Of Memory and Becoming

By Dr. Clement C. Camposano

(Keynote speech delivered on Rizal Day 2022, City of Iloilo.)

“Alaalang Iningatan, Yaman Ngayon ng Bayan”

Hon. City Mayor Jerry Trenas, Hon. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Ganzon, the honorable members of the Sangguniang Panlungsod, Gen. Macala and the other members of the Phil. National Police, other officials, civic leaders, representatives of different sectors, friends, fellow Ilonggos…

Good morning! Thank you for giving me this opportqunity to share with you my thoughts on the subject of this morning’s celebration.

As far as I could remember, we have always been taught that Rizal said, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan, di makararating sa pinaroroonan (He who does not know how to look back to where he came from, will not reach his destination).” …

Unfortunately, these words attributed to Rizal are not really his. It is a popular Tagalog aphorism whose author is perhaps lost to memory. Something we have repeated too often.

For an authentic quotation on history, popular historian Ambeth Ocampo (2018) suggests a line from Rizal’s juvenile play, “El Consejo de los Dioses” (Council of the Gods): “Con el recuerdo del pasado, entro en el porvenir (I enter the future with a memory of the past).”

The popular quote may not be Rizal’s, but no other aphorism captures better his profound commitment to rescue the past from obscurity. Moreover, the past for Rizal was not a mere object of intellectual curiosity, and his interest in it neither purely academic.

For Rizal, studying the past and making it accessible as a coherent and common memory was political. Indeed, a political necessity. Coming under the dual spell of 19th Century German ethnology and cultural nationalism, Rizal saw the urgent need for an historical narrative that would allow the Filipino nation to emerge from a distant and “immemorial past”.

Only this rootedness in the precolonial past would give Filipinos the confidence about who and what they were. Only this sense of common origin would allow people speaking a multiplicity of languages, forcibly brought together by colonization, to look beyond what separated them and coalesce into a single nation.

The nation, the German intellectuals taught Rizal, was an historically evolved community of language and culture. Inspired by this vision, Rizal attempted in 1889 to write and publish the very first history of the Filipinos as a nation. The grand undertaking resulted in Rizal’s annotated edition of Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas.

Here was a political argument, backed by what was then cutting-edge European social science, that presented Filipinos as an historically evolved community of language and culture. Up to that moment, none of Rizal’s contemporaries have had the intellectual audacity, nor the erudition, to make such a case.

Guerrero was not exagerating. Here was the First Filipino. Now, the best minds in the service of the Spanish empire understood what Rizal was up to. They knew they were dealing with a most dangerous indio the likes of whom have not been seen before. If his ideas ever caught on, the empire in the Orient was doomed.

It is not surprising at all that Rizal’s annotations were considered by scholars to be too propagandistic, and propagandists, in turn, found them too scholarly (Ocampo 1995). What was not seen by many of his critics was Rizal’s attempt to single-handedly write the nation into existence. It was, above all, an act of creation — literally, of creative imagination.

Today, we know more about our ancient past than Rizal could have ever hoped for. The archaeological discoveries of the last three decades have given us a much clearer picture of what was in these islands before the Spanish colonization and evangelization. Some of Rizal’s conclusions are not sustained by available scientific and historical evidence.

But that is hardly the point. None of Rizal’s scholarly shortcomings argue against our desire today for rootedness. His audacious idea that we in the present may use historical knowledge to find ourselves in the past continues to hold sway in academia, the refusal of many academics to admit it notwithstanding. His vision of a collective identity founded on a coherent and common memory is as politically compelling as ever.

It is best to think of Rizal’s project of nationhood as a work in progress. It is today our collective inheritance, and our collective burden. So I ask: Does our understanding of the past still measure up to the demands of the present?

As we continue to evolve in the present, as we struggle to reimagine this nation in light of contemporary imperatives, so must we revisit the story of how we came to be as a nation. We need to share in Rizal’s intellectual audacity — we should dare to mobilize our knowledge of the past for present purposes, and to do so forcefully.

What we learn from Rizal is that our identity is a story about ourselves, that we tell ourselves. It is a story we now must continue to write as a people.

Only this way can our memory of the past serve, not as a guide, but as a firm foundation upon which the edifice of the future will be built!

Maayong aga, Dakbanwa sang Iloilo. A pleasant morning to one and all.