Emil Guillermo: Banging my gong on the true Philippine Independence Day

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There is a reason why I bang a gong in the one-man shows that I do across the country.

The agung is a kulintang instrument, indigenous to the Philippines, where my parents are from. My gong also is part of an historical legacy, having been owned by my late dear friend Thelma Buchholdt, the first Filipino American legislator in the state of Alaska.

Thelma and her daughter Ti showed me how the agung was the protypical Filipino instrument, a timekeeper that kept the beat for the Filipino sound. It wasn’t the guitar-based type sound of rondallas that are wholly Spanish.

The Filipino sound was in the gongs of kulintang music.

It’s the reason I will gong the Spanish out of me today, June 12, in honor of the first true Filipino Independence day.

Most Filipinos will celebrate Filipino Independence Day throughout the weekend since June 12 coming mid-week is inconvenient for most of us who generally are not free from our wage slave bosses and modern colonial obligations (irony of ironies).

But it should work out quite nicely with the coincidence of Father’s Day, which should satisfy the most ardent and modern Filipino multi-tasker/consumer.

Not only can you commemorate the real Independence Day, you can also honor the man behind it all.

You mean Diosdado Macapagal, who issued Presidential Proclamation No. 28 declaring June 12 Philippine Independence Day? Macapagal, the father of the somewhat disgraced former President Arroyo?

Well, he is a dad and should be celebrated a little on Father’s Day for birthing something. But for June 12th, he’s just a footnote, a few steps removed from U.S. officials who originally gave the Philippines independence on – of all days – July 4th.

Just like a Big White Brother to make us in his image.

That’s not independence.

No, June 12 is the special day, the real Independence Day when Filipinos stuck it in the eye of America and all the colonials.

This is the day Filipinos came out of their “go along to get along” shell of passivity and essentially went amok.

The Filipinos declared themselves free.

And all it took was Emilio Aguinaldo to declare it.

Amid the music and food celebrations planned in our Filipino communities, we must not forget Aguinaldo, often depicted as a sad-faced man with the black string tie.

Aguinaldo’s the man who declared Filipinos free from colonial rule as an independent nation on June 12, 1898, and is quite rightly the father of Filipino independence. But it’s funny how it came about.


The Philippine Revolution actually began in 1896 against Spain. Those of us with Spanish last names and Catholicism in the heart bear the stamp of that colonial rule. But the revolution against Spain failed, and Aguinaldo went into exile in Hong Kong.

The Philippines would still be a backdrop for war, between the U.S. and Spain, and that’s the strange twist of fate here.

When the U.S. defeated the Spanish in Manila Bay, it set up Act II for Aguinaldo. He was allowed back into the country where Aguinaldo declared independence from— Spain.

But Spain, which lost to the U.S., didn’t recognize it.

And neither did the new boss, the U.S. government.

Aguinaldo’s declaration became the basis for a new war, the oft-forgotten Philippine-American War.

If history is said to be written by the winners, there’s something to be said about a war America won – but doesn’t care to crow about.

When the memory only produces shame and regret, you can understand why.

Such is the fate of the Philippine-American War, first known as the Philippine Insurrection. It’s a war the U.S. seems intentionally to de-mythologize and forget because it’s a reminder of a time when America’s dreams of imperial greatness got in the way of its democratic values.

Aguinaldo’s declaration was the precursor to it all. And he’s the reason the war is worth remembering.

Yet his main event remains for most people – especially Americans – the forgotten war.

Said John Sayles, director of “Amigo,” in 2011, about the war itself: “[The U.S.] didn’t even make a lie about it.”

That’s because the truth is damning enough.


The war began on February 4, 1899. The first shots came in a Manila suburb, when American soldiers shot at “the goo-goos,” perhaps the least offensive term used for the Filipinos, and indicative of the racist tone in the war. The nationalists returned fire, and the sequel to the Spanish-American War was under way.

Insurrection doesn’t begin to describe the full-fledged war that lasted three years with more than 100,000 Americans involved. Depending on the accounts you read, the Filipino civilian death toll ranged from 250,000 to as high as 1 million casualties from disease or starvation.

The war was an American betrayal. Nationalists, under Aguinaldo, had broken off from Spain and, relying heavily on a promise of U.S. support during the Spanish-American War, started their own independent republic in 1898 — the first in Asia.

That promise was broken when the McKinley administration sought the Philippines as a colony and tapped into a new patriotic fervor for American Imperialism.

Some historians believe McKinley instigated the Philippine-American war to gain support in Congress to ratify the Treaty of Paris. That’s where the U.S. dealt with Spain directly, cutting out the new Philippine leadership. Instead of becoming the independent country it had hoped for, the Philippines was ceded by Spain to the U.S. for $20 million. Aguinaldo went from president to insurrectionist, just like that.

But it created yet another justification for the heroics of Aguinaldo and the nationalists. How the war ended in the colonization of the Philippines by the U.S. is another sad chapter. I talk about that in my show. Or whenever I think of the word “perfidy.”It’s how the Filipinos were colonized.

For now, it’s enough to honor the spark behind the Philippine-American War, Aguinaldo’s War. He declared independence for us. He fought and defended it for us.

After more than 300 years of Spanish rule, it is our original taste of freedom.

And now you know more about June 12th than just about anyone you will meet today. Even some with Filipino blood.

But there will be those who got more than a paragraph about Aguinaldo in their U.S. history texts.

As a Filipino, wherever you may be in the ongoing diaspora, just remember that if and when you dance this weekend, this is why you dance.

For me, I’ll bang my gong and go amok. Just enough to get the Spanish out.


NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on