ad astra per aspera. a rough road leads to the stars


Someone once told me that, “every writer grapples with the problem of their writing being read not by the intended audience and being interpreted differently from their intended meaning. That is part of the challenge of writing.” 

This page is a response to that challenge. It takes a lot of courage to write. It takes more than courage to find one’s voice. Here is my voice.

Of democracy, development, and Duterte

‘Real peace and development stems from addressing social inequalities and the respect for human rights’

 By Leni Velasco
Published originally in Rappler


Every time I visit Davao, I can’t help but admire how the city is truly progressive. I mean this not just in reference to its economy but its strong programs on gender, reproductive health and anti-trafficking. Talk to any Davaoeño and they will credit their mayor for this.

His record of public service is exemplary. In the context of Davao, where people used to be familiar with crimes and political killings, Duterte’s brand of leadership was a welcome change. It brought peace and order. It instilled fear among criminals, forcing them out of Davao. It worked. Only those who have done something wrong should fear the discipline. For the majority, they are able to sleep comfortably at night knowing that they and their families and friends are safe under the mayor’s watch.

Never mind that he is a self-confessed womanizer, he is a strong advocate of women’s rights anyway. His Women Development Code paved the way in mainstreaming gender sensitivity through legislation. Let’s not bother with the fact that he is accused of tolerating the killings of children in conflict with the law, as he is known to be a supporter of children’s right to protection. He has established a Women and Children Protection Unit to provide psychological intervention for victims of physical or sexual assault.

Let us forgive the fact that he publicly supports the Davao Death Squad vigilante group who preys on petty and common criminals, nor the fact that he openly admitted pulling a trigger to a few of these criminals and drug pushers. He has been tolerant of political activism in Davao anyway and has strong ties with communist guerillas.

The bitter pill

Despite Duterte being a man of contradictions, his people love him. He gave them what they want – peace, order, security, and progress. He has successfully instilled fear in their hearts and minds that led them into accepting his brand of leadership and ultimately, the person that he is. Soon, other cities began to follow his unconventional ways of addressing crime and drug problems. The Human Rights Watch reported on former Tagum City Mayor Rey Uy’s involvement in extra-judicial killings.

With Duterte running for President, the nation is excited. Perhaps, it is the failure of the justice system to deliver swift justice, the weak law enforcement, the refreshment that a candidate not coming from the traditional political elite is running, or the thirst for an unconventional leader with a style so different from the traditional politicians the country is so used to, that is fueling the clamor for Duterte’s strong and unwavering style of leadership.

My Facebook newsfeed is witness to the reverence to this man who doesn’t kiss ass, who does not dance to the church’s influence, who practices iron-fist discipline, who represents effective local governance, and who exudes uncanny methods of leadership. Some even attribute him as the Heneral Luna of our times, building on the success of the film that captured the country’s sense of nationalism.

The Filipino people in May will decide if they want Duterte as their next President. I, myself, would love to see the reproductive health law fully implemented, and stronger law enforcement and anti-trafficking efforts. Frankly, there are really limited options left.

I truly understand that for all his shortcomings, Duterte represents the hope of the people for radical change and genuine reforms. As one friend mentioned, it is a bitter pill to swallow but it is the medicine.

Majority of the nation from class A-D would willingly swallow that bitter pill if it means that the traffic situation in Metro Manila will get better, if they won’t have to fear those “riding-in-tandem” from snatching their hard day’s earnings, if a swifter type of justice will make them sleep better at night. After all, they have already endured past Presidents who have robbed them of the right to basic social services, of their right to live decently with dignity.

What is left to lose? Perhaps, Duterte is the change the country needs.

My problem with Duterte

My problem with the whole brouhaha with Duterte’s candidacy is the idea it espouses along with it. Truly, Davao is a progressive city, but this is a progress built on the foundation of fear. It has silenced criminals, drug pushers, and rapists, giving the people a sense of security, peace and order.

This kind of “silencing,” however, only gives a false sense of security, peace and order and fails to address the roots of the problem. Real peace and development stems from addressing social inequalities and the respect for human rights.

I understand that the clamor for Duterte’s brand of leadership is a product of the perpetual frustration of the Filipino people in a government that consistently fails to deliver the promise of a democracy. I fear that the celebration of Duterte’s leadership delivers the message that it is okay to sacrifice human rights if this will lead to a better Philippines.

Is it not that this very thinking is the foundation of a tyranny that our nation has fought against for so many years?

I am saddened that our people have reached this point that we have no confidence in our justice system, in the ideals of democratic government, that we are so willing to sacrifice life and liberty for the sake of a semblance of progress, that we have succumbed to a mindset that we need to kill criminals and wrong-doers to discipline ourselves.

They say Filipinos have a short memory. We have easily forgotten the terrors of Martial Law. We would rather content ourselves with short-term solutions to deeply entrenched problems. “Gawan ng paraan,” (finding a way) “diskartehan” (strategy) – are celebrated as Filipino ingenuity.

Perhaps this is why we are fascinated with the term resiliency, and why we use this excuse every time a disaster hits us. Our strength as a people is that we endure, stay intact, and get back to our former shape. Centuries of Spanish colonization, decades of American colonialism, and 21 years of tyrant rule have not transformed us.

‘No easy road’

We always fall in the trap of personality politics, as if one strong man can change our lives overnight. Here we are again. We welcome another messiah whose brand of leadership will lead us to salvation. I will credit Duterte for inspiring us to believe in the electoral process again, for making those who normally do not vote think of participating again, for awakening hope that perhaps this government with his leadership can work this time.

However, I will raise my voice in appealing to my fellow Filipinos, to think twice. If Duterte wins, does what it is expected of him, and then gracefully leaves the Presidency after his term expires, what will happen to us? Do we change our constitution and re-elect him? Do we look for another Duterte to emerge? Think twice not about electing Duterte to office but about the mindset his candidacy is espousing.

I fear for a generation whose culture disregards human rights, whose idea of discipline is rooted out of fear, and whose notion of progress alienates the concept of justice.

We accept this model of “effective” governance because we want to remain comfortable in our sleep every night with the thought that we are safe from the ills of society, that we do not have to painfully struggle for our rights and welfare to be taken care of, because we have a superhero that will pull the trigger for us to keep the villains away.

But we know fully well that there is no easy road to genuine peace and progress. We, as a nation, as a people, have been uncomfortable for very long. Our genuine comfort lies in the assertion of our rights and dignity, in our active involvement in governance and making democracy work for us every day. We have forgotten so easily that we, collectively, have that power to transform our lives, our community, our nation and society. And it requires us to struggle.

If there is one thing that the message of the film, Heneral Luna, should have taught us, it should have made us realize Heneral Luna’s failures. The most important ingredient into making deep and meaningful change is to empower the people. You may root for Duterte because there is no better option for you, but openly criticize his stance on human rights. You may vote for Duterte because he exemplifies good governance, but do not equate good governance with the presence of extra-judicial killings. Do not gloss over Duterte as the charmed one. Demand genuine platform for reforms.

Heneral Luna may have been the best person that could have led us to victory in the war, but if he fails to educate, to organize, to empower the people in the struggle, then the revolution is bound to fail. We have been wanting and wailing for real change to happen in the country for a long time now, but, we always forget to take part in the revolution every day. – Rappler.com

Leni Velasco is the Executive Director of Dakila, a group creatively building a movement of heroism towards social transformation.


‘Heneral Luna’: Para sa bayan o sarili?

Heneral Luna may actually be just what we need to finally find the heroes of our times

By Leni Velasco
Published originally in Rappler


What makes a hero?

Heroism seems absurd in this time of hashtags and Facebook memes. In fact, calling someone a hero is to invite mockery, sarcasm and insult. So here we are now, living in a time we desperately need one.

More often than not, we associate heroes with monuments – those cold structures intended to pay homage to the person whose heroic act made a contribution in our nation’s history. If monuments are the measure of how we value our heroes then one can only look at the Bonifacio Shrine in Caloocan, the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani in Quezon Avenue and the Rizal Monument in Luneta. That is the sad state of heroism in our country – often ignored and neglected.

Sometimes, monuments take other forms. In the recent years, we have seen a steady influx of films featuring our heroes – from ER Ejercito’s El Presidente to the Robin Padilla starrer, Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo. While the power of cinema as an art form can tremendously influence its audience, if we are to measure the success of these hero films to this generation of millennials then maybe, it have failed miserably. All that resonates are all those annoying “pabebe” viral videos, Vice Ganda and #AlDub that seemed to take over our national consciousness.

MODERN HERO? Relearning the life and times of Heneral Luna through a new film about him. Photo from Dakila

We are a nation of heroic people but we are easily destroyed by our own pessimism and apathy. We often look for heroes that will save us from our own destruction – saviors of the world willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. We subscribe to the western concept of heroes – mythical beings with superpowers. So here we are, waiting again for a hero to save the day. In this age where information travels in a speed of light, connections are boundless and communication knows no end, the textbook hero we are looking for may not be actually the hero we need today.

History gives us another opportunity to learn from its lessons through Jerrold Tarog’s epic film masterpiece, Heneral Luna. It is your typical historical film only with your non-stereotypical hero. It aspires what El Presidente and Bonifacio aspired only the production team of Luna nailed it better. It does not have an ER Ejercito and a Robin Padilla. What it has are the brilliant portrayal of actor John Arcilla as Heneral Luna and a steady solid support of actors – both old and new. It does not have the frills of a Star Cinema PR machinery but it has cemented the support of history aficionados hungry for a good historical film; educators searching for good materials to use for teaching; and students fed up with the usual film garbage big producers feed.

Heneral Luna may actually be just what we need to finally find the heroes of our times. The film breaks the idea of a hero – the monument hero by presenting Luna’s flaws that essentially is his humanity. In the film, we are presented with Luna – isang bida na kontrabida. A character far from the good boy Rizal or the underdog Bonifacio, far from the image of heroes most of us learned from textbooks.

The film disturbs the idea of heroism – bayan o sarili? Is it really the question of our generation? Do we really have to choose between our country and ourselves? Or is it not that what we actually do for our country is also for ourselves? And what we do with our individual lives also serves the general interest of our country?

The film questions the idea of nationhood. Ano nga ba ang bayan? A very relevant question that continues to haunt our nation – in the context of the prevailing regionalist attitude, the struggle of the Bangsamoro people for their identity, and the vast labor migration of Pinoys all over the world. Sino nga ba ang Bayan?

SALUTE. Davao participants of a lecture on Heneral Luna. Photo by Dakila

In the past three months, Heneral Luna embarked on a journey together with the advocacy group, Dakila – sparking a conversation on heroism among Filipino youth. Traveling to 40 schools nationwide from Ilocos Norte to Davao and reaching 22,000 audiences to show a preview of the film and bringing along historians to present history and heroism through a pop culture inspired lecture, I have witnessed how millennials responded. Surprisingly, listening to a 45-minute lecture on historical facts and trivia did not bore them. In fact, they eagerly learned about Antonio Luna and his friends – Jose, Andres, Marcelo and Juan. They reacted enthusiastically to the 15-minute preview of the film – laughing at Heneral Luna’s antics and of course, screaming every time Paolo Avelino as Gregorio del Pilar appears in the screen even if he appears only for a fraction of a second. I believe Heneral Luna hits the spot – bringing the millennials along for the ride in the shared universe it created just like how Marvel did it with Avengers.

Heneral Luna ushered the millennials in the unfamiliar world of Luna, Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo and Mabini and placed them right at the center of it. The film does not dictate. It questions. And perhaps, that is probably its greatest contribution – to ask the difficult question. That probably, this is where we have failed miserably in igniting heroism among our citizens. We have forgotten to ask, to make them think on their own, and let them define what heroism is in this generation.

Luna and his friends have a visible enemy and war is upon them. In our time, we face a multitude of enemies, not often visible but nonetheless a force that tramples upon the very ideals our forefathers in the Katipunan fought for – kalayaan, kaginhawaan, kasarinlan. The revolution remains unfinished. It waits for the next heroes who will embrace it.

Today, we celebrate National Heroes Day. But is there really much to celebrate? How does a nation really pay homage to its heroes both immortalized and anonymous? Our nation will never start the tedious process to nationhood unless we know our own history, unravel long buried truths and learn from its lessons. The best tribute any Filipino can ever give to our heroes is to continue pursuing their unfinished revolution by taking part in the revolution.

In Dakila, we believe that a hero resides in every one of us. It begins in the mind, with one thought that says it can be done. To do all things with pride and dignity, to learn from the lessons of history, to realize that the deeds of our heroes are not fables but real, breathing examples of how to live our lives.

The challenge for our generation today is not to die for the Philippines but to live for it – because it is in living where we can act and do something to make the country a better place for each Filipino to live in. Today, where the country is faced with multitude of challenges, every little act of courage and selflessness counts, It is no longer “Ang Mamatay Nang Dahil Sa ‘Yo” but it should be “Ang Mabuhay Nang Dahil Sa ‘Yo.”

Heneral Luna will be screened in theaters nationwide on September 9. Not being a mainstream film, there is no guarantee that it will last long enough for you to catch it. We have no illusion that this film can really change Philippine society but perhaps it can change the way you view the world.

After the special screening held in Baguio, the great filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik whispered to me, “When you speak to people who will watch this film in cinemas, tell them, that when they watch this film, recognize the enemy from with in.”

If I may add then I will also tell them that there is a Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini, Heneral Luna, Leon Kilat, Teresa Magbanua, Edgar Jopson, and Lean Alejandro in every one.

Lahat tayo ay #LahingDakila – Rappler.com

Leni Velasco is in the middle of all the hullaballoo in Dakila – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism as its Executive Director. She co-founded Dakila with Lourd de Veyra, Ronnie Lazaro, Buwi Meneses, Noel Cabangon and the late comedian, Tado.







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