Walking history in Washington
I arrived in Washington last Sunday at midday and since my hotel room was not available till 4 p.m., I decided to kill time by walking aimlessly toward the Mall to visit the Smithsonian museums. Down the road from my hotel on Rhode Island Avenue is the Philippine Embassy on Massachusetts. To get there, one passed by a roundabout with interconnecting side streets named Corregidor and Bataan, two Philippine placenames made famous by their unfortunate association with World War II. Joint Filipino and American troops were defeated in the Battles of Corregidor and Bataan which marked the beginning of the brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1942 to 1945. Traces of Philippine history lie in plain sight in the United States capital, that is, if one consciously seeks to find them.
Later, I found myself on the iconic north side of the White House, which everyone knows from TV, movies, and the back of the $20 bill. After taking the obligatory selfie, I walked toward the impressive Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building, to the right of the northern side of the White House. The Philippine connection here is that long before his election as president of the US, Eisenhower served four years in the Philippines, 1935-1939, under Douglas MacArthur.
From the historical markers on the gates of the Eisenhower building, I learned that before the building was renamed in honor of Eisenhower, it had a simple, generic, matter-of-fact name, the Old Executive Office Building, which originally housed the state, war, and navy departments that figured in the Spanish-American War revisited by the current show at the National Portrait Gallery, the “1898: US Imperial Visions and Revisions.”
There are two cannons that decorate, or should I say, symbolically defend the entrance to the Eisenhower building. If one will not only see but notice yet another historical marker on the gate of the building, you will learn that these cannons were part of a lot taken by George Dewey from the arsenal of Cavite after he defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. These cannons were sent to the US as souvenirs or relics of what is known as one of the greatest US naval battles in history. What is not well-known is that the first shot in the Spanish-American War happened not anywhere close to either Washington or Madrid. That shot was fired half the world away on Manila Bay in the Philippines and marked the beginning of the US Occupation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946.
That long afternoon walk of over 28,000 steps reminded me of the legacy of 1898 in Philippine history and the quote from the late Carmen Guerrero Nakpil that described the Philippines as a country that “spent 400 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”
One would think that immigrant Filipinos would be better represented in a Smithsonian exhibition on what makes the US since they comprise the fourth largest immigrant population, with 4 percent of the total immigrants in the US after Mexico (24 percent), India (6 percent), and China (5 percent). The exhibition in the Museum of American History highlighted the Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese cultures in the US. Where were the Filipinos? Philippine culture? We were only represented by a replica of the “balikbayan box,” the commercially available carton that contains a care package sent by immigrant Filipinos in the US to their relatives back “home” in the Philippines.
Language is the most evident of the many legacies of 1898 in the Philippines. Many times when I am abroad people ask me why, after four centuries of Spanish rule, we do not speak Spanish as they do in Latin America. The Philippines is an archipelago of about 7,641 islands populated by people who speak between 120 and 187 different languages. During the Spanish colonial period, it was easier for the few colonials to learn native languages than it was to teach everyone Spanish.
Language, according to the late nationalist historian Teodoro Agoncillo, was part of the Spanish colonial policy to divide and rule the diverse peoples of the Philippines. English was implanted in the Philippines as the language of instruction in American-period schools, it slowly replaced Spanish as the language of government and was further promoted by American popular culture, the “’50 years in Hollywood” referred to by Guerrero Nakpil. While the Philippines has a large English-speaking population, it ranks second to Singapore today in terms of language proficiency, and while Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia speak British English, Filipinos speak American English.
It was heartening to note that maps to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, come in a variety of languages including Tagalog. Walking history this week in the Smithsonian museums and the Library of Congress made me look back on how the Philippines and the Filipinos remember the legacies of the 1898 Spanish-American War, its imperial visions and revisions.
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