch the flag ascend up the pole with our hands dramatically pressed to our hearts. The whole ritual only transcends rote if we only know the stories behind each element.

National Artist F. Sionil Jose lamented our lack of a sense of nation, the concept of nation as an aggregate of people with shared values. Seriously, what is “nation?” Is it the person beside you on the train? The officemate whose political views you don’t agree with?

Why do we throw trash mindlessly, or not care what happens to taxpayers’ money? From a lack of a sense of nation. What makes people love, live, die, and kill for their countries? To use a book title by the late historian Benedict Anderson, “imagined communities.”

And to nourish our imagination, we must read. We must study the past. For what? Not necessarily for inspiration. We must stop looking at those exalted historical figures as superheroes. The moment we accept them to be as human and as fallible as us is when illumination begins. History is not always a self-help, inspirational bestseller.

It is, of course, hard to think of things like colonial oppression and injustice in this day and age of relative comfort, when everything is conveniently Google-able. An active appreciation of the past shows gratitude to a previous generation who risked life and limb just so their children and grandchildren would not be born as slaves.

We are free because our forefathers imagined us walking the streets without fear of not having to bow to a foreign soldier. We get easily irritated at a simple security check at the mall, when our lolos and lolas went through so much more so we could be where we are today.

From imagination springs courage, then action. Sounds corny? Hey, you read The Secret. Without a sense of history, students will never become citizens. You think history is uncool? You know what else is uncool? Not knowing your past.

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