For our Heroes, Freedom is a dream that it so worth its hefty price

by Reinere Policarpio

If we take proper semantics into consideration, our grandiose celebrations every 12th of June are founded on a misnomer: The official, legal name of our June 12 holiday is “Independence Day”, which is translated into the vernacular as Araw ng Kasarinlan, yet we continue to refer to the day as Araw ng Kalayaan or “Day of Freedom” in English.

Today, one may use “Kalayaan” to refer to the thoroughfare running across Makati City where the now-defunct Pasig Line of the Philippine National Railways used to run, or the similarly-named avenue in Quezon City running from Elliptical Road to Kamias Road in Cubao. Students and alumni of the University of the Philippines may fondly associate the word with the dormitory where they were lodged during their freshman years. Kalayaan may also remind us of a certain group of islands in the West Philippine Sea, sovereignty over which is now being hotly contested among Asian nations, including a superpower that isn’t even originally a party to the conflict but muscled itself in, in pursuit of its agenda of projecting military power outside its established territory. 

But before the turn of the 20th century, when the Philippines was still shackled by the chains of colonial rule, Kalayaan was no mere mundane concept: it was a lofty ideal, an unattainable dream, a noble aspiration which warranted the highest of personal sacrifices.

Kalayaan was so lofty a word that Jose Rizal, the polymath and genius he was, never knew the term until he was apprised of it by none other than his compatriot and friend, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, who took the time and the effort to translate his essay Amor Patrio for publication in the latter’s Diariong Tagalog. Yet Kalayaan held such deep meaning for the two and their compatriots that they exiled themselves into the land of their oppressors and embarked on a crusade of agitation, using the power of the printed word to call for reform on the Spanish Government’s administration of its overseas colonial possessions. Kalayaan was so noble an ideal that Plaridel himself noted, on the final issue of the La Solidaridad, that “no sacrifice is too little in pursuit of earning the rights and the liberty of a nation oppressed by slavery.” (Todo sacrificio es poco para conquistar los derechos y la libertad de un pueblo oprimido y mal avenido con su esclavitud.”)

Kalayaan was so lofty a word that Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto, Pio Valenzuela and their other sworn brothers in the Katipunan used it as the name of the secret society’s publication in order to inspire more people to join their cause and take up arms against their colonial masters. Kalayaan was so lofty a word that it became the battlecry that resounded on the mountains of Montalban on Good Friday of 1895, as well as on the fields of Balintawak and the riverbanks of San Juan del Monte on the last days of August the following year. Indeed, Kalayaan was so noble an ideal that Emilio Jacinto summarized his Kartilya ng Katipunan with the statement that “when the glorious sun of liberty shines over these wretched islands and enlightens a united race and people, all lives, struggles and hardships endured shall be vindicated.”

Kalayaan was so lofty a word that Jose Palma, writer-editor for General Antonio Luna’s aptly-titled revolutionary periodical La Independencia, was inspired to write an ode to the freedom he and his fellowmen so desired, which later became the lyrics of the national anthem that was first played on that fateful afternoon of 12 June 1898, the same anthem we sing with fervor today. Kalayaan was so noble an ideal that Emilio Aguinaldo, President of the First Philippine Republic, adopted the sun of liberty as the principal symbol of the fledgling republic, which is also prominently featured in the flag he hoisted in Kawit on that fateful afternoon of 12 June 1898, the same flag which we proudly fly today.

Most of the people previously mentioned had no business starting a revolution, much less seeing it to its bloody end: many of them came from privileged backgrounds, were able to obtain a good education, and had promising careers ahead of them. Rizal and Valenzuela were physicians, Del Pilar and Mabini were lawyers, Bonifacio a warehouse manager of a trading firm, Aguinaldo a traveling merchant on top of being a respected local official. Yet they promptly responded to so-called “tawag ng panahon” and risked life and limb chasing the elusive dream of Kalayaan: that one day, they will live in their beloved country free from oppression and discrimination, where they will be allowed to voice out their opinions without fear of reprisal, where religion won’t be invoked to justify atrocious behavior on the part of the clergy, where education would be made accessible to all willing to learn, where all people, regardless of race, gender and social status, would be afforded the right to life, liberty, ownership of property, and the pursuit of happiness.

Our heroes found themselves in the struggle for independence through different circumstances, most of them personal in nature, but it was for the love of Kalayaan which made them stay and see it through, for better or for worse. The dream of Kalayaan was the driving force behind all of their endeavors, and the nobility of their cause was the reason why they were able to succeed in the end. Their toil earned us our Liberty; their sacrifices gained for us our greatest inheritance.

A century and two decades hence, it is now up to us, the Filipinos of today, heirs to the legacy of our heroes, to make sure that the Kalayaan they valiantly fought and died for will be safeguarded for the future generations. Yet there are times that we fail in that regard: sometimes we prefer to sacrifice our liberty in the name of security; we belittle the importance of our civil rights in pursuit of convenience, we have submitted ourselves to the mercy of the “new tyrants” and allowed them to exploit our sensibilities to entrench themselves in the reins of power and do as they please with impunity.

One of Rizal’s characters in his second novel El Filibusterismo, Padre Florentino, told a dying Simoun: “Why Independence, if the slaves of today shall be the tyrants of tomorrow? And they would be, without doubt, because he who loves tyranny submits to it.” While independence was Rizal’s most ardent wish, he opposed the Revolution because he felt that it should be guided by a noble aspiration – the selfless desire for Kalayaan – and not by personal whims and caprices in order to succeed. The movements that served as precursors to our eventual Independence, the Propaganda Movement, the Liga Filipina, the Katipunan, and so on, were all guided by said noble aspiration, and while they were not initially successful in their own right, they caused a chain reaction of events which led to the glorious moment of 12 June 1898. But the Revolution is yet to be finished; and it is now imperative to us to continue what our heroes have started. Now is the high time to ask ourselves: “Are we deserving of the Kalayaan which we enjoy today? Or have we grown so accustomed to such that it is now easy for us to take it for granted? Is our so-called ‘patriotism’ a sincere expression of our love for liberty, or it is merely lip service which masks our own capricious interpretations of justice?”

Independence Day is not just a day for us to celebrate the day we have unilaterally declared our separation from colonial subjugation; it is also a day for us to remember the noble aspiration which our forebears paid for with their blood, sweat, and tears, and make ourselves worthy of it. For in a time when hope was bleak, they dared to dream, when faced with censorship, they dared to speak, when placed under duress, they dared to resist. It is now our sublime obligation to sustain what our heroes have labored to attain, and they expect nothing less from us.

(The author is a History Researcher at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.)