Penman No. 170: History Made Personal

Sofia+De Veyra and+Florence Harding

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2015

THE RECENT upsurge of interest in our history occasioned by runaway success of the film “Heneral Luna” is certainly welcome. While the film and its propositions may have sparked a flurry of debates among netizens about what really happened more than a hundred years ago, the important thing—as I noted in one of those “Heneral Luna” threads online—is that we’re having this discussion at all, when not too long ago, very few people cared.

(One of the most salient comments I came across was posted by a viewer who mused that—for all our newfound admiration for the hothead general’s bravery and principled stand—had we lived in Gen. Luna’s time, or were those circumstances transposed to the present—most of us middle-class Pinoys would probably side with the general’s more pragmatic enemies, arguing business to be more important than anything else. That’s a sobering thought, especially these days when many people seem to think of “nationalism” as being too old-fashioned if not downright irrelevant in this age of globalization, conveniently forgetting that globalization benefits some nations and economies more than others.)

There have been many times when I’ve wished that I’d become a historian instead of a literary person, so I could have looked into our past more deeply and more seriously to make better sense of our present. Indeed, when I returned to the University of the Philippines as a freshman after a ten-year hiatus in 1981, I chose between declaring myself as an English or a History major (I had entered UP in 1970 as a prospective industrial engineer).

Were it not for the need to take the easier path to make up for lost time, I would have chosen History in a flash, as interested as I was in stories of “what happened.” In grade school and high school, I read more books dealing with history, biography, geography, and science than fiction; to this day, when people ask me what single book has influenced me the most, I don’t think twice about answering The Forest by William Pomeroy, a lyrical account of an American’s travails as a Huk guerrilla, which I read in high school and encouraged me to become an activist.

Mine was a generation of students who grew up on the enlightened revisionism of Teodoro Agoncillo, Hernando Abaya, and Renato Constantino. I use the word “revisionism” because the standard historical texts at that time were written by such men as Gregorio F. Zaide, a mimeographed and paperbound copy of whose book—my mother’s college textbook, for sure—was as fascinating to me as a boy as any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian chronicles. In grade school in the early ‘60s, I had yet to become aware of the important qualifications and nuances to be made to telling the story of our past, such as the fact that histories unavoidably took sides, and that it was all too easy to be seduced into taking the wrong one.

These days, I content myself with writing commissioned biographies and institutional histories—which, while they pose their own literary and scholarly challenges, do not by any means qualify me as a historian. I remain ever aware that the true study of history involves an appreciation of the grand sweep of things as much as the little details, and I have to admit that it’s the details I’m more often fascinated by, leaving it to larger minds to scope out the overarching logic or the grand design of the human narrative.

As a hopeless dabbler, hoarder, and kibitzer, I find myself irresistibly drawn to old objects and obscure information, and trade these gilded items with such fellow enthusiasts as my Washington-based friend Erwin Tiongson and his wife Titchie, who together run the Philippines on the Potomac website at popdc.wordpress.com. Erwin and Titchie were in Manila not too long ago for a vacation and a couple of lectures before the Philippine Studies Association and at the Ateneo, Erwin’s alma mater, on their most recent research into the colorful life in Washington of the remarkable Sofia de Veyra (you can read Titchie’s wonderful article on her here: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-thoroughly-modern-sofia-de-veyra). My wife Beng and I had a chance to meet over lunch with the Tiongsons and with Sofia’s granddaughter Teresa “Binggay” Montilla and her aunt Rita Damian, and the look on Binggay’s face when the Tiongsons showed her pictures of her grandparents she had never seen before was priceless.

IMG_7997

Shortly afterwards, back in the US, Erwin wrote me to say that he had been able to track down an article in the May 20, 1921 issue of the Great Falls Tribune (published in Great Falls, Montana), about the protest launched by Fiipino Chinese businessmen, led by the banker Dr. Albino Z. Sycip, against a new bookkeeping law that apparently discriminated against Chinese merchants. Sycip had taken his case to the US courts, and was on his way to Washington to plead his case there. While he was in the States, on June 30, a son was born to his wife back home, a detail I recounted in a biography I wrote of the man who was that baby boy: “Albino decided to commemorate that visit by naming his new son ‘Washington.’ ‘Up to now Wash has semi-annual recurring bad dreams about what might have happened if the old man had been in Tallahassee or Vladivostok,’ the impish Alex [Wash’s brother] would write.” Erwin relayed the news item to Wash, who gratefully wrote Erwin back to say that he had never seen that article before (and another one reporting on his father’s victory in court).

More recently, Erwin and I have been exchanging clippings we’ve dig up on another outstanding Filipino, a Jesuit icon, the late Fr. Teddy Arvisu, and I’ll write up those findings one of these days (“His father wanted him to marry one of the Quezon girls,” Erwin tells me). I’d found an eloquent and impassioned speech against the rise of fascism by the young Teddy, published in a November 1940 issue of the Philippine Collegian; Teddy would become a soldier and join the Death March before achieving his dream of priesthood. At the moment, Erwin’s hot on the trail of Peyton March, the American officer who went after Gregorio del Pilar at Tirad Pass, and who lived in his last years in Washington. You better hurry, I told Erwin, as they’ll be making a “Goyong” movie soon.

Nothing of the kind of trivia that Erwin or I come across will change the big story of our past, but as avid amateurs, I’m sure we’re happy enough to help in making history more personal.

[Top image from the US Library of Congress]

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