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Questioning and loving the past.

A young historian on his way to the Yale School of Divinity dropped by 'Savage Mind.' It is a bookstore and refuge for readers in the divinely opposition town of Naga, managed by a writer, Kristian Sendon Cordero. The historian, who still refuses to be called as such, calls to mind what Leo Tolstoy must have thought of historians, that they are 'like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.'

That night, Jethro Calacday asked questions over and over as if someone had asked him those questions. He asked questions while looking intently at his listeners who looked at each other to check if they did ask the questions, or if they were ever interested in the question and, consequently, the answer.

Calacday, like any young researcher (and I mean this in the good sense of the word), is fastidious. Irreverent. He was the right 'savage' mind in that bookstore as he asked questions after questions. He was the deaf person and we were the antagonized listeners, relishing the questions and wondering if we did ask those questions.

Naga prides in having one of the oldest seminaries in the country-the Seminario Conciliar de Nueva Caceres. It was set up during the period when the city was still named 'Nueva Caceres.' It is a name that Spain-loving intellectuals and apologists would love to have for the rest of their thinking lives. It is a name that has the rolling yumminess and gentle slide of an expensive butter running over a muffin pondered over by a fastidious baker. 'Nueva Caceres'-say it and dream of a cafe, a patisserie, a baker's paradise where bread and buns rise up to heavens in our mouth. The name does not bring in slavery, exploitation, and a powerful Church unassailable only because at a certain historical point, it was more powerful than the God it was campaigning for.

The usual story, of course, applies: a conquistador comes upon a land, and hit by the lightning bolt of conquest and domination, proceeds to name the territory after a leader. This time it is Governor-General Francisco de Sande from Caceres in Spain. This was in the late 16th century. Jethro Calacday would hate the estimation as he would prefer, maybe dates, specific dates from 1575 to 1580. If these dates were correct, those five years were mighty years. The short period gave an old land a new name, a 'Nueva' something.

This propensity to date things is to historians as the open expanse of interpretations is to anthropologists. We do not care about dates; we care how people perceive and apprehend those dates. Oh, but this is not about anthropologists. This is about this fabulous historian who proceeded to guide his audience to a parade of dates attributed to the creation of that seminary. For each historian-academically trained or self-taught-there was, if we follow the discourse and research of Calacday, a particular date he latched on to. Sometimes, one historian would drift from one date to another and there would be no explanation at all.

A common thread in the historian's writing about the seminary is the mention of another structure, an institution that was called a 'miniature seminary' by one of the friars and repeated by other historians. This 'small' seminary was the 'Casa de Clerigos.' Calacday went on and on showing us the many dates, some coming close to each by mere 10 years or less.

In the end of the talk, Calacday asked: Why the desire to establish older origins? A student in the audience asked: Why are there so many dates and why are they conflicting against each other?

Why do we want to assert always a deeper, more distant origin?

Destroyed by many wars, we rarely have anything older than a hundred years. On TV, a program called 'American Pickers' shows two Midwestern 'antiquarians' combing usually the Midwest in search of old things. Barns and old homes yield precious antiques and singular objects. America is lucky: they brought terrible wars to other lands but they were successful to manage battles and destructions in their lands.

How many photos were lost in the last World War? How many homes were reduced to ashes?

Thus, our love of ruins. Every tourism council desires a ruin. Every town or city selling heritage pines for architectures reduced to skeletal frames one could date to the early 1900s and, bravo, to the 1800s!

The older the more authentic. That heavy word must be the most abused modifier for any tourism major, next to heritage.

The past to us is always gilded. No one thinks of the past as violated.

We are all antique collectors. We amass memories of the wealthy. We don't call them spoils of war but remnants of some other kind of wars, of forgetfulness, of not loving enough our old home and places.

Archaeology is our perpetual succor. We glory in diggings because each pit assures us of a hole from which we can excavate identities.

In Naga, there is a persistent rumor that a complex of underground canals and tunnels run beneath the old parts of the city like the convoluted syntax of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. The maze, they say, crawls under the old seminary, plodding below the massive cathedral, crosses to the terrain occupied by the oldest normal school for women, and comforting in two termini: the Naga River and the Archbishop's palace.

Was it Zandro Villanueva the archaeologist who told me the tunnel was really a water system created by the early Franciscans, young backpackers from Europe bearing with them the fertile minds of science developing already in their lands then?

Soon, a great part of the globe, including us, is about to celebrate Magellan.

The words of Hannah Arendt in 'The Origins of Totalitarianism' are caustic: '...the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.'

Celebrating Magellan should remind us Spanish cities had once been savagely erected over our own, old lands. And that a new way of believing supplanted the old knowledge with which we understood our universe. Nothing was the same ever again.

As for Jethro, I pray he discovers the divine power of history in that school of divinity and come back to puzzle us once more about dates and make us have faith in the power of memory.
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Publication:Business Mirror (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Aug 9, 2019
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