Family memory as fine history
If there’s one book that has impressed me overmuch with its conceptualization and execution, read ambition and fine writing, it’s Revolutionary Routes: Five Stories of Incarceration, Exile, Murder and Betrayal in Tayabas Province, 1891-1980 by Angela Stuart-Santiago.
The exemplary work is based on the memoirs in Spanish of Concepcion Herrera Vda. De Umali, as translated into English by Concepcion Umali Stuart.
That it’s a history book should not intimidate our usual readers, for there are lessons to be learned here: basically how an author can transmute extant material that may have only been originally of interest to family, clan, tribe or province into a nation’s pure gold.
I’d be very disappointed if it doesn’t grab a book award next year for its category, or even when ranged against all other titles produced this past year.
The foreword alone by the eminent Reynaldo C. Ileto attests to its importance:
“Revolutionary Routes is more than a family history across three generations. Author Angela Stuart Santiago has deftly woven together the memoirs, clippings, correspondence and other traces of her family’s past into a micro-history that spans the late 19th century up to the 1950s. While this book is rooted in the specific experiences of a family that lived in Tiaong and its adjoining towns in southwestern Tayabas (now Quezon) province, it also tells us much, from the ground up, about everyday life in the countryside under the shadow of successive imperial and national regimes. This book can also be read as a modern history of the Philippines.”
Indeed, deft has been the handling of material that turns precious only through projection and extension into what it may also or all mean, like poetry. And no, it isn’t simply interpretation or “deconstruction” at work here, but a loving, inspired, and often brilliant retelling that gathers both kinds of force — centripetal and centrifugal — to whip up the fervor of candor, imagination, personal mythos, narrative construct — yes, that very telling tapestry of all things cerebrated and celebrated — often accompanied by a Cheshire cat’s grin.
“Señor (Rafael) Palma continued to relay to Conchita’s maestras the course that the revolution was taking, such as the attacks and advances in some provinces, towns, and the outskirts of the capital. By then the action was in Cavite where Emilio Aguinaldo was proving to be a knight in shining armor. And Jose Rizal was back in Fort Santiago, accused of treason and complicity in the evolution.”
Follow an excerpt from a young Palma’s recollection, then the author’s interspersed dialogue with this voice, as it does with other voices, such as that of the child Conchita:
“We did not hear the shots but we did wake up when we heard drums and shouting. We ran to the windows and saw a town crier flanked by two soldiers. He was striking a drum hanging from his neck, announcing at the top of his voice: ‘Ngayong umaga babarilin si Dr. Jose Rizal!’ (Dr. Jose Rizal will be executed this morning!) This was repeated every 10 minutes all over the streets of Tondo, probably in all the streets of Manila.”
Forward to the Spanish-American-Filipino contretemps of triangulation, with the home turf of Tayabas as scene, and the author providing a compressed picture show:
“Life was organized so that anytime the war’s wounded, sick, and hungry walked in, there would be food and medical treatment available. Every night, six men came to pound two sacks of palay and six women to air and clean the one cavan of rice produced for consumption the next day. Adjacent to the corral where the carabaos rested at night was another enclosure where farmers stacked the hay and grass for feed and also where the cooks broiled meats. Sometimes, as many as two hundred barbecue sticks with five pieces of meat on each stick would be cooking at one time.”
Conchita is made to “weigh in”:
“Several times we gave refuge and food to our soldiers who with courage and fervor sustained the war against the Americans bent on forcibly taking over the Republic. The Battalion Banahaw had its quarters here, and a company led by Captain Norberto Mayo of Lipa, and two other battalions.”
Why, this is fascinating storytelling, with many voices, of past and present, immersed in conversation, and the reader simply eavesdropping in sustained delight. And what we’ve quoted is only from the third chapter, on “Isidro, the Revolutionary,” which follows “Family Secrets” and “Paula, the Peasant.” Characters are introduced and allowed entry, if peripherally for some, into the dialogue.
The rest of the chapters are titled “Tomas, the Lawyer”; “Crisostomo, the Guerilla”; “Narciso, the Congressman”; and “Family & Country.” Thus do the five stories of incarceration, exile, murder, and betrayal (and then some: the back stories involving romance, gossip, farming rice and coconut, generational torch-passing, etc.) unfold and provoke an ear to be better pressed against memory’s “dear filial roar” of nation-building.
This is how history ought to be shared, or okay, dispensed or taught, in schools and hearths and homes. Not just by applying the now over-trendy “out of the box” mode, but by throwing out the box altogether. And allowing all of the gift items that come prancing through the family door equal, individual entry. And have them dance together in the moveable feast of a ballroom, enclosed or rustic, that spells clan party.
These convergent narratives aren’t just an airing of skeletons in aparadors and tocadors, but an orchestrated jangling of memory as of those nights of street caroling, from house to house, provincial boundaries go hang (as a mobile that could fascinate and bode well for the occupant of a rocking baby’s crib.) And we are all taught how a nation we’ve become, or are becoming, in more ways than one.
The book is published independently, that is, by StuartSantiago Publishing, Mandaluyong City and Pulang Lupa Foundation, Brgy. Lumingon, Tiaong, Quezon. And for the most part, made available through direct purchase. Check out www.revolutionaryroutesbook.com. You’d do well to curl up with this book through cloudy Christmas.
Author, author! Bravo, Angela Stuart-Santiago!