Andres Bonifacio, My Reader Hero



What is the best way to commemorate a loved one’s birthday, especially if one is a hero? Emulate a good example. At this critical time of the Pandemic, lessons are a treasure. November 30 is the 158th birthday anniversary of Andres de Castro Bonifacio, Founder of the Katipunan, “Father of the Philippine Revolution,” and often referred to as the First President of the Philippines. I must be honest: the Great Plebeian has a special place in my heart, not only for being a selfless patriot but also for having the right attitude for education. The young Bonifacio was barely out of high school in his late teens, the equivalent of second-year high school or Grade 8 in today’s K-12 curriculum when he lost his parents to tuberculosis and was forced to quit school. Despite the tragedy, Bonifacio turned to self-education and became a voracious reader of books in English, Tagalog, Spanish, and a little French!


If he had lived with us during the Pandemic, I would nominate him as the ultimate hero in reading and learning. Orphaned at 14, he had little formal education and was generally self-taught. However, Bonifacio had high regard for education. Although with meager resources, he always found time to read during free time. Still, some high society elite circles called him the “unlettered member” of Jose Rizal’s La Liga Filipina.


Not to be distracted by false labels, let’s fact check. Bonifacio has a long list of books in his tuck. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibuterismo were on top of his reading list. At a young age, he was into history and biographies. He read the History of the French Revolution, “The Ruins of Palmyra: Meditations of the Revolution of the Empire,” and the English version of “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo, “Le Juif errant” or the “Wandering Jew” by Eugene Sue. He was enamored by the biographies of American presidents from Abraham Lincoln to George Washington as they related to the American Revolution. Countries like the US and France at that time were engulfed by revolutionary upheavals against the British crown and the monarchy, respectively. Over in the Philippines, centuries of colonial exploitation and repressive policies against the native Filipinos punctuated the events of the Spanish period until the 19th century. The educated reform-oriented middle class was rising in numbers and influence. Bonifacio, who was from the working class, gravitated towards them and the clamor for independence.


He read books that called for freedom, revolution, and independence that the Spanish authorities considered “subversive.” But Bonifacio was also a comprehensive reader on medicine, the arts, culture, science, the civil code, penal and international law. Although he was a member of the Free Masons, he also read the Bible and other religious books. Bonifacio’s overwhelming desire to read was driven by the need to be enlightened and find solutions to Philippine society’s problems. A voracious reader, Bonifacio honed his skills further in writing and the arts. He was a writer, poet exemplar, a stage actor! He wrote excellent poetry like the 28-stanza “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa,” later adapted into a patriotic song by a martial law political detainee. His essay “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” (What the Filipinos Should Know) is a political masterpiece.


My 37-year-old son, who now has his six-year-old boy to mentor, wondered out loud, “How did Bonifacio develop this all-consuming passion for reading and then writing when he did not even pursue formal education?” What’s his secret? I know every parent today dreams of their children communing with and succeeding in life by reading more meaningful books than by being hooked to Facebook, YouTube, and Gaming. So I offered a simple reply: discipline and practice as if that alone was satisfactory enough.


This thirst for learning by Bonifacio started at home in the poor community of Tondo, Manila, where his parents taught the value of education and enrolled their children in private school. He learned his first alphabet from his mother’s sister because the parents were always away at work. He was the son of working-class parents. Father Santiago was a tailor, a boatman who operated a ferry boat along Pasig River and served as a local politician to the mayor. At the same time, his mother Catalina worked as a supervisor in a cigarette factory. This slice of Bonifacio’s personal life is a common strand among today’s parents with surrogates and nannies who mentor the children because of their jobs. It is also the story of OFWs, of present-day working mothers and fathers, or of parents who rely on other adults to mentor their children in modular education during the Pandemic.


The premature loss of his parents left Bonifacio and his siblings entirely impoverished. To survive, he made and sold paper fans or “pamaypay.” Later, his siblings joined him to make posters for their business contacts. Bonifacio learned English easily when he worked in foreign-owned companies – British Fleming and German Fressels -- as a clerk, salesman, sales agent, and bodegero or warehouse keeper. He observed the discipline of not wasting time and applying his newly earned knowledge whenever possible. During breaktime, his co-workers and factory bosses would see him reading a book and scribbling his thoughts down on pieces of paper. He grabbed each opportunity to read because to read is to learn. Bonifacio read a book during break time at the factory where he worked as a warehouse keeper. He read and read from leaflets, comics to bits of pages from old books to almost everything in print.


These days, digital reading has already supplanted book reading. Still, some may argue, it is still reading, even if it is an electronic text from a tablet. Or is it? Recent studies show that tablets are more beneficial than textbooks and that reading from tablets should now replace books altogether. What matters is the content and the meaning of learning. My son agrees, so do other educators and students alike. One important thing to resolve is making tablets, WIFI, and electronic text widely accessible to the poor and the many in rural and slum communities. But more crucial is to teach every child to learn to read and find meaning from the text.


If Bonifacio were alive today, I am sure he would still have all the reasons to continue reading, more voraciously and from books and an electronic gadget like a laptop and tablet. He would be more discerning, critical and scientific in distinguishing truthful from fake news and political spins. In Bicol, the young Bonifacio’s story may resonate with the stories of many young children in the rural barangays and the slums of Naga City or Legazpi City and other urban areas in the region. It is ironic that in this age of the internet, digital libraries, and reservoirs of learning resources worldwide, we still talk about millions of children in the Philippines – 70,000 grade schoolers in Bicol – who cannot read in English and Filipino? The 2018 data about 15-year-old Filipino students who scored the lowest in Asia in reading comprehension (OECD, PISA 2018) is a disaster that we should eradicate.


Last August 23, Tabang Bikol Movement joined the USAID-ABC+ (Advancing Basic Education in the Philippines) and DepEd Region V with other partners in launching Brigada Pagbasa to address continuing challenges in literacy, numeracy, and socio-emotional learning for children in poverty-stricken Bicol with a particular focus on systems strengthening. To teach every child to read from the text is a challenging mission in these times of Pandemic and increased poverty. Yet, learning to read can be a tool for liberation, just as Bonifacio learned to read to understand social problems and lead in the process of social change.