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Sunday, September 12, 2010


Upon Mida's recommendation, I read Samuel K. Tan's A History of the Philippines. I was looking for a short book that I could read quickly from cover to cover to brush up on important events in our history. Specifically, I wanted to distinguish the various republics, as I would read- frequently in the posts of Manolo Quezon- about the First, Second, Third etc. Republic, a categorization I wasn't familiar with. (I thought only the French count five republics- the Philippines has the same number.)

What's wonderful about reading a history book for pleasure is the chance to appreciate the big picture, as well as the particular vision of the author. When I was in school, I was too busy focusing on names, artifacts and events that I didn't really notice any theme or main message of the historian.

I thought, What did it matter if I read Agoncillo or Constantino or my father, for that matter? All described the same people, the same events.

Now, I'm aware that history books, like literature, have an agenda, which makes them a rich subject for all sorts of readings. Each writer has a personality- and just like in meeting a person face-to-face, it's more fun during the dialogue to figure out what makes makes him or her tick.

In the case of S.K. Tan's short history, his purpose appears to be to present a balanced account of our three major communities- Muslims, Christians, and indigenous groups- and their actions and reactions to other peoples. His subject-position probably shaped this worldview: he was born in Siasi, Sulu of Tausug-Samal-Chinese parentage, and studied in Dumaguete, Zamboanga and Manila, as well as abroad. In his preface, Tan explained that by crafting a history that takes into account the experiences of indigenous cultural communities, together with those of Muslims and Christians, the fibers of our nationhood are strengthened.

While reading the book, I became even more interested in our history before the First Republic- before even our country's encounter with the West (Chapter II, The Cultural Breakthroughs, 250,000 BC- 200 AD). In part, this has been the result of talking to friends- most of whom are non-historians- who find it natural to view the present in the light of centuries past and who, moreover, are interested in the East- in Asia. By osmosis, I had already absorbed some of that attitude from Tatay. What a delight it has been to rediscover our country's past!

Each page describing an epoch or cultural encounter I read adds yet another dimension to my experiences and sense of self. Compared to the relatively blasé attitude I had before, my historical lens allows me to view life in High Definition or 3D. It is history not simply as a set of lessons or a map to the future, but history as transformation- taking the past from the pages of history and enlivening the present with it.

The picture above shows me as a wily Katipunero emerging from the trap door in Bahay Villavicencio in the quaint town of Taal, Batangas. The door, partly hidden beneath a Persian rug in the dining room, opens to a secret tunnel leading right to the sacristy of the cathedral. In case you recognize it, Bahay Villavicencio was used for a TV drama on the love story of Cory and Ninoy Aquino. History as transformation.

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