I’ve always loved history classes. I was short of a knowledge geek in grade school through college. While I wasn’t good in memorizing anything—dates, heroes, or wars—-I enjoyed learning about things in the past. But history as an academic pursuit can be burdensome, all that list of dates, national bird (Flower, tree, etc), and heroes of a particular battle. It was tedious learning all of these things just to pass the class. Luckily, my love for stories prevailed over my hate of memorization and I found myself once again enamored by the humanity that lies in history.
All because of Ambeth Ocampo.
Could we possibly call him the rockstar of present day Filipino historians? I don’t know. A friend introduced me to his books and since then I’ve become a fan. Dirty Dancing: Looking Back 2, is his second collection of articles from his Philippine Daily Inquirer column. I’ve never read his column, but I’m glad he decided to compile them into thin tiny books.
The Dirty Dancing part of the title was taken from the first article in the book on Mabini‘s love of dancing. Yes, Ocampo muses over the details of our Philippine Heroes’ love of dance and I think this is Ocampo’s gift. He looks at history not as mere important dates and heroic acts. He looks at history as a group of stories that enable us to relate to our heroes and hopefully appreciate more the people that fought for our freedom.
Ocampo’s second serving of Looking Back takes us through revolutionary Philippines then to the Marcos Era. As the author gives us little details and facts of history, he is never dull. He makes history digestible, interesting, and humorous. I like to refer to his writing as history in the details. It goes beyond the heroic labels; it is about the humanity in them whether it’s their terrible temper, their love lives, or their hobbies.
Looking Back doesn’t limit itself to historical/political figures. History after all is everywhere and of Dirty Dancing, my favorite was Ocampo’s investigation of Filipino names. And yes, some individuals were blessed (or cursed) with surnames that a censorship committee might bleep at any point. Another amusing anecdote from the book is on the Beatles’ visit to Manila. Ocampo mentions how the Beatles were invited to perform privately for the first lady Imelda Marcos and how Imelda waited in vain. Ah yes, another story we never get to hear in our History class.
I can’t help but think about Colin Firth’s film The King’s Speech. Many may be familiar with the the royal family and Britain’s history during World War II, but few probably know of the King’s struggle over stuttering. It’s this little detail that provides us insight to the humanity of a King. It is these details that offer real stories beyond facts. Who knows one of these days some Filipino film maker might pick up a little anecdote from Ocampo’s books and make a film at par with the King’s Speech.
Dirty Dancing: Looking Back 2 makes history easy to digest and entertaining. It doesn’t skimp on facts, but given Ocampo’s ability to tell a story it doesn’t bore. Filipinos should give Ocampo’s books a chance and his Looking Back series isn’t a bad way to start appreciating history.
History’s relevance is in the story that I think we take for granted when we study history in school. We are stuck with the dates and titles and we expect that through rote learning students will develop an appreciation of history, which we never do learn. Ambeth Ocampo has made history relevant not only to his readers, but to his students. It is said that Ocampo’s history class in Ateneo de Manila University is popular among undergraduate students. It is often filled to the brim with other students hoping to take his class as well. Imagine, a supposedly dreary class, filled with students. What a sight that is. I have yet to verify this, but so far, those I know from Ateneo confirm this legend. If you know this to be true (or false) do leave a comment.
Ambeth Ocampo is a multi-awarded Filipino Historian, academic, journalist, and author. He is well known for his writings on Rizal (such as Rizal without his overcoat) and his newspaper column. If you wish to be his fan and “like” him, here is his facebook page.