Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Blood of Heroes


There are many meanings to the word ‘monument’. It is something that is erected in memory of a person, event, etc.. It is any enduring evidence or notable example of something. It is an exemplar, model, or personification of some abstract quality. It is also an area or a site of interest to the public for its historical significance, great natural beauty, etc., preserved and maintained by a government.

Today, we visited the Lincoln Memorial, a monument that pretty much meant all of the above. Erected in the memory of a great American, perhaps one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, it represented the abstract ideals of truth, justice, and freedom. Ideals that I have always held dear and aspired to. We also visited the recently-built (2004) World War II Memorial that commemorates the courage and sacrifice of Americans and their allies who fought in the most devastating war in human history. They are awesome sights to behold. Just as I was awed by the eternal magnificence of the Grand Canyon and the ephemeral beauty of the Matanuska glacier, I was humbled by the gravity of those man-made wonders.

Monuments, at its very heart, are made for us to remember. The Lincoln Memorial was made so that America and all the world may remember Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, and the great emancipator responsible for ending slavery in America. So that America and all the world may never forget the ideals that he stood, fought, and died for. The phrase ‘carved in stone’ and ‘larger than life’ both literally and figuratively describe this monument, with Lincoln’s moving Gettysburg Address and his eloquent Second Inaugural Address indelibly etched into marble and his imposing, yet gentle, figure dramatically watching over visitors as though watching over all over America. This was a shrine of epic proportions. Doug, one of our directors, educated me a little about Abraham Lincoln. As he spoke, I could feel the pride well up in his voice and I realized just how important he was to America. “This place is like a church to me,” he related, and told me of how Abraham Lincoln rose from poverty to become one of the nation’s – indeed, the world’s – greatest citizens. There, standing before that monument, listening to Doug talk about a real American hero, I truly felt American national pride.

The World War II Memorial was a simple, austere, yet powerfully moving. More than the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps, the WWII Memorial caught me in the gut. Entering the memorial, I immediately saw ‘Manila’ carved into the base of a fountain. And then I saw ‘Bataan Corregidor’ and ‘Leyte Gulf’… all places in the Philippines where the Americans fought side by side with Filipinos. The Bataan Death March, where thousands of American and Filipino soldiers suffered and even died during a week-long forced march, is remembered and our soldiers honored during Araw ng Kagitingan or Day of Valor every April 9. My people fought and died in the war. In fact, America won in the Pacific with the key strategic position and assistance of the Philippines and its people. We had always been allies with America, perhaps the only Asian country allied with the United States during WWII. I saw a pillar with the name of my country carved into the stone. It was extremely emotionally moving for me, and I swelled with national pride.

During my first few days in Washington, D.C., one of the first things I noticed was the prevalence of American motifs, such as the red, white, and blue; stars and stripes; the American eagle… at each corner there was invariably an American flag in some form or other. Out of all the cities we were to visit, Washington, D.C. was the one I was most excited to see. For me, it represented all that was good and true about America. It was here I expected to take a big step forward into finding out what the American Way truly meant. Seeing those monuments, I began to realize that the American Way was not all too different from the Filipino Way.

The pride that Doug had for Lincoln reminded me, rekindled in me, my own pride for our national hero, Jose Rizal. A multifaceted man, Rizal’s death served as the catalyst for the Philippine Revolution that ended over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Like Lincoln, Jose Rizal was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and strived towards the Filipino people’s recognition as equals by our Spanish rulers. His thinking was the seed of national pride. To unify a country composed of over 7,000 islands is a remarkable thing. It is a powerful ideal, a beautiful dream. In 1898, the Filipino people won its independence from Spain. We had, through the struggle and sacrifice of many nameless men and women, finally won our freedom. The Filipinos who gave their lives, the surviving veterans of WW II, they all fought for freedom, too. We have been fighting for freedom from the very beginning.

America is synonymous with freedom. Americans are so proud of it. Yet freedom is a nebulous concept so often abused and the struggle to achieve it very often forgotten. So vigilantly must we guard against forgetting. It is the one sin a people must never commit because it lays to waste the groundwork that our forefathers have laid down, laboriously and valiantly, with their lives and their blood. We are free, but a price was paid for that freedom and the struggle to maintain that freedom continues.

Like America or any other nation, the Philippines has its heroes. In fact, we are a nation of heroes: the Philippines is the only country to hold two peaceful, civilian-led revolutions that deposed tyrants and eased reputedly corrupt men from power. In 1986 and 2001, millions of Filipinos converged in nonviolent mass demonstrations that changed the course of Philippine history. We popularized the term People Power, which celebrated not the power of the individual but the tidal influence of our people as a whole. For a few short years following those revolutions, there was great national pride. It was wonderful to be a Filipino. But we so easily forget.

The blood of heroes runs in our veins. In you, in me, in every citizen of every nation pulses the potential to be great. We know what must be done, we must simply remember. If we believe in truth, justice, and freedom; if we all struggle every day to maintain and protect these ideals; if all of us, in all our moments, strive to become the best that we can become, then there would be no need for monuments of stone. We would ourselves become monuments, testaments to the human ideal.

But we forget. Always, we forget. Lincoln writes in his Second Inaugural Address, “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” How often we break the promises we make. Even America, in all it’s splendor and power, has flaws. In Washington D.C., America’s capital, more than Alaska or Las Vegas, I witnessed poverty. The irony was biting. Washington, D.C., which reveres and cherishes the memory of the man who freed the blacks of America, has one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the country. So it is a saddening sight to see that many of those who beg on the streets of this great city are black people. Rather than despair at this reality, however, it is important – even essential – to be spurred to action. To remember.

The ideals that men like Lincoln or Rizal stood for are not new. Neither is the courage that the soldiers of WW II showed. The concepts and values are ageless. It is just that, throughout the course of history, we stray from those ideals. Heroes are those people who remember and remind others of what needs to be done. America has a very rich history replete with great heroes, and it inspires me. Being at the Lincoln Memorial reminded me of our own potential for greatness. Rather than be intimidated by his achievements, we must be inspired to replicate and go beyond them. In little ways, we can be our own Abraham Lincolns and Jose Rizals. In little ways, we can be heroes.

Washington, D.C. is shaping up to be the city I had envisioned. The seat of power, patriotism is visible everywhere. It is America in its most idealized vision, with great monuments scattered throughout the city… from towering obelisks in parks to mounted sculptures at every other city block… the colors and motifs of the American flag everywhere. It has been, so far, the most “American” city we’ve visited in terms of vibe and attitude. Just as I had hoped, however, the palpable patriotism in the air only served to fuel my undying love for my own country.

The Philippines is a developing nation with a large segment of its population still living below the poverty line. Our government has been rated as the third most corrupt in Asia. We lose so many of our best and brightest to the Brain Drain. It is so easy to be lured by the wonders of America, to think that it is the better place. How easily we forget. We forget how beautiful our land is, home to the most beautiful beaches and bountiful land. We forget how resilient our people are, the happiest in the world, a people that cannot be broken by languid economy or violent weather. We forget that there is still much work to be done, that we have the power to change things, and we take flight. The monument that I saw today is there for me, for us, to remember. We must never forget truth, freedom, and justice. Never forget that it is our duty to ensure that all our people enjoy the same access to and opportunity for those ideals.

I have never been prouder of who I am and where I come from, never been more inspired to be a hero. I’ve never been more spurred to take action, from the smallest gesture to the grandest goals. As I write these words, small monuments to the things that I believe in and fervently hope for, my journey truly begins. In the heart of America, I have found a deeper sense of identity. I found my country reflected in all that I see. Thank you, America, for reminding me. I am a Filipino, and I am proud. I am a Filipino, and the blood of heroes runs through my veins.


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