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Why marking the 1521 arrival is important

By: - Arts and Books Editor / @LitoZulueta
/ 04:02 AM January 01, 2022

In 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic rained on the parade marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival in 1521 of Spain and Christianity in the Philippines, yielding both good and bad news.

The good news is that the global health crisis so preoccupied everyone that it discouraged a repeat of the frenzied ideological debates that attended the 1992 commemoration of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492. The bad news is that Filipinos may have lost a chance to come to grips with their European and Catholic heritage.

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Abetting the vapid marking of the event is President Duterte’s anti-West rhetoric and his fulminations against the Church that sometimes reach hate-language decibels. A deist, Mr. Duterte signaled his disdain of the event as early as two years ago when he said there was no need to celebrate the arrival of Christianity since with it came Spanish “subjugation.”

Not that there was no state-sponsored commemoration. The National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) was formed, but perhaps downgrading the historic milestone to a local event, it and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) focused the memorials in the Visayas, where Magellan’s fleet landed. Manila was “discovered” by the Legazpi expedition only in 1570, so the Visayan focus is not inaccurate. But since “(t)he city will always be greater than the nation,” as Nick Joaquin has said, the absence of any major memorial in the capital lessens the national significance of the event.

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However, the NHCP and the NQC should be commended for enjoining very wide local participation through their Best Site Development of Quincentennial Historical Markers. Of the 34 sites in the Visayas and Mindanao, adjudged the best were those in Tagima in Fuego-Fuego Beach, Isabela City, Basilan (third place); Punta Cruz, Maribojoc, Bohol (second); and Panilongon on Rizal Blvd., Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental (first).

The NHCP also welcomed last March the Spanish training ship, Juan Sebastian del Cano, named after the officer of Magellan who completed the circumnavigation of the globe, in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. The municipality covers Homonhon, where Magellan landed on March 16, 1521, and Suluan, where the weary Spaniards first came into contact with the natives, who provided them food and hospitality.

Spanish Ambassador Jorge Moragas Sanchez said that what happened in Suluan was “an act of “kindness… the main principle that we need to remember.” Barangay leader Edgar Loyola thanked him for “the tribute to Suluan.” “Your presence here … not only brings us joy and honor, but it also validates what has been taught to us through generations, that kindness is a powerful language that goes a long way. It creates a ripple that lasts many lifetimes.”

It is, however, the Church that has carried out key dramatic and extensive activities to highlight the national and global significance of 1521. Last March 14, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, encouraging Filipino Catholics around the world to continue evangelizing “with joy.”

On April 4, Easter Sunday, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) kicked off its celebration with the simultaneous opening of the doors of 500 Jubilee churches across the archipelago. The celebration will close on April 22, 2022, with a missionary congress.

The pioneer missionary orders have also organized activities. The Augustinians held a historical conference on the Santo Nino icon gifted by Magellan to Humabon and Juana after their baptism in Cebu. The Dominicans of UST have held conferences and published historic and archival documents. Ditto with the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Recollects.

Despite all these, anxieties over the pandemic may have afforded Filipinos not much room to reflect. Due to quarantine and other tight safety measures, Filipinos wanting to celebrate the quincentennial found their enthusiasm—and movements—curbed.

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Because Christianity came along with Spanish colonization, the fault of one is ascribed to the other. Considering the rabid cancel culture and hysterical anti-colonial discourses and movements from the West, there may yet be no corrective to the ultra-nationalist and anti-Spanish currents that have bedeviled Philippine history and confused the country’s search for “national identity.”

For historians like Joaquin and Benito Legarda Jr., Filipinos should not feel messed up in the first place since they already have an identity. As Joaquin has noted:

“To accuse the Spanish, over and over again, of having brought us all sorts of things, mostly evil, among which we can usually remember nothing very valuable ‘except, perhaps,’ religion and national unity, is equivalent to saying of a not very model mother that she has given her child nothing except life. For in the profoundest sense, Spain did give birth to us—as a nation, as an historical people. This geographical unit of numberless islands called the Philippines—this mystical unit of numberless tongues, bloods and cultures called a Filipino—was begotten of Spain, is a Spanish creation.”

Hopefully the CBCP’s celebration till April 2022 will afford Filipinos more time to reflect on the quincentennial and its impact on “identity.” As Joaquin has said, “The prime work of Christianity for us (as for all the peoples of its formation) has been this awakening of self, this release and expansion of consciousness, a work undoubtedly still in progress…”

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Lito B. Zulueta is a journalist, editor, and critic who has won the National Book Award for history. He teaches at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Santo Tomas.

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TAGS: 1521, Commentary, Lito B. Zulueta, Philippine history, Spanish colonial period
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