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The local is national

/ 01:16 AM September 28, 2016

History is taught mainly looking at large areas, entire nations, regions, even the world, divided up into neat periods (for example, in the Philippines, the pre-colonial, Spanish, American, Japanese).

Local histories, focusing on a smaller geographical area (for example, a town, even a barangay), are becoming more popular in the Philippines, taking many forms … with different motivations—from the desire of politicians to propagate the memory of their clans’ contributions to a town or city, to a simple curiosity on the part of people whom Professor Rico Jose calls “students of history” (rather than historians, who are the products of formal training).

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Last week Likas, a history organization composed mainly of students, held its annual meeting with a theme focused on developing local histories. As a “student of history,” I pushed for more attention to local histories, explaining that without the narratives or stories from regions, provinces, cities, towns and barangays, we will not be able to get a full picture of the Philippines, and of Filipinos.  In other words, the search for the Filipino cannot remain an abstract exercise. “We,” Filipinos, are to be found everywhere, as I will explain in a while.

I had three suggestions on how we might go about doing local histories: first, on historical periods; second, on the definition of localities; and third, on who to research on.

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On the time element or historical period, I got to talk with Dr. Bernadette Abrera, chair of the history department in UP Diliman, right before the conference, and she told me about how she has to remind her students all the time that we cannot apply the historical periods across the country.  During the revolt against Spain, for example, there were many parts of the Philippines that were not involved.

I thought about how the “American colonial period” did not apply to many parts of Mindanao because the Muslims were able to keep the Americans out. We were reminded about this recently when President Duterte referred to the Bud Dajo massacre of 1906, where an entire village of Muslims who had resisted the Americans was massacred. There were many other areas where American colonial control was never fully established.

Last February during the Edsa revolt holiday I asked our family driver, who is from La Union, what his memories were of that revolt.  He said he was still a child then, but he does remember that the revolt was very distant for them.  Not only that, although he does understand now the dark days of martial law because he went to college in Metro Manila, he says Ilokanos did benefit from martial law in terms of infrastructure and social services, much more than in other parts of the Philippines because the Apo (Marcos) did attend to their region.

“Martial law” then will have different meanings in different regions, and local histories should consider this: “martial law” becoming more of a marker like “late 20th century.”

Place-making

Second, what are the places where local histories can be conducted?

I like the Filipino translation of the word: kasaysayang pampook, “pook” being more than a place but the place-making process itself.  Which means that a kasaysayang pampook can start with the basics: How did the name of the place come about, and what does the name mean for local residents?

Local histories thrive on meanings, and people should be just as aware of when their large church was built, as much as when they got their first school, or their first bank, even their first fast food place. Yes, you read right, “fast food place,” and I mention that to counter the idea that history is just names of places and dates. Find out when the first fast food place was put up, and how it changed a town in the way its people eat, celebrate birthdays, even locate themselves.  (“Where do you live?” we are asked, and we give instructions filled with references to fast food stores, pharmacies, banks, malls.)

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Explore a local history of your subdivision. There are many now in Metro Manila, which go back even 50 years. But even younger subdivisions have stories to tell, including the names of the streets. (Calling Ayala: I cannot understand why the streets in our subdivisions in Nuvali, Laguna, are named after the most obscure of western places. Not only that, some of the names have become the butt of jokes—some, slightly bitter—of residents who wish our children would have better memories of the place.)

We get now to the people about whom you might want to do local histories. The rich, the famous, the influential are usually the subjects of local histories. But look for everyday heroes as well.  (Now is my chance to make up for a column many months ago, where I wondered why there was a barangay Maestrang Kikay in Talavera, Nueva Ecija.  Turned out she was a much-loved schoolteacher.)

Michel de Certeau, a French Jesuit scholar who combined history, philosophy and anthropology, wrote a wonderful book, “The Practice of Everyday Life,” with many accounts about local shopkeepers in a section of Paris.  He gathered people’s stories about the baker, the fishmonger. . . and their shops, and I could feel myself being transported across time, into those stores. Many of our smaller towns still have these small businesses, packed with memories of childhood. When I go to Davao City, even with all its modern malls I still drop by Aldevinco’s, and Meco’s, remembering summer vacations spent there.

History’s ghosts

Here’s a final tip about the people we should be including in local histories: Why not ghosts? I did some work on that, years back—a “Ghosts of Baguio” presented there during that city’s centennial. I’ve had to suspend work on the “Ghosts of UP Diliman.” I’m referring to ghost stories, which tells us much more about the living than the dead.

Ghosts persist because of people’s memories, usually a family, an institution, even an entire town wanting to remember someone who was exceptionally kind. . . or, conversely, exceptionally venal.  Ghosts are ways to remember extraordinary events: disasters, massacres, murders, vehicular collisions, etc..

Someday, I am sure, there will be many ghost stories that recall the many strange and not-so-strange night killings in our streets, with apparitions of women and men looking like mummies because of the way they were executed. The ghosts will cry out to remind not just a neighborhood or a town, but an entire nation of the long nights of fear, despair and death.

How I wish we had more local histories on ghosts to remind us of the good times together, in mabuting pook, places of good.

***

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TAGS: American colonial period, edsa revolt, History, local history, martial law, Mindanao
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