View of Philippine History From Below

[Address at book launching of  Dr. Heidi Gloria’s new History of the Philippines from the Viewpoint of Mindanao,  ADDU, Feb 28, 2014]

Good afternoon. Assalamu Allaykum. May God’s peace be always in our hearts!

It is my privilege to welcome you all this afternoon to the launching of Dr. Heidi Gloria’s newest book: “History from Below, A View from the Philippine South”.

In George Orwell’s political novel “1984”, the fictional Ingsoc Party slogan proclaims: “He who controls the past, controls the future.” Such indeed is the precipitous position of the historiographer. Writing history is to write institutional or social memory. To write history is to wield the power to excavate collective memories, to mold identities, to elevate certain individuals, to antagonize others, to unite, or even to divide peoples...

We usually use the phrase “listening to the voices” as a metaphor in the social sciences to describe the differing perspectives one usually encounters in the accounts of a past event. It is aural probably because we are homo narrans[i] or storytelling men and women; it is after all “hisStory” – his/her Story, and long before they were written, these stories were orally transmitted and aurally received.

To the untrained ears, the past is  noise – inchoate, shapeless, chaotic; it is the skilled privilege  of the historiographer to be able to surface voices from this babble: to listen even to the softest whisper, to comprehend meaning from the seemingly trivial. The historiographer is she who listens. She listens to the loud broadcasts, to the murmurs of memory, as well as to the silences in our musty archives. From this noise of our past, the historiographer shapes order, here unveiling glory, there disclosing infamy. Inevitably, she is faced with fundamental questions, and discretionary choices: What voices must be heard in the cacophony of our past? Do we listen to the voices of the victors? Of the leaders? Of the elite families? Or do we listen rather to the stories of the peasants? Of the poor? Of the defeated? Do we listen to the self-conscious proclamations of the men or to the conscience narratives of the women?

Dr. Heidi Gloria’s book directs our attention to the multi-layered voices of Mindanao. It is emphatically geographically-oriented. “From below.” It is Mindanao telling her stories. It is the Philippine South asserting its many voices – not from the northern hill of the conquerer, but from the islands and straits, the mountains and forests of the unconquered.

Much has been said about the imperialism of Manila and adjacent provinces in the development of “national” history and “Filipino’ identity.” History from Below challenges this assumption of a monolithic Filipino identity. What of the Mindanao ‘Moros’ who were never Hispanized Filipinos – those who were never under the kingdom of Felipe II? What of the lumads who never shared in the 1896 Revolution of Andres Bonifacio, but nevertheless resisted foreign intrusion into their ancestral lands?

Manila, as the political center, also became the cultural, historical and academic center – everything outside it was considered rural, provincial, second-rate, marginal, promdi. Manila became the hegemonic illumined center of the illustrati. Meanwhile, the provinces became the shadowy peripheries about which little was written;  it was therefore presumed or concluded they had contributed little to the grand project of ‘national’ history. Little was written perhaps because of the dearth of written records in these so-called peripheries or perhaps because of the distant regions or the inaccessible topographies where the noise was loud, distinct and eloquent, but viewed as the “realm of wild tribes” as one American anthropologist[ii] described Davao in the mid-1900s. Manila, as centre, became the fount of progress, of identity, of culture, of government, of knowledge. It is assumed in this fallacy, that the further one ventured from this center, the more one was confronted with savagery, ignorance, paganism, anarchy, and many other historically monstrous or sheerly insignificant “others.” In the 1980s it is often portrayed in movies that when one would want to get away from the sophisticated problems of Manila-life, one would say: Magpapakalayo-layo ako ng Maynila. Pupunta ako sa Davao.”  In that imagining, Davao was at the edge of the world, where the sea cascades into the abyss.

Of course, much has been written to correct this. Charie Cruz-Lucero in “Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila” explores the literary treasures of the Visayas and Mindanao. Rey Ileto in “Pasyon and Revolution” shares with us the story of the Philippine Revolution in the voices of the maralitang masa, the peasants of Central Luzon, lightyears away from the earlier version of history which tells the stories of the Manila elites and their dealings with the colonizers. Of course, there is Mac Tiu in Davao: Reconstructing History from Memory and Text piecing together fragmented voices in the writing of a Davao history. Many more Filipino and non-Filipino authors have written about these shadowy ‘peripheries’, and their findings are not at all surprising: outside Manila, are voices telling us stories of sophisticated cultures, mature social institutions, robust inter-island and inter-continental trade, formal relations between sovereign peoples, protracted wars to protect the homeland from the foreign intruder, and a vibrant (perhaps we can say with caution) “Philippine’ history viewed from the light and shadows, the heights and depths of their particular location.” Indeed, Dr. Gloria’s “History from Below: A View from the Philippine South” adds to the much-needed scholarship on Philippine and Mindanao Studies.

In telling the stories of Mindanao, Dr. Gloria contextualises events as feedback or response to Manila-politics or global movements.  For instance, the discussion on the Sulu Sultanate and Slave Trading in Mindanao was preceded by a discussion on the political and economic movements in Southeast Asia, themselves consequences to the fluctuations and economic drivers in Europe and the United States. Dr. Gloria lets us imagine human history as a pond, where pebbles thrown at it create ripples, to join other bigger ripples, to cancel other ripples, or simply to vanish at the edge of the pond.

The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is a critical milestone in our history. It is also a crossroad fraught with uncertainty. Books such as Dr. Gloria’s are an important beacon for all of us, especially at this time of historical transition. It tells us our stories. It tells us how we were shaped by the actions, mis-actions, and inactions of our ancestors. But it also tells us what went wrong, what foolishness must never be repeated, what roads may lead us perhaps to a shared future. Dr. Gloria’s book does not offer us a panacea, only a better understanding of our multiple identities and world-views. It does not paint a glorious past, but it offers us possible answers to the “why” of the present.

Aldous Huxley reminds us: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

May we learn more about ourselves from the voices and stories in this book, for it is, thanks to Dr. Gloria, not just a story – it is history, Our Story.

Or, as the great Jesuit historian, Fr. de la Costa, used to say, as a history it is an open invitation for all of us to write it better, or to make history ourselves.

Congratulations, Dr. Heidi Gloria!


[i] John D. Niles, Homo Narrans: the Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, 2010.

[ii] Fay-Cooper Cole, The Wild Tribes of Davao District Mindanao, 1913.

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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One Response to View of Philippine History From Below

  1. nanellen41 says:

    Fr. Joel, Good day to you! I briefly scanned this to get an idea of what the writer was talking about…totally forgetting there are actually two very distinct cultures in the Philippines…and many more perhaps! Since we were basically in the northern region…the cosmopolitan area surrounding Manila…our view was that of “tunnel vision”. I will bring this address of Dr. Gloria’s up later today when I can concentrate on it.

    I pray all is well with you…God be with you, now and always,

    Ellen Winn Childers

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