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At Large
Light and language in ‘Lumina Pandit’

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:31:00 03/06/2011

Filed Under: Exhibition, Language, Books, history, Schools, Education, Religions

YOU HAVE only a week, if you haven?t done so yet, to drop by the Miguel de Benavides Library of the University of Santo Tomas to catch the remaining days of ?Lumina Pandit: An Exhibition of Historical Treasures.?

Put together especially to mark the university?s 400th anniversary, ?Lumina Pandit? showcases the rarest and most valuable items in the archives of the library. But more important, the exhibit illustrates how the printed word shaped the idea of ?nation? and of ?nationhood? among the natives encountered by the first Dominican missionaries. It also turns on its head long-held myths about the Filipino colonial experience, including the role played by Spanish missionaries. Or as exhibit curator Marian Pastor Roces puts it: ?History is far more complicated than our long-held beliefs and ideas would have it.?

We were lucky to be part of a group taking up Roces? offer to join a ?curator?s tour,? the last she would be conducting for ?Lumina Pandit.? The rare volumes will soon be returned to their safe, temperature-controlled vaults, out of sight of most Filipinos, including UST faculty and students, perhaps for another hundred years. ?The weather is getting warmer and we are worried about how the books would hold up,? explained Roces. Opened last June, ?Lumina Pandit? was scheduled to close last January, but was extended for another month.

Among the more valuable items on exhibit is the only existing sample of the ancient Tagalog script ?baybayin? written on paper, covering a real estate transaction in the 16th century; a first edition of Nicholas Copernicus? groundbreaking book on the revolution of celestial bodies; and a very rare Bible, known as the ?Plantin Polyglot Bible? because it contains text in six languages, easily the most valuable book in the UST library.

The exhibit also displays the ?oldest book? extant in the country, an ?incunabulum? or book printed before the invention of moving type, titled ?The War of the Jews? about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Right at the entrance of ?Lumina Pandit? are of course samples of the books donated by Fr. Miguel de Benavides, O.P. which, together with a modest sum, led to the establishment of what would eventually become the Royal and Pontifical University.

* * *

ROCES dropped the name of one Bartolome de las Casas at the beginning of her tour. De las Casas, she said, had been a sailor who was part of the Columbus expedition and, scandalized and traumatized by what he saw, particularly the mistreatment of the indigenous communities. He became a priest and wrote ?the first book in defense of native peoples.? In fact, added Roces, contemporary historians have called De las Casas ?the first human rights scholar.?

But more relevant to our history is that De las Casas had two students by the names of Antonio Salazar, who became the first archbishop of Manila; and Miguel de Benavides, a Dominican who, apart from helping found UST, was also Manila archbishop.

We can only speculate how such a background was reflected in the colonial policies of that time, but one ?proof? is the policy on evangelization adopted by the missionaries in the Philippines. Unlike in Latin America, Cuba or Puerto Rico where missionaries and the military worked to eradicate indigenous culture, particularly religion and language, the missionaries adopted the reverse in the Philippines.

Instead of teaching Spanish to the majority population, the Spanish missionaries set about learning the Philippine languages so they could preach and evangelize in these languages. The friars spread far and wide, living among native communities and painstakingly compiling dictionaries so that those who came in their wake could have an easier time learning the languages.

Roces led us to a long, wide table on which are spread samples of the earliest dictionaries in several languages. This may account, in fact, for the survival and durability of our languages, of which 171 are in active use today, unlike in Latin America where indigenous languages are spoken by only a few, isolated communities.

?Each dictionary represents more than one life,? comments Roces, citing the fact that while missionaries devoted their entire lives learning a language, many more would work on updated versions, building on the work of their predecessors.

All this, said Felice Sta. Maria, who was part of the tour group and who happens to be researching the colonial language policy, was in fact part of a deliberate policy adopted by the Church (in a Synod in the 1500s) reflecting lessons learnt from the terrible example in Latin America, and perhaps the teaching of individuals like De las Casas.

* * *

CENTRAL though to the thesis of the Propagandists, led by Dr. Jose Rizal, was that the language policy adopted in the Philippines was part of a Spanish attempt to keep the natives ignorant, to isolate the ordinary Filipino from world discourse and new ideas by depriving them of an education in Spanish.

But of course Rizal and his contemporaries broke through this barrier, and mainly through an education gained at the hands of colonial educators. Indeed, Roces says the books on exhibit, containing rare first volumes not just of Bibles or religious books but even of volumes on mathematics, science, botany and music, show that the UST Central Library ?was a cutting-edge library? of its time. But, she adds, books banned by the Inquisition and those on the Enlightenment are not to be found here, and some that made the cut are so heavily censored as to be unreadable. Still, the library presents proof ?of the thinking of the Filipino elite? before the Revolution, and indeed, thinking that may itself have led to the Revolution.

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