I discovered historian Ambeth Ocampo’s essays back in high school: we were taking up the Noli and El Fili in Panitikan (Literature, in Filipino) class and our teacher wanted us to compile newspaper clippings about Jose Rizal. We didn’t have a newspaper subscription, but I lived a few blocks away from the Inquirer office so I went to their library to get some clippings. The library lady handed me a whole folder of articles (pre-digitization; this was the late 90’s) — most of them were from Ambeth Ocampo’s newspaper column, and I remember being so engrossed reading them that the librarian had to walk over and nudge me to let me know they were closing for the afternoon.
As soon as I enrolled in Ateneo for college, I had my heart set on taking Ambeth Ocampo’s History 165 (Rizal and the Emergence of the Philippine Nation) class, and fortuitously, I got a good random number during reg that sem I was scheduled to take that subject so I was able to enlist in his class.
Hi 165 with Ambeth Ocampo was one of the most unconventional (and entertaining) classes I ever had. His lectures were like stand-up comedy acts, and were so popular they drew students (even those not enrolled in the class) to sit in and listen. And the exams — I will never forget how crazy the exams were! There was one test wherein we had to “narrate the story of the Battle of Mactan from the point of view of a fish,” and I remember pouring out all my creative juices into a dramatic story that filled my blue book, only to find out later on that (according to him), the answer “Blub blub blub fish don’t think” would have done just as well.
I also remember our final paper; we were supposed to write about Rizal using a topic that had not yet been explored before. I did one on how Rizal’s fate could have been divined on the basis of his facial features (e.g. wide forehead = intelligent), a couple of friends wrote papers on Rizal’s zodiac sign and Chinese zodiac sign, while another friend did a birth order analysis of Rizal’s personality! Those were the weirdest papers we ever had to write in our college lives, but it was certainly an interesting experience.
It still baffles me how I got an A on the subject that semester; only five of us did, out of 300 students.
Anyway, at the last Manila International Book Fair, I finally got some books signed by Sir Ambeth — something I’d been meaning to do since class, but never got around to doing. I was first in line for the signing, hahaha!
They had a promo for the new issues of Looking Back, so I got myself the three books (three so far, but I think there are more lined up) , which contain essays from the original Looking Back book and his other out of print books Aguinaldo’s Breakfast, Mabini’s Ghost, and Luna’s Mustache. I have some of those books on my shelves, but I like this new format: hip (I love the Victorian etching on the cover of book 2!) and handy. I reread the volumes earlier this year, and I was glad to find new material blended in with the essays I’ve already read from previous compilations.
The first volume, Looking Back tells us about the playboy Gregorio del Pilar, the boisterous Manuel L. Quezon, and the tempestuous Antonio Luna. It probes into the origins of Filipino names and surnames, names of places (Philippines, Manila, Malacañang), and Filipino cuss words. It also explores “recuerdos de patay” (portraits of the dead), “unmentionable” Filipino food and bread from the local bakery, and alternate histories (Japan’s alleged offer to buy the Philippines, the King of Belgium’s bid to buy the Philippines, the Philippines as a German colony).
The second book, Dirty Dancing, reveals Apolinario Mabini’s dance lessons, Mariano Ponce’s fashion expenses, gays in the Philippine revolution, and heroes in disguise. There is a fascinating section on names: famous names and their pseudonyms, hilarious place names (e.g. Petal Attraction flower shop, Fu Kee Sea-Food Restaurant; he posts some of these on his Facebook page), taxi names, funny (and unfortunate) names and surnames, the meaning of names, and famous nicknames. This volume also explores events of interest, such as the Friar murder in Intramuros in 1617, the 1645 earthquake (which I read again tonight — the description of the destruction sent shivers down my spine), and the Beatles in Manila.
Death by Garrote delves into the GOMBURZA execution, presidential breakfasts (Aguinaldo’s and Laurel’s) and Ocampo’s encounters with Cory Aquino, the great Gregoria de Jesus- Andres Bonifacio love affair, and heroes and their birthdays. There’s also whole section on food: turn of the century “gastronomic goodies,” the evolution of the panciteria, food in Philippine history, imported food, seasonal food, Noche Buena (Christmas Feed) in the ’20s, and Filipino baked goods.
It’s been ten years since I first read Ambeth Ocampo essay, and since then, Philippine history has been an endless source of fascination for me. I’ve always loved the way he presents history, zeroing in on the juicier details of events that have been done to death by textbooks, and taking down the heroes from their pedestals and showing them as real life, flesh and blood human beings. The essays are far from traditional, but they definitely make a connection with the reader, providing much amusement while encouraging reflection on the past.
Looking Back 1, paperback 4/5 stars
Dirty Dancing (Looking Back 2), paperback, 5/5 stars
Death by Garrote (Looking Back 3), paperback, 5/5 stars
books #21 to 23 for 2011