This afternoon I will stew in the early summer heat wearing an academic gown. I will be immobile for at least three hours watching yet another batch of Ateneo students end their college life and embark on a new journey in the real world outside the shady campus that nurtured them for the last four or five years. To while away the time constructively, I once thought of bringing test booklets to mark during the commencement exercises. But these were too bulky to hide under the toga, so I packed a book hoping to enjoy three hours of concentrated reading. I did not get to open the book because as I saw my former students—both the good and the not so diligent—go up the stage as their names were called, I felt some pride at having become part of their lives. As I rejoiced at their graduation it gave me a sense of what parents must feel to have a child finish schooling. Unfortunately for some parents, there are children who deal with unemployment by proceeding to graduate school.
As I watch my students collect their diplomas, I wonder if they will retain the appreciation for the useless information that I drill into them in my undergraduate Philippine history classes. Information and stray data are useless by themselves; it is in connecting these different bits together to form a new idea or viewpoint where the magic lies.
The last time I was in the National Museum, I lingered in the hall dedicated to the life and work of Guillermo E. Tolentino, National Artist for Sculpture. For the first time there is one place where one can view small works by the master. We are all familiar with Tolentino’s masterpiece, the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan that gave the site its popular name, “Monumento.” It is in the smaller work that one can fully appreciate the genius of Tolentino. You have to look closely at the original plaster works to make out the traces of his hands that pinched, folded and molded clay or plaster into lifelike likenesses of our heroes and other notable Filipinos. The master stroke is in the eyes: He is said to make expert jabs, one for each, that transformed empty socket into eyes that seemed to follow you as you move about the room.
The bust I contemplated the longest is often overlooked because the subject is not as high up in our pantheon of heroes as Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini, or Luna. He was not as high-ranking as Quezon, Osmeña, Roxas, or Quirino, but he happened to be the one immortalized in the longest street in the National Capital Region. Epifanio de los Santos Avenue starts north from the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan stretching almost 24 kilometers through Quezon City, San Juan, Mandaluyong, Makati, to the Mall of Asia in Pasay.
What did De los Santos do to deserve such a singular honor? He was not just a two-time governor of Nueva Ecija, he was more than an epal politician: He was a historian, journalist, musician, bibliophile and antiques collector who served as director of the National Library of the Philippines. In the Tolentino room in the National Museum I stared Epifanio de los Santos in the face and remembered all of his historical works that I read.
It is unfortunate that another, more charming, bust of De los Santos by Tolentino is believed lost or destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945. This one is not just a portrait; it depicts him playing the guitar. We do not have recordings of his music, but De los Santos is said to have been one of the three best guitar players before the war, together with Guillermo Tolentino and Fernando Canon. If he had survived assassination in Cabanatuan at the hands of Emilio Aguinaldo’s bodyguards, the best guitar player in 19th-century Philippines would have been Gen. Antonio Luna, who donated a guitar for a contest subsequently won by De los Santos.
Epifanio de los Santos wrote for the revolutionary paper La Independencia and was also an accomplished painter. It is said that a beautiful young lady in charge of a college for women (Rosa Sevilla?) received an oil portrait from an anonymous admirer. Nobody knew who had sent the gift, so some of her many suitors courted her attention and affection by claiming that they had sent the portrait. So one day when all the competitors were wooing the woman, praising and commenting on her portrait, De los Santos asked that they take the painting out of its frame. On the back they found his name. Furthermore, a piece of music hidden behind the painting was found, and De los Santos serenaded the woman with it, “to the mingled delight and despair of the other suitors.”
As a historian I often find texts lacking, and I search for pictures and artifacts to supplement the primary sources and make history come alive. Contemplating the bust of Epifanio de los Santos in the National Museum made me think of Edsa the street, Edsa the site of People Power in 1986, Edsa the site of misery and traffic, as well as the historian who saved me the trouble of researching on the lives of our main heroes. A contemporary described the mature De los Santos as being: “slender, standing about five feet high, with slightly drooping shoulders … his eyes … behind his glasses betray the prolific poet … a voice as soft as velvet.”
Those words gained new meaning in relation to clay given life and likeness by the magic of Guillermo Tolentino.
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