WHEN PEOPLE ask about the story of Edsa, we have to go beyond People Power 1986 to a time when then Highway 54 was renamed from a bland generic to honor Epifanio de los Santos (1871-1928). When I asked why the longest road in Metro Manila was named after a historian and former National Library director, the apocryphal story given me was that at the time of the renaming, a contemporary Filipino historian was preferred but then all the short-listed ones—Gregorio Zaide, Horacio de la Costa, and Teodoro A. Agoncillo—were still alive, so they had to concede to someone obscure but long dead.
It is unfortunate that I wasn’t able to ask Agoncillo to confirm or deny this story in the series of conversations we had in 1984, now published as “Talking History” (UST Publishing, 2011). Agoncillo’s name came up again in 2002 during a controversy over the renaming of Panay Avenue into Renato Constantino Avenue. Agoncillo lived on Quezon Avenue and Constantino on Panay Avenue. Agoncillo had to be similarly honored but no one would even propose renaming Quezon Avenue, so the Solomonic solution was to rename half of Panay Constantino and the other half Agoncillo. To date, Panay Avenue is still Panay Avenue.
Agoncillo came to mind recently because today, Nov. 9, is his 100th birth anniversary, and we really should consider the naming or renaming of a street after a historian who, rightly or wrongly, changed the way Filipinos remember and understand their past. During the discussions regarding the redesign of Philippine bank notes in 2010, Agoncillo’s name and image were proposed to be among the icons on our currency. That, too, did not materialize.
History is a humbling discipline because historians are only as good as their material will allow. Agoncillo’s works are not yet obsolete, but they are dated and have been replaced by new research and analysis. At best, Agoncillo’s books are considered “classic” or “standard” works to be read by students and anyone interested in Philippine history. In his books and in the last interviews he gave before his death in January 1985, he left us with a sense of how he went about doing his work: his passion for research, his strong opinions, his literary flair. He may be under the radar these days, but though he lies under the surface of the river we call Philippine history, it is on his shoulders that younger historians stand.
I remember Agoncillo when I try to look at a historical event from a different angle. When I asked “what if,” he scoffed and declared: “It is useless to think of what would have happened.”
I remember Agoncillo when a critic claims I write fiction but pass it off as fact because he said: “History is re-creation while literature is creation.”
I remember Agoncillo when my mind wanders and I daydream because he said: “In the time of writing you have to forget the present, if you can do that. Try to live in the period you are writing.”
I remember Agoncillo when a critic says I go beyond the facts because he said: “A good historian always provides for an exit in case of fire: ‘probably,’ ‘allegedly,’ ‘it is possible’…” And also: “You’re not sure that you will have all the documents. That is why the conclusions in history are not final.”
I remember Agoncillo when I pass judgement on a historical event or person because he said: “There is a great similarity between legal evidence and historical evidence. The only difference lies in the fact that in legal evidence, it is the judge who determines whether the account of a witness is acceptable or not… The historian is prosecuting attorney and defense attorney and judge all rolled into one, and he is the narrator and the interpreter.”
I remember Agoncillo when I am told to write differently, or to publish in an academic journal that nobody reads because he said: “You should see my personality on every page of my book, because I am the author. The book reflects the personality of the author. Do you expect my work to reflect the personality of another?”
I remember Agoncillo when I try to make cardboard textbook heroes human because he said: “A biography should be faithful to the truth. I do not believe that a biography of a man should be all praises, it should be both [praise and criticism] because it is not bad to show the human side of a person. You make him human by painting [his] defects.”
I remember Agoncillo when I am described as being skeptical or cynical because he said: “The attitude of a student in history should be, Do not accept anything until proven otherwise. Doubt everything including your parentage! Including your parentage!”
I remember Agoncillo when I am asked to comment on the present or the future using the past because he said: “History deals with the past, not with the future. We use history to avoid the mistakes of the past, not to recreate the very same events. You cannot.”
I remember Agoncillo because he declared: “What history is not biased? Show me a historian, a real historian, who is not biased! History is never objective.”
I remember Agoncillo because he made me love history by saying: “Everyone is a historian. Everyone is his own historian.” He reminded me that: “History is written by every generation. Every generation writes its own history using the same sources. The interpretations vary according to time.”