Sometimes, historians do their research outside a library, archive or museum. Oral history is what they call the results of interviews with living persons, and this can be a more rewarding experience than communicating with the long dead from books, manuscripts and artifacts. The late Doreen G. Fernandez and Edilberto Alegre came up with two volumes of conversations with the earliest generation of Filipino writers in English—“Writer and his Milieu” (1984) and “Writers and their Milieu” (1988)—that provide the context to many of the short stories and poems anthologized in our textbooks. Seeing a person and personality behind a given poem or short story enhances appreciation.
When Doreen heard that I was visiting Teodoro A. Agoncillo, she advised me to bring a tape recorder and ask his permission to record our conversations. That led to my book “Talking History,” which provides a glimpse into the historian behind what is perhaps the most influential Philippine history textbook. When I look back to my first job in the newspaper Philippines Daily Express, I realize how much oral history was discarded in the newsroom on a daily basis. Reporters sought out a story, hurriedly transcribed their interviews, chose the best quotes, and beat the 3 p.m. deadline. These transcripts were discarded, and cassette tapes reused. Bits and pieces of history now gone.
One of the joys of interviews is meeting interesting people. Once, while researching for an essay on the composer Nicanor Abelardo, I sought out two of his students in the prewar University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music—the painter Celedonia Ongpin and the physician and fictionist Arturo B. Rotor (1907-1988). The latter was a bit of a challenge because I was told he was a recluse, but when I visited him in Makati, I didn’t realize he lived on the same street as the historian Carlos Quirino and the painter Arturo Luz. Both would later be proclaimed National Artists. Rotor and I got Abelardo out of the way before I finished the coffee he served, then Rotor continued providing me a lot more than I came for.
I knew Rotor only as a writer and was surprised to discover later that his name is etched in other fields: In botany, a blood-red orchid he discovered while hunting for plants in Besang Pass in the Caraballo mountains is named after him (Vanda Merrillii, var Rotorii); in medical literature, a type of hyperbilirubinemia is known as the “Rotor syndrome.”
Lesser people promote themselves through “praise releases,” but this man kept himself private. What is of interest to me is his private papers, which contain, among other things, the minutes of the meetings of the Philippine Commonwealth government-in-exile headed by President Manuel L. Quezon in Washington, DC. Rotor served as secretary and got so disillusioned with a world and life that others aspire for. As he told Fernandez and Alegre:
“My short stint with the Commonwealth government-in-exile cured me of whatever political ambitions I may have had. In all my life I have never seen such intrigues, such lust for power or influence. Everybody scheming for his own dear self, trafficking in rumors or innuendoes, ever on the watch for any opportunity to curry favor with the President, even if he had to stab a friend in the back. These men were much older than I was. Back home I had looked up to them as the leaders of the nation, paradigms of probity and selflessness that the youth were supposed to emulate. But in Washington I saw them differently.
Servility beyond belief, sycophancy in all its modulations—the upright, courageous, noble-minded leaders that I had heard of in Manila became spineless, fawning toadies in Washington, ever ready to perform a menial service for President Quezon, ever ready to anticipate his slightest [wish], to laugh at his anecdotes.
“As a matter of fact, I have quite a pile of manuscripts. In our Cabinet meetings, Quezon ordered that no stenographer be present. No official minutes. However, everybody was free to take any notes he wanted. I did just that. During the meetings, I would take notes in my own shorthand system, and transcribe them immediately afterwards.
Furthermore, Quezon used to call me to discuss pending official matters, during which he would often branch off into sundry subjects such as how he hoodwinked Tirona, how Roxas was finally chosen Speaker after a party deadlock, and other fascinating episodes in his colorful career. These conferences often lasted till close to midnight, for he suffered from insomnia. All of these I have put down in my memoirs. But I don’t think I want them published now , or in my lifetime. It would be too cruel, too devastating. I don’t think I can hurt people like that… I’ll probably donate my manuscript to an organization—a society, a school—and let it make the decision after my death.”
Where are these papers now? I recall that Doreen Fernandez got Rotor to donate the papers to the Ateneo de Manila library on condition that these be opened to researchers 10 years after his death. I don’t know if this pushed through. I don’t know where or who has these papers now. With many calling for a rewriting or reinterpretation of Philippine history, I remembered this missing link in the puzzle. It’s a story waiting to be told, but we have to find the Rotor papers first.
* * *
Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org