Much ado about Ambeth Ocampo



In 2008, Ambeth Ocampo talked about how he introduced himself to students on the first day of classes and noted how his writings on history that catered to “the general audience” made “constipated academics frown.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, November, 11 2008)
This “rebellion,” so to speak, is at the heart of the cause that Ocampo champions: the popularization of history to make it palatable and interesting to an otherwise bored or apathetic audience. It is a worthy cause for sure, and not one to be dismissed. Which is not to say that academic history is an unworthy discipline. One would like to think that these two co-exist in a more complex view of history and history-making.

Again, from that 2008 essay: “To engage readers uninterested or hostile to history because of their traumatic experience with the subject in school, I would often write about the lives and times of men and women canonized as heroes to free them from their monuments of stone and bronze and make them human again. My light and often mischievous slant can also be credited to my having started my career in the same room as the infamous show-biz columnist Ricky Lo.”

Ah. Ricky Lo. Explains a lot doesn’t it?

Death by contextualization

Through the years, one has been hard put to find the bigger picture that Ocampo seeks to paint about history given this task of popularization. I mean, yes, you make heroes more human, but to what end?

The answers might be in the way Ocampo has reacted to the monstrosity that is Torre de Manila, via what he calls “contextualization.” This he does by choosing to highlight some historical facts on the Rizal Monument via his column “Much Ado About Torre”: where it stands is not where Rizal fell when he was shot on December 30 1896; the monument is in fact a tomb; the current monument designed by Swiss artist Richard Kissling was mere second price winner to Italian Carlo Nicoli who won the international design competition for the monument’s design. (PDI, August 23)

Ocampo talked about how this controversy with regards Torre de Manila is old hat in “Torre de Manila: Flap repeats itself,” because in 1961 Juan F. Nakpil’s redesign of the monument to raise its height with a “modern stainless steel and aluminum pylon” also became controversial and was taken down. (PDI, August 30)

And then the icing on the cake: this “expert” on Rizal insists that the National Hero did not even want this monument because he had said in an undated letter to his family: “Bury me in the ground, place a stone and a cross over it. My name, the date of my birth and of my death. Nothing more. If you later wish to surround my grave with a fence, you may do so.

No anniversaries. I prefer Paang Bundok.” (PDI, August 23)
Quite impressive how in just two columns, Ocampo gave DMCI (and NHCP) the best defense they could find for the miscreation that is Torre de Manila. That is by discrediting the Rizal Monument, and assuming what Rizal would have thought of it, more than 100 years since his death.

Rizal for all
But what of a public that is not “educated” in the writings of Ocampo—or refuse to believe in his kind of history that makes our heroes human?

What of a public that grew up with the Rizal Monument and Luneta as the weekend pasyalan, where we can fly kites and have picnics, by the grave of the National Hero yes, but also where so many of our heroes lived and died? What of a public that imagines Luneta and Rizal and thinks rallies and grand assemblies, ones that are about nation like the Million People March against the pork barrel scam?

And what of students who become interested in history as bound to the Rizal Monument and all that it means: where it faces, what it stands against, how they live with this monument. What of the students of Manila who see this monument every day, and know it to be priceless? What of all the poetry and essays and stories that have been written about this monument to Rizal?

One wishes Ocampo could have risen to the occasion of Rizal and proven that the years of making him more human is actually about a bigger project that seeks to make him more relevant than ever before, cutting across all the efforts at popularization, from film to comics, re-writings and reconfigurations, monuments to T-shirts, Joel Torre to Jerico Rosales. One imagines that it behooves Ocampo to be one with the public, in our specific and varied appreciations of the Rizal Monument and Rizal as hero, because that in itself is a measure of Rizal’s continued relevance and importance, over and above his wishes when he was alive.

Owning Rizal
It would of course be easy for Ocampo to say that he did not side with DMCI (or NHCP).

Instead all he has done is speak the “truth” about the Rizal Monument. After all, he’s the historian who knows of Rizal’s overcoat and his lovelife, his teeth and his breath. Certainly he has a right to speak about what Rizal might think of this whole issue?

But how can we ever know what Rizal might think?

What Rizal might think of a monument that he did not know would be built for him, what he might think of students who continue to discuss his works more than 100 years hence, what he might think of balikbayans and diasporic Filipinos coming home to his monument and beginning discussions about nation via this image of him, the books he carries, his death on those grounds.

What Rizal might think is not something that anyone would know about. What Ocampo asserts here is in fact only his own reading of Rizal, and it is a reading that is finally revealed to be so limited, so small-minded, so removed from the public’s experience of Rizal, that one can’t believe that it is Ocampo’s assertions that have taken over the discussion on Torre de Manila all the way to the Supreme Court.

In that 2008 essay, Ocampo speaks about how his role changed when he was appointed as head of the then National Historical Institute (NHI): “I built a reputation as an iconoclast, my articles often challenged textbook or official history but with the stroke of a president’s pen, I suddenly found myself the keeper of that same official history I had previously challenged.

And in 2015, his role has again shifted to becoming the savior of capitalist enterprise DMCI, the mockery that is Torre de Manila, and the failed institution that is NHCP.
Rizal must be turning in his grave.


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