Monday, October 22, 2018
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Looking Back

Research for the sheer fun of it

Long before I accessed primary-source materials in the National Library, the National Archives, the National Historical Institute, and the UP Main Library, my first steps in Filipiniana were in Ateneo de Manila University’s Rizal Library and in Lopez Museum. The teachers who mattered, in retrospect, were all women: Doreen Fernandez, Soledad S. Reyes, Helen Tubangui, and Marlu Vilches, whose research into Philippine history and literature were an inspiration to me.

Ateneo had all the basic reference material. Tubangui gave an assignment I still give my students today: Open the index to the 55-volume compilation of historical documents by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson to the letter that corresponds to the first letter of your surname, go over the topics that interest you, and write a short paper on your research. Even before I went to the library I was already thinking of engaging research topics: Ocampo, Olongapo, Oraa, Orangutan, and Orgy. I was disappointed that the last topic was not represented in the index.


Fernandez related, with a wicked smile, how she terrorized her graduate students with the question: In which play does Shakespeare use the word “love” the most often? Her students scrambled for the plays, began counting, and gave up, only to be told that the answer can be found in less than a minute if you leafed through the Concordance to Shakespeare. My term paper for Fernandez was on the cult following of Maria Leonora Theresa, a doll that movie fans fantasized as the daughter of then matinee idols Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III. The librarian at the Filipiniana serials was extremely helpful because I was the only one who had requested all the 1960s and 1970s movie magazines. She also confessed to being a “Noranian.”

Reyes’ research into komiks was formidable, but I wanted to impress her by writing on something I presumed she didn’t know much about. This required more than Ateneo’s resources, so Lopez Museum in Pasay City was marked out, and not just for library research; I had also wanted to catch a glimpse of the historian Renato Constantino who was working there.


Alas, Constantino had long retired from Lopez Museum when I first visited, but that first visit was not to be the last. After seeing one floor of paintings by Juan Luna and another floor filled with paintings and drawings by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, I went into the library to see manuscripts and memorabilia of Rizal, and a selection of rare 17th-century books published in the Philippines. It was love at first sight.

My 37-year relationship with Lopez Museum began when I wrote a paper for Reyes on prewar satirical magazines: Lipang Kalabaw, Telembang, Pakakak, Buntut-Pague, Hagupit, Aruy!, Aray!, and many more. The covers, illustrations, spot drawings and even a serial comic strip were by many artists that included Jorge Pineda and Fernando and Pablo Amorsolo.

Vilches was into local history; like Fernandez who wrote on the Iloilo zarzuela, she had covered Leyte-Samar literature. Looking back, one realizes that academic specialization is really about learning more and more about less and less. For Vilches I wrote on Kapampangan folk tales because the topic was obscure and unknown to the professor, thus guaranteeing a good grade. On a more personal level, it was a way to touch base with the language and culture of my father, after my Tagalog mother forbade her children from learning Kapampangan, fearing that we would pick up the accent and mispronounce our p’s and q’s, or, as Shakespeare cheekily says in “Twelfth Night,” the “c’s, u’s and t’s.”

Literature on the topic was scant, but an essay led to a life-changing interview with E. Aguilar Cruz, who introduced me to research, not only for school and a grade, but also for the sheer fun of it.

My students who grew up with Yahoo and Google think my training was absolutely prehistoric, but much of the sources for my columns and lectures are not available on the internet. Sometimes one does have to go to a library to open a physical book. It pays to visit a museum to see the Spoliarium up close, rather than view an online photo with inaccurate color. A visit to an archive is rewarding, not just for the content of a document, but also for the other things you can deduce from a manuscript.

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TAGS: history and literature, National Library, Tubangui
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