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Looking Back

Dates as historical landmarks

Dates are the points that give shape and structure to the historical narrative. While dates are indispensable to historians, they can be a burden to students who are forced to memorize them. Random dates from textbooks are useless in real life, except to pass an examination or win at a Quiz Bee. Relevance is what sets one date apart from another; in our personal lives, we remember and celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. That is also true in history, which is a memory beyond ourselves, like the birthday of the nation — June 12, 1898. Before my last column saw print, the Inquirer fact-checkers and the Opinion editor cleared a slight change in my reference to the last primary source compiled by Gregorio Zaide in his magisterial 12-volume “Documentary Sources of Philippine History.” Zaide referred to a “1986 Philippine Constitution,” generally known as the “1987 Philippine Constitution.” It is one and the same thing, a Constitution completed in 1986 but that came into force, after approval in a plebiscite, in 1987. The date sets it apart from the earlier Constitutions of 1973, 1935, and even the 1899 Malolos Constitution. There should be no problem referring to the 1987 Constitution, except for a losing Quiz Bee contestant who will argue that his source, the authority for his citing a “1986 Philippine Constitution,” is Gregorio Zaide’s “Documentary Sources.”

A jumble of historical dates is for a historian what a ball of yarn is for a cat. The need to untangle them is an exercise not just in history but more for historiography, or the way history has been written and understood over time. Philippine flags flying along Ayala Avenue last week reminded me of the story of our flag. The first and original flag was made in 535 Morrison Hill Road, Hong Kong (today the site of a children’s playground), following Emilio Aguinaldo’s design. It took five days for Marcela Agoncillo, her daughter Lorenza, and Jose Rizal’s niece, Delfina Herbosa de Natividad, to sew pieces of silk into the flag that Aguinaldo brought on board a US military transport when he departed Hong Kong for the Philippines on May 17, 1898.

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Here’s the rub: The Philippine flag saw action in the Battle of Alapan on May 28, 1898. While it was first unfurled there, it did so more as Aguinaldo’s battle standard. It became the Philippine national flag when it was unfurled again from the window of Aguinaldo’s home in Kawit on June 12, 1898, after the Declaration of Philippine Independence from Spain was read by Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista. Born on that muggy afternoon were our flag and the national anthem, a march composed by Julian Felipe, a piano teacher from Cavite.

While the dates and story are firmly established in history and commemoration, there are still those who refuse to accept that narrative as we learned it. Some people delight in counterfactuals. Shouldn’t our Independence Day be reckoned from July 4, 1946? Did we become truly independent on June 12, 1898?

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The answer to the first counterfactual is that June 12 was chosen over half a dozen alternative dates vying for the honor of being our Independence Day. June 12 it has been for the past 56 years, and if doubters need earlier recognition, June 12 was established by Manuel Quezon as Flag Day in 1941 and was celebrated as such until 1964, when Diosdado Macapagal created Independence Day from Flag Day. And Kawit reminds us that it was one thing to declare independence in 1898 and another thing to actually attain it in 1946. It was one thing to declare independence, and another to know what to do with that independence. Our nation is not static; it continues to evolve and adapt to the times, as it now grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance.

Back to dates as historical landmarks. From 1994, we have been celebrating Flag Days from May 28 to June 12, as reminders of the Battle of Alapan and the Declaration of Independence. They are also reminders that from 1907 to 1909, the public display of our flag was banned by a colonial government that didn’t want Filipinos to be reminded of their struggles for independence against Spain and the Philippine-American War. On Oct. 24, 1919, the flag was legalized and that date was celebrated as Flag Day until 1940. In 1941, Flag Day was moved from October to June 12, and celebrated as such until 1964. A jumble of dates reflecting the struggle for recognition both of our flag and the nation it represents.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, dates, historical landmarks, Independence Day, Looking Back
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