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, to 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? 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


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