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‘Our ancestors were not pygmies’

The country is observing its 121st Independence Day with the usual rituals — flag-raising, speeches, parades. But the country’s cultural slavery is very much evident in all the cinemas showing “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” while a less budgeted but more substantial film, “Quezon’s Game,” is fighting for its box office life.

The late writer and historian Carmen Guerrero Nakpil was right when she observed that the Filipino character was largely shaped by “300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”

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And Hollywood films, mostly bad and predictable, still rule to this day.

Nakpil’s book “Heroes and Villains” gives us a ringside view of history totally dissociated from the point of view of the colonizers.

The myth of our so-called “discovery” by Ferdinand Magellan, for instance. Nakpil delivers the cold, hard facts: “It was the people of our archipelago who discovered Magellan and the Europeans in 1521, not the other way around, as most Filipinos were taught by our grade school textbooks.”

The Philippines got its name from Spain’s King Philip II. What was his place in history? “In his youth,” wrote Nakpil, “he was described as ‘slender, elegant and good-looking.’ After all, he was the grandson of the smashingly handsome Philip I, a.k.a. Felipe El Hermoso, who was so gorgeous that when he died suddenly at age 28, his besotted queen, Juana, went out of her mind and was forever afterwards called ‘Juana la Loca.’ Historians like to say that she refused to have his cadaver taken from her bedside and kept him there unburied ‘for years’… A side story to this royal insanity says that when Magellan baptized Humabon’s wife in Cebu in 1521, he gave the ‘Queen of Cebu’ the name ‘Juana’ in honor of the unfortunate grandmother of Philip II, Juana la Loca, a.k.a. in English history as Joanna the Mad.

“Fortunately, the Cebuanos did not know that little detail of their brief alliance with Magellan, or they might have planned the massacre earlier.”

The secret delight of this Nakpil book is that history is told in the context of present-day Filipinos still misled by the official chroniclers of history.

As she wrote in the book’s introduction: “I believe all heroes define themselves and all villains are defined by the people around them. Some are both heroes and villains to different publics, like the US President William McKinley. Highly regarded for making the United States a world power by annexing the Philippines, he is derided by Filipinos for claiming he tried to ‘Christianize and civilize’ a backward people. Filipinos had been Roman Catholics for more than three hundred years, their artists had won medals at world expos in Paris and Madrid and their Spanish-language poetry was anthologized in Europe.”

At the end of the 15th century, when the European Age of Exploration took off, Spain did not exist as the nation-state we know now, pointed out Nakpil. What were previously known as the natives of Hispaniola were scattered descendants of the Visigoths, the barbarians at the gates of the dying Roman Empire.

“It had a small nobility of peasants, usurers, mercantilists and a huge mass of beggars, vagabonds, bandits and slaves. In Madrid, civil servants, captains without companies, soldiers of fortune, adventurers fleeing creditors, all sought passage to the newly charted “Indies” (including Filipinas) hoping to attain wealth, respectability and a rich wife.”

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Nakpil’s coup de grace: “Our ancestors were not pygmies, the naked savages with frizzy hair, as many of us were carefully taught in our foreign-guided schoolrooms by our brainwashed elders. We were one people, of the Malay race, recognized by India, China, Japan and later Arabia as their ancient chronicles attest, possessors of this land for many centuries. They had come between 200 BC and 300 AD from the vast mainland of Central Asia, from places like Nepal and Johore, in their own boats for they were excellent seafarers. They lived in organized communities, fiefdoms and villages called barangay (the name for their boats and still that of our smallest municipal unit).

“When Magellan landed in Homonhon in 1521, in the company of his starving, smelly, bearded white crew who had emerged from their tiny creaking, wooden caravelles, they were quickly offered jars of palm wine, welcomed to bamboo palaces and fed roast pork and gravy, rice and coconuts, amid gong music and maidens wearing shiny silk gowns and makeup and attendants wearing heavy gold necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Magellan had to warn his men against showing too much awe of the wealth, the beauty and the generosity of those early Filipinos.”

Nakpil’s ultimate reminder: “It’s important to remember this scene (from Pigafetta, Magellan’s publicist), because that’s where we’re from.”

* * *

Pablo A. Tariman has been covering the performing arts for more than 40 years.

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TAGS: Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Heroes and Villains, Independence Day, Inquirer Commentary, Pablo a. tariman
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