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A question of heroes: Why is the Philippine eagle replacing the historical icons in the P1,000 bill?

By PhilSTAR L!fe Published Dec 13, 2021 10:08 pm Updated Dec 13, 2021 10:29 pm

After 30 years, one of the country's highly used banknotes, namely the P1,000 bill, is set to have a major facelift as its iconography featuring three historical figures will soon be replaced by the Philippine eagle, which has led historians and other stakeholders to ask: But why?

In a Dec. 11 press release, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) said the redesigned P1,000 note is the first in a new series “that will focus on the country’s rich flora and fauna.”

“The design of the new 1000-piso polymer banknote features the Philippine eagle, which symbolizes clear vision, freedom, and strength,” BSP said in a statement, which was also tweeted by BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno.

From the previous cotton and abaca, the new series banknotes will also be made from polymer, which according to the BSP will have a number of security features, among other bells and whistles that will separate it from its predecessors.

But historians are not buying the redesign, as the previous composite portrait in the P1,000 banknote of the country's three World War II heroes—namely Jose Abad Santos, Josefa Llanes Escoda, and Vicente Lim—will be no more.

"It means a break in historical tradition," Jose Victor Torres, a history professor at De La Salle University Manila, told PhilSTAR L!fe.

"Ever since the Philippines had its own legal tender...there was already a way of designing before, when the front was the hero and the back design was the traditional symbols of Philippine culture," Torres said.

Aside from having the highest value in a banknote, the P1,000 bill also carries the considerable weight of history. The long-running P1,000 banknote was part of the New Design Series (NDS) that the BSP, when it was still named as the Central Bank, released after Martial Law was lifted. The Central Bank described the NDS notes and coins as “contemporary and forward looking.”

The P1,000 bill released in 1991 by the BSP as part of the New Design Series

The series started in 1985, with the now demonetized P5 bill featuring Emilio Aguinaldo and the P10 bill featuring Apolinario Mabini first released in June of that year. The P1,000 bill was the last released in the series, as it was first issued on Dec. 16, 1991.

When the BSP issued the first P1,000 bills in 1991, it said that Abad Santos, Llanes-Escoda, and Lim were meant to embody Filipinos who fought and resisted the Japanese occupation in 1941. In its website, the central bank explains that the trio represents three sectors: Abad Santos, the government; Llanes-Escoda, women; and Lim, the military.

But the NDS was just then part of an ongoing tradition that the Central Bank started during its inception in 1949 when it launched the English Series, which bore the portraits of Filipino heroes on the obverse, and vignettes in Philippine history on the reverse.

When the central bank began the "Filipinization" of Philippine currency via the Pilipino Series in 1969, the country's bank notes carried on with the 1949 design of having the Filipino heroes on the obverse and the vignettes in Philippine history on the reverse.

"Bank notes and coins serve not only as legal tenders but also reminders of historical memory," Ruben Jeffrey Asuncion, an assistant professor from the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, likewise said.

Paper money as a vessel of historical memory has also been largely shaped by the country's colonial legacy. The first paper money—the Philippine peso fuerte—was issued in 1851 by the country's first bank, namely the El Banco Español Filipino de Isabel II (which is now the Bank of the Philippine Islands of the Ayala group). During the Japanese occupation, the Americans weaponized paper money by counterfeiting Japanese fiat money—dubbed as "Mickey Mouse money"—to destablize the Japanese forces.

Japanese government-issued Philippine peso. Photo from the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution

At around the same time, nineteenth-century government officials in the United States have also started to use paper money as a cultural propaganda aimed to help form and inform a nationalist identity. "[The new banknote imagery] would tend to teach the masses the prominent periods in our country’s history," read an 1863 letter from Spencer M. Clark, chief clerk of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "(I)n a time many would be taught leading incidents in our country’s history, so that they would soon be familiar to those who would never read them in books, teaching them history and imbuing them with a National feeling."

The scholar Eric Helleiner in a 1998 paper noted that national currencies may “foster national identities” by, among other things, “providing a vehicle for nationalist imagery that constructs a sense of collective tradition and memory.”

Eliminating our heroes from them is a way of erasing them from the Philippine psyche.

That this "break" from a long-running tradition is happening in the Philippines at a time when talks of reported historical revisionism is abuzz makes some further suspect toward the redesign.

Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate, the House Deputy Minority Leader, said that while there's nothing wrong in featuring the Philippine flora and fauna in the country's banknotes, it should not be at the expense of removing our heroes "totally."

“Eliminating our heroes from them is a way of erasing them from the Philippine psyche,” Zarate said.

(Zarate has also pointed a misspelling in the scientific name of the Philippine eagle in the bill, an issue that Diokno said have been corrected.)

Zarate urged the government to “reconsider this revisionist makeover.” 

For Jely Galang, assistant professor at UP Diliman, the BSP and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) should release a statement to further explain the reason for the redesign. BSP Gov. Benjamin Diokno had earlier announced that the country's historical commission and the Office of the President green-lighted the redesign.

"Puwede namang magsama sa isang banknote ang flora and fauna at national heroes natin (sa magkabilang side ng note); na while promoting our flora and fauna ay nandun pa rin ang mga heroes na we revere and emulate," Galang said. "I cannot help but wonder: Possible kayang part ito ng attempts ng mga nasa kapangyarihan to 'revise' our history? Isang bagay na nakakabahala."

World War II heroes' descendants

The descendants of Abad Santos, Llanes-Escoda, and Lim, who have been tortured and killed by the Japanese and whose remains have never been found, especially didn't take the news kindly.

Desiree Ann Cua Benipayo, the great-grandniece of Abad Santos, in a Facebook post  on Dec. 11 called out Diokno and the BSP Monetary Board, saying it's "very telling" how the government treats the country's heroes and martyrs.

"[W]hy not put the Philippine eagle at the back of the bill? This way you teach our citizens patriotism and love for the environment," Benipayo said. "Aren't there a million other better things to do than mess up our notes and coins?"

She also cast doubts whether the NCHP actually approved the redesign.

"I refuse to believe this as I would think the commission will be the first to react negatively to this abomination," she said.

Benipayo also launched an online signature campaign to "rock BSP and the numismatic committee to their senses."

Vicente Lim IV, great grandson of Brigadier General Lim, in a lengthy Facebook post on Dec. 11 said he's "a bit disappointed" over who the BSP chose to replace first, "the only set of martyrs that are currently on our paper bills."

"There is a reason that giving one’s life for another (especially for their country) is called 'making the ultimate sacrifice,'" read Lim IV's Facebook post. "I guess it’s just ironic that those that paid the highest cost (their lives, no less) for their love of country were the first to go…"

Jose Maria Bonifacio Escoda, Josefa's nephew, told Rappler that the BSP is supposedly trying to "erase the atrocities" of the Japanese with its redesign.

“It’s like killing these three people again, and it’s more painful than what the Japanese did, because the ones that are redesigning the banknote are Filipinos,” Rappler in a Dec. 12 report quoted Escoda as saying. (Nick Garcia and Bim Santos)