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Looking Back

Excerpts from an interview

Tomas Javier Calvillo Unna, the ambassador of Mexico to the Philippines, is one of my favorite diplomats because he is a poet by vocation and a  historian by training. He introduced me to high-grade tequila and michelada, a beer with tomato juice, freshly squeezed lime juice, a dash of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce all mixed and served on a chilled tall glass whose lip is laced with fine sea salt. Diplomats fully grounded in their culture often use food, culture and history  as bridges to the people of their host countries. After two micheladas  and a sampling of Mexican pica-pica we spoke, and parts of the   conversation were published in the Embassy newsletter “Galeon de Manila” last year. Due to limited circulation and knowing how useful some parts of the conversation would be for students writing papers on this Inquirer column, here are the highlights:

Don Tomas (Q): In a society that is so fast paced, with people hardly having time to be in the moment, how can you teach history?

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Ambeth (A): Whenever people tell me that history is boring or irrelevant I reply that they did not have me as their teacher! History is never boring. History is never irrelevant. If you think otherwise, you had a bad history teacher. Contrary to popular belief, there is a growing interest in history and the past in this fast-paced world. Cable networks that carry Discovery or National Geographic channels have a lot of history in them. We even have a History Channel in some networks. There is a demand for historical films and books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I think this comes from the way history has been re-presented.

Q: You mentioned in your book “Looking Back” that your perception about history changed when you met the late Teodoro A. Agoncillo, E. Aguilar Cruz and Doreen G. Fernandez, “that they showed me that history could be timely and engaging as the tabloids and gossip columns.” Can you elaborate on this? Did this cultivate your interest to write the book?

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A: I started my career writing historical articles for the now defunct Philippines Daily Express at the tail-end of the Marcos years. Censorship made it possible for me to write history, which the editors thought to be “safe” and non-political. I wrote in a conversational, almost gossipy way that seemed new at the time because history and   historians then were almost all boring and academic. Later I was to discover that I could comment on the present using the past and this double-meaning gave relevance to my work.

It was difficult in the beginning because constipated academics did not look kindly on the popularization of history. They demanded footnotes  and a lofty style that could not be accommodated in newspapers and  magazines. Fortunately, there were others before me who showed that history could be presented in a non-academic way. These role models were Nick Joaquin, Teodoro Agoncillo, Doreen Fernandez, E. Aguilar Cruz and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil who encouraged me by saying, “Don’t mind the academics, nobody reads them.”

Q: Do you think that the way history is being taught in schools has been changed and improved throughout the years?

A: There is a lot of work needed to improve the way history is taught in Philippine schools today. First the so-called “competencies” have to be revised, then the textbooks have to be updated to make them, at least, factually correct. Then teachers have to be given the readings and other tools to improve their classroom teaching. The Internet is a wonderful source of information, but one has to be critical when using it.

Q: What is the importance of history for present Mexican-Philippine relations?

A: Textbook history tends to overemphasize the Spanish colonial period and in so doing glosses over our long connection with Mexico. The  Galleon Trade was not just an economic factor in Philippine life but it affected Filipinos in many other ways. Many fruits and vegetables that came from Mexico are believed to be Philippine. Mexico is in our language, our food, our culture, and it is important to remind Filipinos about it today.

Q: In your book “Looking Back” most of your data were gathered through documents, archives and interviews. How do you foresee a historian  writing history in a world dominated by cyberspace?

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A: As I mentioned earlier, the Internet is a wonderful source of  information. For example, I can access materials in the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC or the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid from my desk in Manila. This was impossible 20 years ago. It is unfortunate that our National Library and Museum were destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945, thus a Filipino historian needs to go abroad to find historical material. Worse, we are separated from our history,  our past because of language, thus few scholars go to Spain for archival research, even fewer go to Mexico where a lot of our shared history lies.

I write in cyberspace, my bi-weekly Inquirer column is available on  the Internet and I have recently taken administration of the Ambeth R. Ocampo Fan Page that makes my research accessible to a new audience. There is a lot of engaging things on the Internet aside from porn.

* * *

“Mukhang Pera: Banknotes and Nation,” my lecture at the Ayala Museum, pushes through tomorrow, Saturday, July 9 rain or shine at 3 p.m.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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