Atienza: The making of a folk hero


PRESIDENT Duterte is definitely on his way to becoming one of the Philippines’, if not one of Southeast Asia’s, most-admired folk heroes.

With an approval rating of 88% into his third year as President, this achievement is indeed phenomenal. As he himself puts it, only three percent are disapproving. With the rest undecided, he unquestionably has an even chance of winning the 12 percent over to his side.

Why say “folk hero” and not the good old “national hero” variety?

Blame it on Messrs. Merriam and Webster. They define “hero” as a person idealized for courage, outstanding achievement and noble qualities; whereas “folk hero” is a person who is greatly admired by many people of a particular kind or in a particular place.

What’s clearly missing in folk hero are the words “noble qualities.” With a mouth that runs fouler than the national sewage system, President Duterte is hardly one’s idea of noble.

Yet, to say that he is greatly admired by the majority of Filipinos is an understatement. If you still don’t believe the Philippine Social Weather Station (SWS) surveys, you might look to YouGov, a respected UK registered global public opinion and market research company. According to, the Filipinos chose Duterte as the most admired man in the Philippines; although in the same breath, the same particular group tagged Angel Locsin as the most admired woman hereabouts! Hmmm...all the more reason to call President Duterte a folk hero in the making.

A folk hero taps into the national psyche and social consciousness in a way no ordinary hero can. He gets into the headlines, whether what he does is considered good or bad. He skirts the boundaries of propriety and upsets the status quo with impunity. If pushed against the wall, he takes matters into his own hands.

Another defining quality of a folk hero is his desire to help the common people, regardless of what media says. He is willing to sacrifice his life for this political stance.

If one were to believe Duterte’s rhetoric, he falls well into this heroic category. “I will end my term fighting,” he says.

His administration’s priorities on security and defense, education, OFWs, traffic management and cutting corruption all resonate with the common people. While developed countries bemoan extra-judicial killings, my humble manicurist is cheering for Duterte because she no longer has to step over drug-addicts lying on the dirty walkways of her shantytown when she goes home at night.

A folk hero is oftentimes rough, raunchy and vulgar. His outlandish behavior provides entertainment and brutal embarrassment in blockbuster doses. And yet, Duterte remains as popular as Angel Locsin and makes the remaining three percent of disapprovers seem elitist and out of touch.

But, ultimately, what makes a true folk hero is the ability to challenge the status quo and communicate it to the people. Ignoble or entertaining, embarrassing or hilarious–Duterte manages to get our own and the world’s attention. He uses it as a platform to question what is right and wrong, to reexamine what should be legal or illegal, and to promote change in a country that, for decades, has lagged behind its Southeast Asian neighbors.

And his ultimate challenge is directly addressed to us: “The enemy is us. We are our own demons.”

Like all folk heroes, he hits the nail right on the head.


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