Reclaiming our story
I want to tell a story. But it is not just mine. It is our story.
Over lunch more than a decade ago, I had a conversation with an elderly Atenean about my job. Teaching history, he said, is actually an easy line of work: “Just tell the students what to memorize, and they’ll memorize it.” Anyway, he added, “the facts don’t change,” so I could simply “repeat the same lessons year after year.” I was younger then and polite even to people who didn’t have much respect for my profession, so I just smiled, muttered “Sabi mo, eh” under my breath, went back to my lunch, and then thought I’d forget about what he said.
Actually, I didn’t forget what he said. I don’t ever want to forget what he said. If all there is to teaching history is “making students memorize and regurgitate facts,” then sure, I have a cushy job till I retire at 60.
But that’s not the way my job works. That’s not the way history works.
Every semester I talk about the two faces of history. First, there is history as an academic discipline with all its subdisciplines, fields of research, methodologies and other intellectual pursuits. Second, and this is more important, I talk about how history is also an unfolding narrative; it is our story.
It is an infinite collective of stories interwoven, intersecting, interplayed, interacting and internalized. It is a story that spans millennia and geographical and temporal boundaries; continental and national as well as personal boundaries; religions, cultures and political and economic systems; and the dreams and nightmares of peoples and individuals.
It is a story in which every new human being who enters the world, from the moment of conception, is automatically affected by at least one story of at least one previously existing human being. Therefore, there will always be consequences, great and small, building up over time, accumulating and accelerating, where the past of one will shape at least that of one other, perhaps because they met, or paradoxically, because they did not meet. Such is the beauty and the mystery of history, as a story of all human beings.
At the same time, it is the tragedy of history, precisely because of the collectivity of stories, that the consequences of the past can be long-lasting and painful, traumatic and crippling, not just to individuals but to entire nations. Some consequences can be trivial, but others can be on a grand scale.
Such are the consequences of the iron hand of dictatorship masquerading as democracy; of a plundered national treasury and conspicuously extravagant lifestyles; of widespread violations of human rights and the silencing of political opposition; of economic collapse on families, forcing many of them to leave for jobs overseas. And now the proliferation of lies to cover up the story of one family, its friends, cronies and supporters, and eagerly and unquestioningly swallowed whole by a new generation of Filipinos whose own stories are ironically affected by two decades of this family’s story.
The bitter fact is that those who have darkened our history have never really left. They all are still here, their arrogance, wealth and political power intact. Every day we witness the grinding, worsening poverty wreaked by their misrule, and every day we are put to shame by the lack of closure and justice.
There are institutions and individuals out there that say we as a people should simply move on. Leave the stories behind, forget the stories of pain and fear, and weave new ones.
But that is not how stories work. Stories are picked up from other, earlier stories. Nothing at this point in time can be created from a void, from nothingness. Yet, when we think about it, what is worsening the problem with our story today is its very nothingness, that terrible absence of moral guilt and accountability, the refusal to acknowledge, discuss, apologize for the past, and much less to compensate the victims of 20 years of authoritarian rule. Our story today is still being shaped by the story of that family.
Once upon a time, we let one family get away with travesties and insults to our dignity as a nation. We are now at a crossroads, on the verge of another national election, facing a situation eerily similar to that one almost three decades ago.
This is our story, and now it is in our own hands. We can and should make a difference now. We must no longer be silenced or intimidated or numbed into indifference.
Pick up the story and never let it be plundered and ravaged again. Do not let them write the next chapter. We will write it ourselves, for ourselves.
Jo-Ed K. Tirol is an assistant professor at the Department of History of the Ateneo de Manila University. He says that although he was not quite 13 during the People Power revolution, he has very vivid impressions of the Marcoses and martial law.
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