Looking Back

Urban legends

There is an urban legend in the Ateneo on how the late Fr. Jose A. Cruz (grandnephew of Jose Rizal and university president) once surprised his philosophy students when he entered the classroom with a saw and a piece of wood. Without saying a word he began to saw and continued doing so for about 20 minutes, making his students uncomfortable. When he was done he turned to them and asked: “What was I doing?”  Naturally, everyone answered: “You were sawing wood!” To which he replied: “Why are you so sure of that? What if I tell you that I was making sawdust?”

This story inspired me to create my own Zen or Eureka moment in my history course, resulting in oversubscribed classes known on campus as “The Ambeth Ocampo Experience.” One of the urban legends on me goes thus: For an exam I told students to describe the Battle of Mactan from the point of view of a fish. One student filled six pages of his blue book with “glub glub glub,” and wrote at the end: “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand fish language.” I gave this student an “A” for effort, honesty and creativity.


The truth is that I gave the student a “C” for effort and wrote this on his paper: “If you can translate this into human language, I will give you an ‘A.’”

There is another hilarious Ateneo legend that I came to class once in a pirate outfit complete with a parrot. When I was asked to confirm or deny this, I declared: “I didn’t come as a pirate, I came to class as the parrot!” Then there is the legend, unfortunately true, that I appeared in two films given an “X” rating by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board. This explains why I never got a third movie offer.


It is true that there are as many histories as there are historians, making people of a previous generation wonder whether they should believe Gregorio Zaide or Teodoro Agoncillo. History is a slippery discipline because one cannot know all sources and there is always more than one angle to any story.

Last week I got mixed reviews from the column on our heroes and their teeth. Some were upset that I wrote about the probability that Rizal had bad breath and that Andres Bonifacio’s flared teeth made him look like the late comedian Apeng Daldal. Some people want their heroes perfect and fossilized in marble and bronze; everyone else wants a human they can relate to.

The point of writing about the dental records of our heroes is that in 1925 there was a debate over the authenticity of the bones dug up by Guillermo Masangkay in Maragondon, Cavite, in 1918. Masangkay and Epifanio de los Santos (best remembered for historic Epifanio de los Santos Avenue or Edsa) insisted that the bones were those of Bonifacio. But then the most authoritative person, Lazaro Makapagal, who was in charge of Bonifacio’s execution and burial, denied this. So a medico-legal report was brought out, and Bonifacio’s impressionable younger sister was presented as a witness to support the authenticity of the dubious bones.

I remembered all these when I watched retired justice Serafin Cuevas cross-examine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima at Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment trial. He made her comfortable, got her to tell her story, and concluded by asking the court to have everything she said struck from the record as hearsay. When the prosecution objected to the term “hearsay,” Cuevas explained: “Sa Tagalog, di galing sa sariling kaalaman (not from personal knowledge)!”

That line hit me like a thunderbolt and made me reflect on my profession as a historian because what I write does not come from personal knowledge, and though I use primary sources these are almost always biased and reflect the truth from one point of view.

Based on the evidence, I believe the bones recovered in Nagpatong, Maragondon, in 1918 are not Bonifacio’s. We can spend many columns asking more unanswered questions regarding these “Bonifacio bones,” but to summarize, two claims were made by people who were neither witnesses to his execution, death and burial nor experts in medico-legal examination: one (by Masangkay and De los Santos) that the bones are indeed those of Bonifacio, and the other (by Masangkay) that Bonifacio was hacked to death. This goes against the eyewitness testimony of Makapagal that says the Bonifacio brothers were shot and then buried in a spot different from the place   where Masangkay found the controversial bones. One also wonders how come Bonifacio’s widow was not consulted by the forensic team.

Then we have the most important part. In 1918 Masangkay found only one skeleton. If we grant, for the sake of discussion, that these bones are indeed those of Andres Bonifacio, where are the bones of his brother Procopio who was executed and buried with him? If we are to complicate matters further, if these bones were those of Procopio, then where are the bones of the Katipunan supremo?


The postmortem examination on the teeth of our heroes is the best proof that contrary to popular belief, dead men do tell tales. Their mortal remains, their clothing, their personal effects tell us a lot about what they were like in life. These details are often seen as  trivial because they do not change the course of our history, but anything that makes the boring narrative move should be worth something.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: andres bonifacio, ATENEO, featured column, Leila de Lima, Serafin Cuevas, urban legends
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