Seeing History From Below and Empowering the People

I was reading the transcript of Ninotchka Rosca’s speech The Day Manila Fell Silent earlier. It’s a piece made for the commemoration of the 40th year since Martial Law was declared in the Philippines by dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Rosca was a political prisoner during the Martial Law years, and is one of the Philippines’ gifted short story writers.

Rosca argues that Martial Law was above all personal for Filipinos who lived through those rough times. Sadly, it continues to be personal today because justice has never been exacted from Marcos and his cronies. Enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings directed against persons critical of the state are still rampant. While those who enriched themselves during Marcos’ reign have even found themselves in key public posts and high positions in government, and remain largely invincible.

The following lines from her speech resonated with me the most:

“Instead, the overthrow has been ascribed to a few names – “heroes” – and supernatural elements. Hell, if people hadn’t taken their courage in hand, all the “heroes” would have died under tank fire. But so it goes; the rich and powerful preserve their own construct. Victims of human rights violations remain bereft of justice; those who imprisoned, murdered, raped, still walk untrammeled and often in power; those who shared in the division of loot and turf continue to hold on to what they had stolen – even as the people, yes, the people, were being reduced to metaphorical observers in the narrative of the struggle against martial law.”

This reminded me of my effort to formulate a framework for the history lessons I taught during my practicum in the UP Integrated School. I tried to distinguish history as told by those from the elite or those with power (history from above) and history as told and experienced by those from lower socio-economic classes, especially the masses (history from below). Of course, this is not an original idea, and I take my influence from my eclectic readings, especially by nationalist historians and writers such as Reynaldo Ileto and Renato Constantino.

My intention was first of all to show my students that history is not a narrative of Truth with a capital T. Rather it is told from a time-bound, socio-economic class-determined, ethnicity-colored narrow lens. Second, that history is a narrative of struggle between differing class interests, that it is as much a tale of progress as it is a tale of subjugation and oppression. Third, that history is not made by lone magnificent men whom we immortalize as heroes but by men and women, ordinary people who wake up every morning to face the daily struggle of existence that we, too, experience.

My thesis for history and above certainly needs to be refined, and it’s something I should revisit when time and state of mind allows. This timeline that I made for my class during the practicum definitely needs to be fleshed out some more:

I had the following response to Ninotchka Rosca’s speech on Facebook:

“This is why when I teach, I want to reveal history as experienced by those below juxtaposed to history as told by those above. History doesn’t have to be written by victors. Teachers do their part best by going beyond the glorified names and use social science tools in asking tough questions.”

After reading Ninotchka Rosca’s speech, I proceeded to read Edicio dela Torre’s blog called between honesty and hope. Like Rosca he was also a political prisoner during the Martial Law years. I found a post there about Jesse Robredo’s response and thoughts about the EDSA people power demonstration (often dubbed as a revolution). For those who don’t know Jesse Robredo, he was one of the country’s few honest dedicated and brilliant local government leaders. His recent death by plane crash caused the country much grief. You can read about the tragedy here or about his stellar public service here as reported by Rappler.

I felt heartened that Robredo himself shared a similar view with mine on the importance of empowering the people, and focusing on harnessing the energy not only of the “best” (i.e. most educated Filipinos who often come from the wealthiest strata of society) but also of the poor in transforming our society.

Here are noteworthy lines from a speech delivered by Jesse Robredo that were quoted by dela Torre:

“We viewed the poor, of which Naga had plenty, as our partners and assets… Working with the poor, we resolved long-standing land tenure problems dating back to the 1950s.

Viewing our constituency as our partner and asset, we enacted a People Empowerment Ordinance…”

“We do not need another EDSA… for our country to move ahead. EDSA must be everyday. That means everyone understands he has an obligation to serve. That means reform is an every day activity. That means the daily grind is more important than the one-time heroic moment.

As for struggles on the personal front, I finally had the courage to publish online a poem I wrote almost three years ago at the “literary” verse blog. The persona of the poem talks about her fear that her father, an activist working with farmers, might someday become the victim of political violence. As Ninotchka Rosca has said, Martial Law was personal. In the same way my persona’s fear in the poem is also my own, and my mother’s.

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