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Teodoro A. Agoncillo, 1912-2012

Today is the centennial of the birth of Teodoro Agoncillo. He was, in my opinion, the most influential Filipino historian of the twentieth century. And it is only appropriate that historians like Ambeth Ocampo, Renato Perdon, and Michael Xiao Chua have paid tribute to him as a historian. But before Agoncillo became recognized for the history books he wrote in English, he was in fact better known as a literary critic and poet... in Tagalog. Other lesser-known details about him include the fact that despite the perception that he was anti-Catholic, he counted Horacio de la Costa, a Jesuit priest, among his closest friends, and sent his children to Catholic schools. Also, while he never earned a PhD degree, he did receive an honorary doctorate (see photo above).

The brief biography below, which reveals a few more details that are not widely known, is a slightly revised version of several paragraphs from “History of the Filipino History Book,” my dissertation, in which Agoncillo figures prominently. I have removed the footnotes to make it more readable.

Born in the province of Batangas in 1912, Teodoro Agoncillo grew up surrounded by relatives and friends who survived the wars against the Spanish and the Americans. His father, in particular, fought alongside one of the last Filipino generals to surrender to the Americans in 1902. His grand-uncle was one of the first Filipino diplomats who sought to gain international recognition for the first Philippine republic, and his wife was one of the three women who sewed the very first Philippine flag. He was also a distant relative of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippines, who married an Agoncillo after his first wife died in 1921.

He learned Spanish in kindergarten, and attended the public schools established by the Americans, where he became fluent in English, but affirmed his Filipino identity by reading Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891) as early as the seventh grade. By the time he graduated from high school, Agoncillo had already begun writing poems, most of which were penned in Tagalog. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he entered the University of the Philippines in 1930 with the intention of majoring in English, not history. He credits Leandro Fernandez, author of A Brief History of the Philippines (1919), and who was then UP’s registrar and chair of the history department, for convincing him that a student did not need a degree in English to be a good writer, and persuaded him to switch to history.

Agoncillo’s stint as a campus journalist at the Philippine Collegian, UP’s student newspaper, proves that Fernandez was correct, but it was not until after he began his master’s degree in history in 1934 that his writing began to draw feedback similar to the heated reactions his later articles and books received. Among those early, critical works were “Glaring Errors in a Doctoral Dissertation” (1935), a pamphlet he coauthored that questioned the content of a dissertation and its acceptance by the University of Santo Tomas, and “Ang Banaag at Sikat ni [Glimmer and Radiance by] Lope K. Santos” (1936), which faulted the classic Tagalog novel’s author, who was considered an established pillar of Tagalog literature, for turning his protagonists “into mere sounding boards for Santos’ political slogans.”

But it was the publication of Agoncillo’s review of Ricardo Pascual’s Dr. Jose Rizal Beyond the Grave (1935)—in which he supported the author’s position that Rizal’s so-called retraction document was a fake, and made disparaging remarks about the Catholic Church—that resulted in the suspension of the Collegian’s editor-in-chief, the first recorded instance of censorship in the history of the campus paper. Agoncillo did not, however, consider it his duty to challenge authority whatever the cost.

Not long after he coauthored Ang Kasaysayan ng Pilipinas (with Gregorio Zaide), the first Tagalog history textbook, and got married in 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and were effectively in control of the Philippine Islands within a few weeks. During the Second World War, Agoncillo’s wife refused to let him work for fear that he would be picked up by the Japanese and sent elsewhere, which was not uncommon during that period. Thus, he stayed home and, using his own private library, continued doing research, reading, and writing. He also collected periodicals and other printed materials, and recorded his observations about the war, which eventually ended up in some of his books.

After the war, a friend convinced him to join a government-sponsored, biography-writing contest because of all the data he had accumulated, and his wife again played an important role in his career when she taunted him after learning he had yet to write a single paragraph. He finished typing his manuscript in January 1948, and barely beat the deadline for submission. Agoncillo’s entry was unanimously chosen the winner in July 1948, but it was not until The Revolt of the Masses was actually published in 1956 that he finally gained acclaim as a historian.

The book was supposed to be printed at the government’s expense, but its publication was blocked not once, but twice, by two Presidents of the Philippines: Elpidio Quirino in 1948, and Ramon Magsaysay in 1956. Scholars have alluded to these struggles before, but what is rarely mentioned is that the circumstances surrounding the book’s controversial publication are indicative of the political and social tensions—or struggles in the field of power—that existed during that time.

In 1950, newspaper coverage of the objections made by the Catholic bishops of the Philippines to the distribution of copies of the English translation of Rafael Palma’s Rizal biography, The Pride of the Malay Race (1949), to high school students paled in comparison to the threat posed to the government by the Huk movement, a peasant resistance organization during the Japanese occupation that transformed into a communist insurgent group after independence. By 1956, the Huks were not as potent a threat as they had been six years earlier, but the specter of communism remained, which the authors of an anti-Revolt pamphlet invoked soon after Agoncillo was granted permission to have the book printed himself. Within a month after the pamphlet’s release, debates erupted on the Senate floor over the Rizal Bill, which required students to read Rizal’s novels in class, but this controversy is seldom mentioned in connection with the disputes over the publication of Agoncillo’s Revolt.

Although it was probably the last time that books written by Filipinos were the subject of consecutive, front-page controversies in the same year, the lack of significance attached to this confluence of events is understandable. Scholars who mention the battle over the Rizal Bill usually do so in relation to Rizal’s importance to Filipinos, while those who discuss the publication of Agoncillo’s book often focus on its role in the emergence of Bonifacio as a viable alternative to Rizal as national hero. The two controversies, however, were directly related: Agoncillo was responsible not only for writing Revolt, but also the earliest draft of the Rizal Bill, which sought to promote the teaching of the lives and works of Filipino heroes, not just Rizal.

In 1958, Agoncillo was hired as a full professor at the University of the Philippines, and chaired its Department of History from 1963 to 1969. By the time he retired in 1977, Agoncillo had received numerous awards, as well as an honorary doctorate, and had been promoted to University Professor, the highest academic rank at UP. A few months after his death in 1985, he was posthumously proclaimed a National Scientist. In the year 2000, he was declared one of the Philippines’ “Most Influential 20” in the twentieth century—the only academic in a group that included presidents, movie stars, and business leaders.

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