Ambeth Ocampo on Marcos and the writing of history

Dr. Ambeth Ocampo talks about Heneral Luna, the Marcoses, and The Three Little Pigs—and delivers a profound lesson about the subjectivity of history.

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On September 26, Dr. Ambeth Ocampo, who is quite a paradox himself by being both popular and a historian, delivered a lecture to a sold-out audience at the Ayala Museum in Makati City. The topic was Ferdinand Marcos, although he could not resist starting his talk with Antonio Luna, due to the hot topic of the town at the time, the historical film Heneral Luna.

With Luna he continued from what wrote in the Inquirer (“Two Lunas, two Mabinis”), and made an important point about the subjectivity of history. All histories are written by a historian, and that historians will always have a unique point-of-view, a different angle of perception that casts varying judgments on historical subjects, depending on who is writing. It is a truism that is basic knowledge to those with the leisure for philosophical musings, but it is often a novel idea for most, especially for those who have never taken a deep interest in history outside of the classroom.

With the online discussions about Heneral Luna, we can already see this in action. Despite the filmmakers’ disclaimer at the start of the film, many of those who have seen it seem to take its narrative as historical fact—even if it is considered unfair to Aguinaldo, for instance, and despite it representing only a slice, although admittedly the most significant one, of Luna’s life.

In the middle of Ocampo’s talk he presented an animated cartoon short, the same one he shows in his classes at the Ateneo de Manila University, much to the amusement of those in attendance: the 1933 Disney version of The Three Little Pigs. It was of course to reinforce another point, an extension of his previous lesson about subjectivity. He tells about a book that changed his life, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, wherein the character of the wolf presents his version of the story, and we end up with an edition of The Three Little Pigs tale in which the innocent wolf is unfortunately persecuted by a porcine society. All histories, indeed, are written by different historians.

Ocampo started talking about Marcos earnestly in the latter half of his talk, and we had bits and pieces of the strongman’s life which revealed the same theme of subjectivity: his wartime records, his education in law, his diaries (a “biased source”), and more. But the most fascinating story Dr. Ocampo shared is not about the president himself, but about Ocampo’s interview with the late dictator’s wife, Imelda.

The dinner-interview started at 7 PM, he shares, and ended up only at 3 in the morning, despite him having to catch a flight at 6 AM. He was clearly regaled by the myriad Marcos tales the ginang could not stop sharing. Many hours in that long night was spent with Mrs. Marcos showcasing video tapes of her international social adventures, including: when she attended the opening of the Sydney Opera House, wherein she saw Queen Elizabeth II and (privately) criticized the monarch’s fashion while claiming herself to be the more regal-looking dignitary at the occasion; when the late dictator Saddam Hussein showed him the Hanging Gardens at Iraq (an ancient wonder that has been long gone, so I am not sure what she actually saw); and when she met Chairman Mao, and revealed the ‘true story’ behind the famous hand-kissing picture—saying that when she saw Mao, she was surprised to see an old man, and just felt the need to ‘mano’; and the poor Chinese dignitary kissed her hand in return, not knowing the meaning of the Filipino gesture.

At the end of that encounter, as host bid goodbye to historian, Dr. Ocampo was taken by surprise at her parting statement. I quote, non-verbatim: “Dr. Ocampo, I know that you do not believe half of what I told you, but the important thing is that you heard my story, that you listened to my side of the story.”

It was the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf all over again. Imelda Marcos, with all the incredible mystery, bafflement, and amusement attached to her as a historical figure, knew that in most histories, she was placed in the cast of the bad side, the wrong, evil side. Without doubt, she knew that at least she had the possibility of writing a history of her own.

3 thoughts on “Ambeth Ocampo on Marcos and the writing of history”

  1. I knew it was you! Saw you at the lecture, but hesitated to approach. You were wearing a yellow shirt one row behind. 🙂

    Amazing you remembered all these details. I also wanted to write about the talk, but I realized I didn’t even jot down anything. Reading your post got me remembering half of the details I’d forgotten.

    I really enjoyed Ambeth’s lecture. He’s really animated though I noticed he sacrificed depth for breadth. By the time he was wrapping up, I was disappointed because I thought he was just getting started on the meat of the lecture. Sobrang bitin.

    1. Hi Jean! Sabi ko na nga ba there was someone I knew in the audience. 😛

      I agree, it was more of a brief introduction or teaser on a history of Marcos than the in-depth analysis I thought it would be. I’m wondering if his multiple jokes about starting a new career as a Marcos historian aren’t a joke at all—maybe it’s really his next big project?

      1. Heh heh, I think so. He’s mentioned at least once that it took him twenty years to study Rizal and he thinks he can do it for Marcos. I think he will. Hopefully in a few years we’ll see a book from him. 🙂

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