The Historicity of Houseflies

(Appeared in the Dumaguete MetroPost 16th March 2014)

The Historicity of Houseflies

Last February the marker declaring Negros Oriental State University as a National Historical Landmark was unveiled. University officials, along with guests from the National Historical Commission, presented to the public the conspicuously located marker, which commemorated NORSU’s more than a century of growth, in its various incarnations from the woodworking school it started as in 1907 to the province-wide system of campuses it now is. It’s a rewriting of the 86-year long historiography of the university.

A joyous occasion, of course. I was even surprised to find myself quietly proud of the recognition (I’m teaching in a National Historical Landmark!) But somewhat comically the pride was deflated by a mundane but essential question: okay, where are the historical buildings?

There aren’t any left of course, most of NORSU’s buildings today are hardly decades old. The drive for modernization, ubiquitous in this developing country and certainly not absent from NORSU, has meant that old, historical buildings are invariably demolished in order to construct new ones. And this will inevitably mean historical knowledge is also eschewed for more contemporary awareness – heck, NORSU even lost its roots to that woodworking school of its embryonic days.

We need to modernize, we say, and we don’t have time for such useless nonsense as history. The price for being “forward thinking” is that we leave things behind.

We as a people it seems do not have a sense of historicity.

I grew up seeing this facet of Philippine culture up close. At home anything before Martial Law was ancient history, anything before the war the stuff of archeology. In school Philippine history was boring and served as a chance to sleep. It was about some faraway land called Luzon in long gone times, where bitter slaves struggled against the people they welcomed at first. Boring. The only time it was close to exciting was when the teacher approached it draconically, and one had to pay attention fearfully lest one fail or be embarrassed in class. If it wasn’t boring it was unpleasant.

It was another Filipino trait, xenophilia, which sparked my interest in history. I was thrilled at the political scandals that characterized Imperial Chinese history: the tactics of Zhuge Liang, the rise and fall of Yang Guifei, the megalomania of Zhu Di. It intrigued me how a government policy, or even a love affair or a family squabble, from thousands of years ago could influence customs, idioms and even administrative practices today.

When I moved to Davao and read about the conflict between don Jose Oyanguren and Datu Bago, the fascination hit closer to home. It was then that I realized I knew almost nothing about my hometown of Kidapawan.

I devoured every bit of information about my city’s history I could find. But to my consternation Kidapawan’s historiography is as rare as limokon’s teeth, and I was literally depressed to find that the ordinary Kidapawanon neither knew much either, nor cared.

I had once written that legacies must themselves prove the test of time, that for a legacy to be a legacy it must aid progress. But we aren’t exactly a progressive nation are we? Kidapawan certainly isn’t the model for a progressive city. Couldn’t this be because we don’t get in touch with the legacies bequeathed unto us? My father had the habit of always starting a hobby – dog raising, badminton, swimming – but hardly developing himself in it further, and so he is a master of nothing. Could ours be a culture thus trapped in the drawing board, never going beyond “the need to change”? Progress involves going beyond a starting point, and are we perhaps mistaking our perpetual vortex of unproductive initiation (to borrow the British prime minister Robert Peel’s phrasing) with genuine progress?

The Kidapawanon complains of having nothing to be proud about Kidapawan, and yet it is the same city in which the romantic character Omar Kiram chose to raise his family as he relinquished his sultanate, the same city for which the war martyr Eliseo Dayao chose to face the wrath of the Japanese during the War. The Kidapawanon has nothing because he looks for nothing.

I will admit, other than the romance of Sultan Omar and the martyrdom of judge Dayao, there isn’t much to learn in Kidapawan’s young history. But that in itself should make it easier to learn – why is the Kidapawanon still largely ignorant? Are we, as Nick Joaquin put it in that powerful essay, simply suffering from a heritage of smallness, with our history?

And Joaquin did chide the Filipino sense of historicity in that essay: history for us is a vague expression, “noong peacetime,” or in Macario Tiu’s convenient phrase, “ngadtong Nineteen-kalawang.”

Far more than our excuse then of “focusing on the future,” are we instead simply stuck in the present, ignoring our past because it is, like everything for us, just too beyond our meager capabilities? Are we simply too simple-minded to comprehend lifetimes before our own?

Ironically it is the presence of old buildings that betrays this. More often than not the reason why historical structures are kept is because it is convenient to keep them – we are too lazy or do not have enough resources to demolish them and construct new buildings. Damned be they who deny that this is often the case in the lovely buildings in Silliman. The demolition of cottages were Silliman’s CBA now stands, a tragedy still fresh to many memories, should indicate that if made to choose, and if we have enough resources and will, we’d rather get rid of old things for newer ones.

And Negros Oriental itself, blessed as it is with many historical sites, is full of signs of our apathy for heritage. I doubt that the buildings around the provincial capitol are kept old because of heritage – good luck even trying to determine their histories! I recall the local history buff Ron Calumpang rightly complaining about NegOr’s lack of a historical museum of its own (the only museum with anything to do with history, Silliman’s Anthropology Museum, only features archeological finds, and much of it is from outside of the province!)

That NegOr has a rich and colourful history makes the Negrense apathy for it all the more glaring. The Silliman Library’s brilliant Sillimaniana section is almost always empty of students. But perhaps the most vivid sign of this is that very pride of Dumaguete, the Boulevard. Once lined with stately Spanish Mansions, now the opulent sugar-people neighborhood only exists in Bobby Villasis’ fiction, and in its place, a bank, KTV bars and a lugawan. We keep the mansion in Sans Rival because it is charming, not because it is historical.

And this invariably shows that even the little efforts we make to explicitly keep heritage intact are rarely made for love of heritage. In Japan, that model of historical preservation, they recreate and restore old buildings by staying loyal to the construction process, down to the traditional crafts and the sources of materials. Why go through all the trouble? The Japanese would simply answer “it’s what’s right.” In Dumaguete, the two COPVA buildings in Silliman are supposed to be cottages, like the pre-war wooden ones nearby, but because they’re made of concrete, steel and no capiz shell windows it’s a leap of the imagination to see even the semblance. Why even bother? Tourism of course! But using wood is labour extensive.

Ultimately it is the very absence of continuity in our collective consciousness that betrays our housefly historicity. In Britain they still call policemen “Bobbies” after Robert Peel, who formed the police when he was prime minister. Here, the ordinary Negrense wouldn’t even know who Leon Kilat or E.J. Blanco were (good luck asking the Kidapawanon about Eliseo Dayao!). Make it more recent and the Negrense is even beginning to forget the enigma of the case of Armando Sierra.

Nationally, as they forgot the burning of the Reichstag that might have inspired it, people are today beginning to forget the Plaza Miranda bombing. And in a few years, people will probably have forgotten the Maguindanao Massacre too.

And here we see the dangers of our being prisoners of our present: our short collective memory has not only prevented us from learning from the mistakes of the past, it will mean that we will never learn from our mistakes for the future, the complete antagonist to progress and development. Our inability to recognize legacy means we cannot make legacy. There is after all a thing called the golden rule: do for others what we want others to do for us. We give our pasts the attention of houseflies, our futures will give us the importance of houseflies. This is no country for old things, because houseflies never grow old. This is a country were nothing will last because we allow nothing to last.

It is a far bigger problem after all than the NORSU security guard’s difficulty in explaining to the tourist that the university has no old buildings.

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