EVEN before my column last week, the theme “Victory and Humanity” for the National Quincentennial Commemorations of 2021 had elicited various reactions that were expressed to me as I have been embarking on a personal task to inform our people, especially our teachers.

An avid reader of The Manila Times messaged me and raised concern about the theme, which she thinks might be too contrived or “pilit,” especially if it’s divorced from the history of the Filipinos from the 1560s to 1650s. She was referring to the violence of the “conquista,” or the beginnings of the Spanish colonization of the islands. What is so victorious and humane in the horrific truth of the colonial experience?

In a previous column (Feb. 8, 2020), I already wrote how Ana Labrador, the deputy director-general of the National Museum of the Philippines, stressed the importance of not just celebrating, but also critiquing those events and their representations.

Even the Spanish expat and fellow columnist in this newspaper, Dr. Jorge Mojarro, expressed in a recent column that the National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) in their Facebook page should “present its audience the different hypotheses …instead of choosing a particular narrative.”

Dr. Rene Escalante, vice chairman of the NQC, in a recent phone conversation, clarified to me what the quincentennial is not. Its focus would be the events of 1521, not the whole Spanish colonial period. For many people, 1521 would be synonymous with the start of the Spanish colonization, thinking that Magellan started it, which is false. Magellan was stopped by Lapulapu and colonization would only start in 1565, after 44 years. If I may add though, many times, the impact of Catholicism is discussed because a related event in 1521 was the introduction of Christianity and the handing over of the Santo Niño.

So, basically, it is about the three related events in 1521 — the victory over Magellan in the Battle of Mactan by Lapulapu and his people; the introduction of Christianity in the Philippines (since most Filipinos became Christians, obviously); and in solidarity with the Magellan 500 celebrations in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal): the achievement of science and humanity — the first circumnavigation of the world.

We used to view those events in 1521— as I heard historian Dr. Ferdinand Llanes once put it — with the perspective of someone riding in a Spanish caravel, when we should be viewing it with the lens of those on the shore, therefore a Filipino perspective. With this in mind, the Quincentennial also will become the celebration of the culture of our ancestors, the one that Magellan and his party experienced when they were welcomed in Homonhon, Mazawa and Cebu, and that their chronicler Pigafetta recorded in his account. This has made some historians like Zeus Salazar think of the Quincentennial as an opportunity to highlight our ancestors, which never happened in any previous commemorations.

Replacing the first theme “500 Years of Valor and Victory,” the “500 years of” was dropped (personally, quite contentious) and added “Humanity” to underscore how we treated the hungry and weary explorers when they first arrived, treating them with kindness because we are so adept at trading. Because they had been resupplied, even with the death of Magellan, the armada was able to reach its intended destination, the Moluccas, and was able to complete the circumnavigation of the globe, which wouldn’t have happened if they had all died of hunger. Dr. Escalante reminded me that the state commemorates events not only thinking of the past, but of their present agenda. The National Quincentennial is now an animating theme of our diplomatic and tourism endeavors.

I should tell you what the Quincentennial should not be. The previous celebrations of the Philippine-Spanish Day became an unintended avenue for some to wash the dirty linen of Spanish colonialism by highlighting the cultural contributions of Spain. Again, they did not intend it that way but some people would read it as such. We recognize nuanced narratives about the colonial experience but hopefully the Quincentennial should not be a venue to deny the abuses Filipinos experienced in 333 years under Spain.

With our experience of public history, themes of commemorations coming from the government are always straightforwardly clean. Believe me, this has been the case for almost all the major, if not all, commemorations the country has ever had. That is expected because they are… well… government! Really, I never expect complicated and tumultuous narratives from the state.

Whatever contentious discussions happened in past commemorations were due to the participation of non-government entities such as the academe, and the interested public in general, and that is all right. A successful commemoration, like the Philippine Centennial of 1998, actually elicits debate and discussion among the people. A celebration that doesn’t have any reaction from the people would be dull and unsuccessful. And I know that all the discussions that challenge the government theme of the National Quincentennial are definitely welcome.