There were two ways I was considering approaching a post on the 114th anniversary of the founding of the Philippine Republic, neither were inherently “positive” (so to speak). The first was to look at how little the Republic matters in domestic affairs. Oh sure the idea that it was the first Asian constitutional democracy is something we all know. Or at least should know. And sure we talk about how wonderful it was that Filipinos revolted against a collapsing Spanish empire. But beyond those superficial little details, the names and some dates and places, we know very little about the Philippine Republic. Its foundations, trials and tribulations. The hopes and fears and dreams of the men and women who sacrificed so much to try and build a better country.
The other was to approach how flawed our public, and even scholarly, histories are in how they approach that era. Most material is filtered through the lens of the American Imperial Era. American historians and translators culled our Spanish era documentary history to create a self-serving interpretation of the Filipino people’s past. They downplayed the Republic, for good reason. The Republic was still extant, the men and women still fighting against the burgeoning American hegemony. They co-opted our history, they co-opted some of our dead heroes, and they systematically defiled and degraded the heroism of members of the Philippine Revolution and Republic. They re-interpreted the Philippine Revolution in support of American interests. That insidious colonialism is still found in much of our histories. The battle to remove much of it has barely begun.
Upon reflection, these two approaches are intertwined. Our public perception of the revolution and republic are fatally flawed, precisely because of the nature of our public histories. There are a number of scholars, men who have plumbed the depths of the philosophical, political, social, and economic nature of the 19th century, to compile complex and challenging understandings of Filipinos and their fight for independence. But those insights rarely filter into public histories. Instead, our popular histories play along the insignificant edge of the margins of Philippine history. They revel in pop gossip, luxuriating in miscellany; proffering it up as deep insights into the heroes of our past. Instead of deepening our understanding of our history, it turns our history into nothing more than insubstantial fluff.
Among the writers who have tried to reconstruct our history as a risen people are Father John Schumacher, O.D Corpuz, Resil Mojares, Floro Quibuyen, Vicente L. Rafael, and others. Then there are the brilliantly insightful writers, like Nick Joaquin and Felice Sta. Maria, and Anding Roces, who would never call themselves historians, but bring (brought) new insights and connections to the study of our history. Yet, among those names just listed the only one who may have any such broad resonance would be Joaquin. And in his case only as a fiction writer.
Bringing up a scholarly point, the root of history is the Latin word historia, which means inquiry. The basis for the study of history is simple: It’s about asking questions, inquiring into our past. That, I truly believe, is something that our historians have forgotten. History is not about ideology or politics, its not about reworking it to fit a pre-determined narrative; in the process losing the cumulative narrative thread of our history. The broad understanding of the Philippine Republic is a prime example of that. The 19th century is more about the Cult of Personality, more about the importance of a few select individuals, and far less about the struggle of the Filipino people throughout the archipelago to not only defeat the Spanish, but establish a Philippine Republic. We fixate on the struggle, we forget about what came after the struggle. I doubt many know that the Philippine Republic had a police force, that it raised taxes and sold war bonds, that it maintained a postal service and established a university. These are all integral components of the Philippine revolutionary experience, yet they are ignored. Even fewer know that there was an American military report that detailed how there was a functioning Filipino led government. Of course that report was buried, forgotten, so that American leaders could build the case for invading our country.
With so much of our history left by the wayside, it is little wonder that the importance of that history is broadly unappreciated. Felice Sta. Maria purposefully called her epic book on the Philippine Republic Visions of the Possible. O.D Corpuz titled his book on the military nature of the Philippine Revolution Saga and Triumph. While Father Schumacher named his compilation of essays on the 19th century propaganda movement The Making of a Nation. Floro Quibuyen, as well, titled his book about Rizal and the Revolution A Nation Aborted.
See, that is the forgotten component of the Revolution and Republic. It was not just about defeating the Spanish and later the Americans, it was about building a Filipino nation; and everything that entailed. The question for us is: Do we even know what our heroes believed that nation entailed? Oh the answers are there for us to find. They are writ large in their actions and words. That is one of the great things about our revolutionary history, so much of its meaning is preserved. Yet, we barely look at it, rarely delving deep to construct the vision of the Philippines that our heroes were trying to create. It was far deeper and far more resonant than just independence from colonialism.
After all, without understanding what our heroes were fighting for, and what the Philippine Republic was supposed to represent, how can we even begin to fathom who we are as a people and nation today? That is a continuing struggle, one that is visible every single day. And an issue that will continue to haunt us, unless really begin to inquire about our past.
That understanding will not only set us free, it will help us fulfill a 114 year old promise of true independence.