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Listening to the lost peoples of Philippine history

By CARLA T. GAMALINDA, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 27, 2021 5:00 am

Over merienda, Regalado Trota José lightheartedly shares his latest scoop about a certain Juana Manahin and her dying moments: Doña Juana was a Caviteña who left her hometown to marry a government officer from Bulacan. The couple had no children of their own but had an adopted son, Antonio, a Spaniard. The son, despite his mother’s bidding, did not come to her deathbed. So, in the final heart-wrenching part of the will, Doña Juana turned around and disinherited Antonio of everything that was allocated for him.

These vivid details were not from a movie, nor were they about José’s neighbors. These are pieces from an elaborate manuscript of a last will which had been dictated in Tagalog in 1691; a glimpse to one of around a million intricate lives in the Philippines around that time.

 One of the illustrations of Philippine life that accompanied the Murillo Velarde Map (Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Islas Filipinas, 1734). Engraved by native Filipino artists Nicolás de la Cruz Bagay and Francisco Suárez. 

Pop history implies that the culture after the arrival of the Spaniards was not ours, and was usually recounted with spite and scored with a mournful tune. This alienation was probably set up to counter perceptions about the colonial Philippines that came from texts written by authors who tended to look down on colonial culture that shrouded the truth behind a “parchment curtain.”

Yet, according to historian William Henry Scott, whom José had known in his student days in UP Diliman, there are cracks in that curtain, and by looking in between the lines of archival sources, we can see glimpses of Filipino lives during Spanish dominion.

Since 2011, José has been taking care of the archives of the University of Santo Tomás (AUST). Preserved in the archives is one of the largest collections of 15th to 18th century Spanish colonial manuscripts and prints in Asia. AUST also holds the biggest collection of baybayin documents in the world with about a hundred examples of texts, phrases and signatures in the ancient script dating from 1602 to 1691.

Archival research debunks the prevalent idea that the entire archipelago was suddenly and totally converted into an Iberian community. Research like this gives genuine weight to Filipino culture and rids us of the need to exalt our identity at the expense of another.

And just recently discovered in the stacks was the largest and earliest Spanish-Chinese dictionary that links to the Spanish occupation of Taiwan in the 1600s.

  Indios Bisaya

José’s custody of the archives extends beyond preservation as he sees to it that these documents benefit the public. During his term as archivist, he oversaw a massive digitization project, and published two volumes of annotated catalogues of the AUST that provide context to the documents — like maps to the unknown world.

He dedicated the catalogues to Filipino researchers: “...sa hangaring halungkatin niyá ang Katotohanan/ -na waláng pagod at waláng tigil-mulá sa mga batis,/ kahit anó mang wiká or paraán itóng naitalâ.” (…in hopes that they unearth the Truth, untiring and unrelenting-from the streams, regardless of what language or way it has been recorded.)

For José, a single document can contain many forms of data: aside from the content, one may look at the use of language, the paper used, the way it was decorated and bound; all these reveal information about that time. “Let the data speak,” he reminds his students whenever we get impatient trying to fit our research into a theory.

  Fauna daily life

José has been building his own body of research since the 1980s, many of which have become favorite references of scholars studying Philippine art.

He has made an extensive visual documentation of Philippine church art and architecture; a comprehensive catalogue of Philippine imprints; and a number of studies on Baybayin script, among others. He presents vibrant Filipino societies, enriched with a multitude of cultures, consciously participating in daily life. In José’s writings, we find complex humans, not just one-dimensional heroes.

  Mestizo Mardica Japon

Studies about our history and culture are in high demand this year as the Philippines commemorates 500 years since the first circumnavigation of the world. While various events promoted the fact that Spaniards arrived at existing cultures with established socio-political landscapes, many scholars such as José help expand these narratives by showing how our local cultures persisted throughout the centuries.

Archival research debunks the prevalent idea that the entire archipelago was suddenly and totally converted into an Iberian community. Research like this gives genuine weight to Filipino culture and rids us of the need to exalt our identity at the expense of another.

José retires as archivist of UST this year, but he continues his diligent research and heritage work with the same, still lending an ear to the Philippines’ lost era and gladly sharing his findings in writing, in lectures, or over merienda.