Possibly my favorite anecdote about Cory Aquino is recorded in The Quartet of the Tiger Moon: Scenes from the People Power Apocalypse by Nick Joaquin, who wrote it under his journalistic nom de plume, Quijano de Manila. On February 25, 1986, some minutes before her inauguration as President of the Philippines in the Sampaguita Room of Club Filipino, Marcos defectors Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos arrived by helicopter and entered the hall, the former defense minister in a rose shirt with white stripes, and the military general in uniform. When she returned the salute that Ramos gave her, Joaquin recounts that “every Cory watcher fondly murmured: ‘She’ll have to be taught how to salute!’”
It had taken her years of hardship, prayer, and preparation to arrive at this momentous occasion, and yet, as the story has it, even on the cusp of power, the woman who would later be hailed far and wide as a champion of freedom, cited as inspiration for the various peaceful uprisings around the world that followed in the wake of the EDSA Revolution, mourned by millions both at home and abroad upon her death after a battle with cancer, and canonized by one American magazine as the “saint of democracy”, committed a protocolary lapse. It was a small one, to be sure, but the defectiveness of the gesture, observed and commented upon by many witnesses, underscores that aspect of Cory all too often overlooked or ignored, especially after she left us three years ago: her humanity, and everything that being human entails, which includes the capacity to rear and to raze, to scourge and to save.
We are often exhorted against speaking ill of those who have passed away. This is not so much for their sake, as the deceased are obviously no longer capable of caring, but rather for us, because we would generally prefer to preserve pleasant, or at least not negative, memories of the dead. I am not certain, though, that placing them upon the possible highest pedestals that we can conceive of and construct is necessarily desirable. The tendency to deify people who have been significant to us, of which Cory is no doubt one, is likely informed by good intentions. To my mind, however, converting pivotal figures into icons and locking them away behind a kind of discursive glass, beyond the range of the critical heat and light of the present, serves no fruitful purpose. In fact, I would argue that such is fatal to the enterprise of excavating a usable past from which to draw out—to borrow from The Wasteland by the poet T. S. Eliot—the fragments that can shored against our ruins, for sacralization takes notable acts and events out of the ebb and flow of history, rendering them seemingly unattainable by any other.
We may well need our martyrs and heroes, but we must not forget that their accomplishments are within our own potential, particularly because our abilities as such matter less than the decisions that we make. Cory, a self-proclaimed “plain housewife” with no prior political experience—no experience, she once famously claimed in a speech, “in cheating, stealing, lying, or assassinating political opponents”—changed the destiny of our nation for the better when she made the choice to rise to the challenge of leading the movement to tear down a repressive regime, whatever else might be said of her subsequent choices when she ascended to the seat of power. Perhaps the best way to do her memory honor today is to remind ourselves that we, as agents of history, can and should also be catalysts of positive social transformation.
* This was published in slightly different form in the 1 August 2012 edition of The Philippine Star in order to commemorate the third death anniversary of Cory Aquino.