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Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo

by Bryan Meniado

I’ve always had the penchant for history. My favorite subjects in school were in line with sibika at kultura, kasaysayan, and araling panlipunan. I even ended up earning a degree in anthropology, which is the study of humans and, to an extent, a sibling of history!

But while I am fascinated by such, I understand why many people I know don’t enjoy history. For example, my classmates back then hated it. The way it was being taught was not enjoyable, or even interesting (at least in public schools); it was always that students had to memorize hundreds of dates and names that all got wiped out after the long test. So much for retention! The ‘story’ in ‘history’ was put aside, which took all the “fun” out of it.

History? Fun? Yes! History, after all, is a collection of stories, complete with characters, settings and plots. History, in Filipino, is “kasaysayan,” which means “salaysay na may saysay.” That translates to “meaningful stories.” People like stories, right? More so if they bring meaning to them.

Some of these stories can be found in the Looking Back series by Ambeth Ocampo. Aside from being a historian best known for his writings about Jose Rizal and 19th-century Philippines, Ocampo is also a journalist. If the guarantee of good storytelling does not entice readers, or even the P150-tag per book (there are now 11) is not enough of a generous invitation, let me tell you the ways these history books are worth picking up!

1. History is really fun!

Forget about the history you learned in school. Although names and dates are inherent parts of history, it is not just about Jose Rizal was shot in Bagumbayan on December 30, 1896, period. As you know, there’s more to that story, and the Looking Back series provide the, as they say, “juicy details.” There are so many treasures of not-so-known facts about our heroes and their stories in Ocampo’s books. The plus side? Ocampo makes history relatable and palatable that even though an event happened a hundred years ago, “it’s like you were there!” Not to mention that his writing is not intimidating at all, making you feel like “nakikipagkwentuhan lang sa kaibigan.” Now, isn’t that fun?

2. Forgetting the past is dangerous and sad

As a response to people who say “Hindi naman tayo mapapakain n’yang history-history na ‘yan,” remembering the past is important. It is not history that repeats itself, but we, the people, repeat history, as Ocampo himself preaches. We keep committing the same blunders because we don’t learn from the past. We don’t learn from the good and bad things that happened to our heroes to previous administrations and countless elections we participated in, and that’s why we still suffer from rundown transport system, unemployment, meager salaries, and tuyo at galunggong every day. We are in this quagmire because of our “past is past” mentality, or what others call collective amnesia. Thus, Filipinos remain to be hungry, and that’s so sad!

That said…

3. Looking back is important to know one’s self

I think we are all familiar with the “wala ka sa lolo ko” jokes where we put our grandfathers on the pedestal and proclaim them as the best because of their unparalleled skills and abilities.

Well, usually, parents are the ones proud of their children, but it also goes the other way. Children can also be proud of their parents, or grandparents. Aside from the apparent relation by blood, we also associate ourselves with what they’ve accomplished or what they can do. Hence, “wala ka sa lolo ko.”

That is also why they are a big part of our identity and how we perceive ourselves. We tend to look up, or back, to them as our role models, and our parents feel the same towards their parents, and the parents of their parents, and so on.

The telenovelas we Filipinos so enjoy also show this attribute. For example, the protagonist would ask the mother about the whereabouts of the father who abandoned them long ago, because he or she wants to feel “complete.” Thus, knowing where one came from is an essential part of knowing one’s self.

4. History fosters relationship

In connection to #3, imagine yourself walking down the stairs and stumbling. Unfortunately, you hit your head hard and you lose consciousness. Next thing you know, you are in a hospital room with worried-looking people you can’t seem to recognize.

It turns out that those worried people are your parents and siblings but you don’t have the memory brought by the accident. You can’t remember anything in the past. You can’t even remember your name, or your birthday, or why you are in the hospital room with strangers! How terrifying, right? Nightmare! Spookier than Halloween!

So, stop imagining and be thankful that you can still remember yesterday. Be grateful that you still know your family and friends, and they still know you because they have the memory that sometime in the past, they met you. Thank history!

5. Building national identity and understanding

Aside from who our parents are, nationality is also a big part of our identity. After all, our “Filipino-ness” appears on our identification cards, birth certificate, passport, and many more. And of course, we are proud of it, aren’t we? Again: Pinoy pride!

But if I may ask, what makes a Filipino Filipino? We speak different languages, we practice different traditions, we are all over the world! Ponder this: Some of us are so proud that the friend of the brother of the mother of the sister of the nanny of Taylor Swift is half-Filipino, but when we hear news about protesting indigenous peoples on our own soil, we rob them of their identities and rights as fellow members of the state! “Hindi naman talaga sila Pilipino eh,” some of us say.

Such presents a boundless debate, but looking back would be a good start towards knowing ourselves better as Filipinos, towards understanding one another amidst diversity and towards revitalizing our collective memories.

6. Learning history makes us better people as a whole

Looking back opens our minds to a broader horizon. Learning, or rather relearning, history makes us more understanding of where people, along with their beliefs, perspectives, and struggles, are coming from. It teaches us how to be compassionate towards our kapwa and makes us realize that we belong to the same family.


It sounds sentimental but this simple realization, if put into practice, can thrust practical solutions to our present problems. Therefore, there are far many things we can learn from history apart from the forgettable names and dates. Learning history makes us better people. Looking back makes us regain our humanity. So, I hope I reawakened your slumbered interest in history. Grab Looking Back and let’s revisit the past together!

“Who says history is stagnant? For a historian, facts do not change; it is the way we look at things, our interpretations, that are always changing. This is what makes history exciting—that we can always find something new in what is old.”—Ambeth Ocampo




10 responses to “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”

  1. Thank you for endorsing the books, I do appreciate it.


    1. You’re welcome. Thank you for writing them as well!


  2. […] One may ask: why is it so important? Why do we have to know and cherish such seemingly intangible and trivial things? Eh, hindi naman tayo mapapakain n’yan. Sadly, this mentality exists among some of us and it reflects in our everyday landscapes: the abandonment and disregard of monuments or of places with historical and cultural significance. We vandalize them, we desecrate them, or we simply don’t care. But why do we put less importance to these things? Are they really not that important? (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”) […]


  3. […] But I also understand why that is not the case and why museums or places with cultural or historical significance only fill the background of our lives as Filipinos. One of my theories is our lack of regard for history. We rarely put much importance towards our past, plus our education system could also benefit from re….  […]


  4. […] Hence, we should learn how to critically read history. We must view history beyond the forgettable dates and names, and focus more on why millions of Jews had died and suffered. We should also recognize the danger of forgetting. Thus, we should continue to interrogate our past to fight historical denialism and distortion. Interpretations may vary but facts don’t change. Thus, let’s learn how to fact-check, read from credible sources, and educate ourselves so that the mistakes of the past will never happen again. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that history doesn’t repeat itself, because it is us, the people, who repeat history. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”) […]


  5. […] reading history is more than just memorizing facts. It teaches us how to think critically, to spot biases, and to appreciate the narratives and […]


  6. […] Reportage on Lovers and other collections of old news articles remind us that they can still be useful in the present. Remember that newspapers are considered primary and secondary sources in historical research. They […]


  7. […] Reportage on Lovers and other collections of old news articles remind us that they can still be useful in the present. Remember that newspapers are considered primary and secondary sources in historical research. They […]


  8. […] are condemned to repeat it.” This is also echoed by Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo who says “history doesn’t repeat itself; people repeat history.”  I think that should clear up the common mismash on who to blame when bad things happen. […]


  9. […] I recently attended a writing class with Write Things PH and historian Ambeth Ocampo, author of Rizal Without the Overcoat, on the eve of Jose Rizal’s 161st birth anniversary. In that session, we discussed writing about the past and how to make history more meaningful for everyone, especially for younger generations. It was a treat listening to enriching stories and insights not only from Ambeth Ocampo, but also from my classmates who all made history come alive in class. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: The ‘Looking Back’ Series by Ambeth Ocampo”) […]


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