THE writing of history began when Herodotus described the events in Greece and much of western Asia and Egypt from 550 to 479 BCE. He was an engaging narrator with a deep interest in the customs of the people.
Later, like epics, the writing of history shifted to the victories of great men in important battles. The focus was on the spectacle of the quest for victory, a page perfect for the chronicles of colonialism.
And much later, the writing of history, especially Philippine history, began to shift. From the grand gestures of Carlos Quirino, it moved to the lives of the ordinary men and women vividly depicted by Professor Teodoro Agoncillo as the creators of the nation. Within the same timeline, Professor Renato Constantino wrote his books that gave political readings to history.
Pasyon and Revolution by Professor Rey Ileto also focused on the stories of the everyday, particularly the people’s belief on the pasyon sung during Holy Week as a frame to read the revolution. The great essayist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil started writing about the everyday moments of history in her columns for The Sunday Times Magazine.
Thus, history was seen as daily acts of narration about a nation.
The writing of Philippine history shifted when the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972. Documented facts include the following: magazines, newspapers and books could only be published if approved by the Print Media Council, and since under the threat of closure, many of them followed the government line of “a smiling martial law.”
Many historians stopped writing, save for some who ghost-wrote the two-volume Tadhana: The History of the Filipino People. Ostensibly written by the president, the book traced the history of the Philippines from prehistoric tribes to its apex, the martial law government. The arc of history was shown as one straight arrow to this peak — unlike the rise and fall of nations documented in other tomes.
To counter what someone called “the silence of the graveyard,” Primitivo Mijares, erstwhile official of the Marcos government, wrote his incendiary book, The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. While in exile, Carmen Pedrosa Navarro also wrote The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos. These books were banned, and copies were as rare as hen’s teeth.
After the Marcos regime was ousted on Feb. 25, 1986, these books were reprinted, and the latter wrote two more books on the former first lady. Even the first lady’s niece, Betsy Romualdez Francia, wrote a book called Imelda and the Clans: A Story of the Philippines.
This narration is important to show the point that history is seen from many, differing angles of vision. Certain facts hold true: Hitler invaded Europe and started the Holocaust; Marcos declared martial law and threw thousands of people in jail, some dying under questionable circumstances.
But the narration of circumstances, the motivations ascribed, the points of view used become personal. Even the very choice of words is pivotal. Should the father of the sitting president be called “a dictator,” “a strongman,” “a constitutional dictator,” “a puppet of the US regime,” among other names?
The controversial historian Ambeth Ocampo, who is now in the eye of the typhoon, started his career by culling curiosities from history. With ample documentation, he highlighted them in his bestselling books to show the human side of our heroes, and then he let the people decide on how they would be seen. No longer writ large, the epic-like leaders of the past have been cut down to size: what Rizal ate for breakfast, why Mabini did not have syphilis, how Quezon’s temper was his undoing.
Like the other historians before him, Professor Ocampo is just telling stories, narrating the nation in troubled times. His political loyalties should not be used to silence him, the way the government of the elder Marcos padlocked the press and hounded the historians into silence.
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