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Historian Agoncillo on his 104th birth anniversary

By Renato Perdon
Sydney, Australia
November 5, 2016


(Before I take a break for a couple of weeks, I am posting this piece in advance as my homage to the late Professor Teodoro A. Agoncillo, my mentor in the field of historical writing, for his forthcoming 104th birth anniversary on 9 November 2016. – RP)

In the field of historical writing, he initiated the writing of Philippine history using a Filipino point of view. His name is Professor Teodoro Andal Agoncillo and he was born on 9 November 1912 in Lemery, Batangas, 104 year ago this month.

In 1934, he received his Bachelor of Philosophy from the University of the Philippines                         and the following year, he received his master of arts degree from the same university. From 1951 to 1956, he worked as assistant linguist with the Institute of National Language.

While teaching Tagalog and literature at Far Eastern University and Manuel L. Quezon University, he became editor of a number of literary magazines in Tagalog. In 1958, he was invited to teach history at the University of the Philippines where he eventually became the chair of the department of history of UP from 1963 to 1969. From 1976 to 1977 he hold the prestigious ‘Rafael Palma Professorial Chair on Philippine History’ at UP. He was one of the few awarded with the title of university professor in the Philippines. He retired from teaching in 1977.
Professor Agoncillo, together with nationalist Claro M. Recto and other pillars of nationalist movement in thePhilippines, spearheaded the kind of writing and interpreting Philippine history using a Filipino point of view through his book entitled Revolt of the Masses: The Story of Bonifacio and the Katipunan in 1956.

Aside from the accolade and recognition given to him for writing and interpreting the events surrounding Bonifacio’s life, the book also created debate and inspired conservative historians because of the nationalist point of view he used in writing the book, which to others is leaning to Marxism.
For him nationalism is not only on looking after our own, but also in the selection of people who would run the government, people whose goals in life was not to make them rich and acquire power to serve their own interest. If we see an illiterate man who is selling his rights for a small token fee we are not surprise because that person is ignorant and has no knowledge of his rights. But if the one selling his rights is an educated man, it is sad because instead of becoming the symbol of integrity and discipline he became the symbol of what is rotten in our society. The point of view that Agoncillo used in the interpretation of Philippine history continued until the middle of 1980 when he agreed to have an interview with Ambeth Ocampo, whose aim in the three days interview was to get the spontaneous answers of Agoncillo to his questions. Because of this, when that interview was published, the controversy continued and became more volatile. The three day interview was published in 2011 and given the title of Talking History: Conversations with Teodoro A.Agoncillo. The book became a valuable source in the study of the life, times and legacy of Professor Teodoro A. Agoncillo to Filipinos and the Philippines.
According to a retired professor from the Department of History of the Philippines, the publication of Agoncillo’s interview in 1995 brought to the surface the wound that have been healed already. But Agoncillo still believed that the goal of historian was to write what really happened in the country based on historical documents.    In a separate conversation, Frankie. Sionel Jose, the national artist for literature, said that there is a problem with Agoncillo’s way of thinking because not all the events that had taken place in history are documented and many of them are alive today because of oral history. In reply, Agoncillo said that this is the reason why the responsibility of a historian is difficult because Filipinos are not history conscious. Because of this, as an Asian, the time is always the present not changing. For instance, he asked, how many of Filipinos are keeping the letters they received?  And how many of them make a record of their reply to each letter received and their letters to other people.   This strong belief of Agoncillo was again experience when he was honoured on the occasion of his retirement from UP.When the papers delivered during the occasion was gathered and compiled, Agoncillo wrote a preface which again attack many of the personalities involved in the management of the UP. He even compared the kind of administration of the UP Diliman with the much better administration of UP Padre Faura during his time. In the early 1950, he suggested to President Sergio Osmeña that he writes his biography, particularly the year he was in the government because it was an important period in Philippine history. The answer of President Osmeña: ‘If I write my biography, I would step on many toes.’ According to Agoncillo, this is the duty of the historian to tell the story of what really happened, regardless on who would be affected.   Agoncillo wrote the following books: ‘Malolos:Crisis of the Republic’; ‘The Fateful Years: Japan’s Misadventures in the Philippines’; ‘History of the Filipino People; Filipino Nationalism, 1971-1972’ ; and ‘The Burden of Proof: The Vargas-Laurel Collaboration’ and his works became valuable reference materials, particularly among students.   In 1963, President Diosado Macapagal appointed Agoncillo as member of the board of the National Historical Commission where he served until his death at the age of 72 in 1985.
I was working then with the NHC when I became acquainted with Professor Agoncillo’s works. He became my inspiration and instrumental in developing my interest in historical writing. He was the one who encouraged me to write and translate events in history.   Because of his recognition of my ability to translate into Tagalog, with another translator, I translated the book ‘Historical Calendar’, a day to day records of events in Philippine history from 1570 until 1970. He edited and cleaned our translation and was released and published in book form. It was also serialised in ‘Liwayway Magazine’ and another national Tagalog daily. This experience opened the door for me to history writing until I migrated to Australia and continue book writing.

Accroding to Marte Garcia, a close friend of his, Agoncillo is a ‘man of principle who will fight anybody for them.’ He recalled that when Agoncillo was the chief of the Research and Translation Division of the Institute of National Language, the director, who was his friend, promoted somebody in Agoncillo’s division without his knowledge. Agoncillo stuck to his principle of competence and efficiency in the service and threatened the director to bring the case before the attention of the public if the director did not withdraw his recommendation to the Civil Service’.

Garcia also remember Agoncillo’s pride. ‘For as long as I have known him, and this is quite a long time, he has never asked anybody or used anybody to promote his personal interest. He rose to his present position through sheer merits. Garcia added that Agoncillo’s pride is ‘fierce, especially on question of principle.’
Another trait that Garcia mentioned which I also experienced during his time as member of the Board of the NHC, he treated me like a friend and member of his family and not an employee. Garcia said: ‘Once you win his confidence, he opens his heart to you, he being a very warm person, and makes you feel relaxed.’

The National Academy of Science and Technology awarded him the title of National Scientist in recognition of his work with the academy as a member since 1980.
Agoncillo passed away leaving a wife, Dr. Anacleta Villacorta-Agoncillo, and three children, a girl and two boys. His and his wife’s remains are entered at the San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila.

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