The living past
I remembered something from my childhood in light of the debate that has arisen on how best to teach martial law to the kids.
The debate goes like this: Armin Luistro, the education secretary, favors just giving the kids the facts and letting them judge by themselves. That will have the virtue of honing their skills at discernment. Groups like Akbayan want a more value-laden approach, the way South Africa teaches apartheid to the kids. That will have the virtue of preventing a rewriting, or indeed falsification, of history.
I was reminded of this: I was born six years after the end of World War II and grew up in the 1950s not far removed from it. A lot of the older folk were still bitter at the Japanese Occupation, but they little imparted to us the source of it. What we knew about the War we got not from school, which didn’t bother to teach it to us—our (very) parochial school was more concerned with teaching religion than history—but from the movies.
Not the least of them Fernando Poe Jr.’s. He was the epic hero of many war movies along with many Filipinized westerns. Larger than life, he would mow down hordes of Japanese soldiers in battles, ambushes, and sneak attacks on their fortresses. All of which little drove home the grimness of that period in our national life. In fact, they turned it into something of a comedy, the “dead” Japanese in the movies getting up before the camera had panned away from them to get to the next scene where they would “die” again. And Vic Diaz hamming it up as a sadistic Japanese commander.
But more than that, there were the movies of John Wayne. Larger than life, he single-handedly won the war at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima with the “Halls of Montezuma” playing in the background. He didn’t get to drive home the Japanese atrocity either, turning it into caricature. But he did get to ram home something to us, which was the storyline, or narrative, or myth of “I shall return.” When we were kids, what we knew of the Japanese Occupation was that it ended not because the guerrillas fought off the invaders but because the Americans came back to liberate us.
Try telling the French that they owe their freedom to the American landing in Normandy. That was how MacArthur wading in the waters of Leyte became for us.
What all this suggests is that if we want to remember martial law, we may have to go beyond the groves of academe. I’m not knocking the teaching of history in schools, particularly the elementary grades, and I’m glad that the 40th anniversary of martial law drew out loud calls for it. How important it is we see in the emphasis given to the teaching of history in the 1960s, through no small effort from the activists, especially with Teodoro Agoncillo’s “The History of the Filipino People” and later Renato Constantino’s “A Past Revisited” replacing old history books that pressed the American viewpoint.
Which shows how interpretation is crucial. There is really no such thing as “just giving the facts,” in history more than anything else. The storyline is important, the narrative is important, the viewpoint is important. That is how facts are remembered. Hell, that is how facts become facts.
But there are limits to a school-oriented way of remembering the past. Particularly for a country such as ours where few people reach college, let alone high school, where reading has become a virtual thing of the past, where the past is constantly being pushed back by the allures, or pressing realities, of the present. The problem is not that we are not given to sudden awakenings, or burning needs to remember the past. The problem is that we cannot sustain it. The problem, like the 100th anniversary of independence in 1998, is that we feel the past like a fresh wound one day only to be lulled into a comforting numbness afterward.
We need something more powerful than classroom lessons to remember and keep remembering. That something is culture, popular or otherwise.
That is how other societies get to remember their past, or indeed treat it like a living present. That is how the past lodges in the national consciousness, the poor’s as much as the rich: through novels, movies, plays, TV fare, popular art, even comics. If that is true for others, who go to school more, who read more, and engage the present more, that is even truer for us. Which in fact was how it was for us then. We learned about the Japanese Occupation not from school but from the movies.
But which again shows the importance of interpretation. You have nothing but John Wayne movies to give you a window into a grim period in your life, you will believe in “I shall return.” Popular doesn’t have to mean trashy. You can always have movies like “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” that tells of love in a time of war, which was the Japanese Occupation, and “Sister Stella L,” which tells of difficult choices, or sangangdaan, in a time of cholera, which was martial law. But we have so few of these, you can count them by the fingers of your hand.
By all means let us teach martial law being sparing about its atrocities and even more without being unstinting in the praise of those who fought it, Christian and communist alike, Yellow and Red alike, the better to make the schooled truly educated. But beyond that let us strive to spark a burst of creativity in the arts and entertainment, in producing novels (yes, even them, they can always be turned into scripts if not directly read), movies, plays, TV fare, popular art, comics to widen the pool of remembrance, to deepen the well of resolve. Stories are the most powerful way to reach out to the past. Stories are the most powerful way to make the past present.
Stories are the only way to make the dead live again.
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