Buried Histories: Historical Books & Memoirs About Life in the Philippines

By Reina Adriano

A postcard of Escolta, Manila during the World War II.

A postcard of Escolta, Manila during the World War II.

My penchant for history started with the books I grew up with, the ones I stashed deep in my suitcase filled with clothes and other belongings when I came to the States. I was (and still am) a bookworm who loved stories about my country’s roots from the Spanish, American, and Japanese occupations. They made me visualize the scenes that my social studies professors depicted in their lectures. In high school, I read martial law novels like Bamboo in the Wind by Azucena Grajo-Uranza, State of War by Ninotchka Rosca, and Empire of Memory by Eric Gamalinda. In college I had a penchant for historical accounts written for children with my favorite being Kung Bakit Umuulan by Rene Villanueva which depicted the Panayan legend of how the world was created.

When I came to the States, I realized that not everyone understood Philippine History the way I learned it. Many parents of first generation Filipino-Americans could not remember who were the heroes before World War II, much less tell their children stories of the Martial Law era. And even if they did try to scour for books about the Philippines, there is little explanation of the American occupation in the Philippines in textbooks, only that they staged a war to claim the country from Spain.

I invited friends to suggest some books to people in our BOSFilipinos community who are inclined to read about Philippine history, and many of them were eager to help. Buried histories contain a part of Filipino identity. They have the ability to explain why many Filipinos easily forgive and forget, why poverty remains in so many cities, and why we treat other nationalities the way that we do.  Here is the compilation of those books, in hopes that people will find themselves intrigued at the depth of history that the Philippines has had over the years.

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The Miseducation of the Filipino by Prof. Renato Constantino, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1970)

“Although this set of readings aren’t necessarily Filipinx memoirs, etc., reading through them gives us a more objective perspective about the Filipinx-American culture and how it exists today. I think The Miseducation of the Filipino represents the essence of these readings pretty well: it talks about how the U.S. has used education as a means of ‘colonizing the minds’ of the Pilipinos during World War II. This education system is the foundation of the current Philippine education system that the remnants of American colonial teachings have now seeped through to our culture, giving birth to what most have called the ‘colonial mentality.’ As such, these readings aim to educate us about the colonial mentality that has persisted through generations and how we can use this knowledge to reclaim the true essence of the Pilipinx culture, independent of colonial influences. In the words of Samahang Pilipino at UCLA: Decolonize. Destigmatize. Educate. Empower!” - Recommended by Jaira Mendoza, intern at SPACE (Samahang Pilipino Advancing Community Empowerment)


The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, Insurrecto, and Gun Dealers' Daughter by Gina Apostol

“My favorite is Raymundo Mata but Fil-Americans will totally relate to Insurrecto because it deals with identity. Insurrecto takes place in the present-day and tells the interweaving stories of Chiara, an American filmmaker and Magsalin, a Filipino translator. The two are forced to confront their past and question their identities as they embark on a journey to Samar together to work on a film about the Balangiga Massacre, a colonial atrocity committed by American soldiers in 1902. This intriguing and sardonic novel manages to capture the tensions of history and historiography and presents us the ways in which the shockwaves of colonial rule are still felt today.” - Recommended by Carmel Ilustrisimo, Creative Writing grad student at University of Santo Tomas


The Gods We Worship Live Next Door by Bino Realuyo

“This is a poetry book that is divided into different segments of Philippine history, following the Spanish, American, and Japanese occupations. Postcolonial as it may be, it shows us the diaspora of Filipinos during the tough times in those days, showing the effects of our colonization through a series of poems.” - Recommended by Angelo Galindo, Geography grad student at University of the Philippines


Slum as a Way of Life: A Study of Coping Behavior in an Urban Environment by F. Landa Jocano

“A saddening reality of Philippine society is the prevalence of slum communities. Jocano’s Slum as a Way of Life looks into how life in a slum community has affected the behavior of the people there. Although published in 1975, it remains a significant ethnographic study that puts into perspective the hardships and tribulations faced by these people who are, more often than not, looked upon with disdain by those higher in the social hierarchy. Concepts used are applicable even in today’s setting because although people may leave the slum area, the culture there is resistant to change. I believe that it is a work that should be read because it shows a different aspect to Filipino culture that is largely ignored. Aside from that, the method used by Jocano is simple and easy to understand focusing more on qualitative and descriptive approaches.” - Recommended by Nicole Poneles, BA Social Sciences graduate from UP Diliman


Pinatubo: The Volcano in Our Backyard by Robert Tantingco

“The book focuses and emphasizes one of the most talked about and internationally known calamities, the Pinatubo eruption. People knew about the demise some parts of the Philippines underwent, but people didn’t know what made some of those affected be resilient in those trying times. With a focus on the kapampangans, the readers will have a better and detailed glimpse on what other changes took place, be it into their lives, culture, and society. There are few genuine accounts of stories that are included to enrich the readers’ knowledge and understanding of the Mount Pinatubo eruption. his book also includes references and glimpses of mythology, science, and modern remembrance to make the whole account of the Mount Pinatubo eruption holistically known and understood.” - Recommended by Sig Yu, animation instructor

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Barefoot in Fire by Barbara Ann Gamboa-Lewis

“It's about a Fil-Am girl growing up in World War II Manila. I remember it was a lot of daily life and the innocence of childhood, albeit with the war going on and attempts to understand the war from a child's perspective, limited as it is, seeing the humanity in everyone and seeing others as people and not just as sides in a war. Definitely stuff an adult would take with a grain of salt, but child readers, I think, will have a lot to think about. It's very vivid so you get a sense of what they ate while food was being rationed during WWII, how they used the bathroom, how they studied, among other things.” - Recommended by Stef Tran, poet


Breaking the Silence by Lourdes Montinola

“Montinola, the daughter of renowned doctor, Nicanor M. Reyes, founder of FEU, experimented with the process of searching and discovering the atrocities that happened to her family through many entry points, her memoirs of childhood. It was so gripping and emotional I read the book in one sitting! After the whole experience, I told myself, this should be read by all Filipinos to remind us never to relive that kind of war again brought about by colonialism! It's brutal. I recommend it to everyone who's interested in World War II memoirs.” - Recommended by John Toledo, grad student at UP Los Banos


The Summer Solstice and Other Stories by by Nick Joaquin

Tatarin (the movie version of Nick Joaquin’s well-known story) fervently captures the belief of Filipinos in superstitions, deities, and religious practices weaved into communities and families. Also present in the narrative is the patriarchal ego that seeks to be stroked but a strong Filipina like Lupe Moreta counters the status quo in a traditional Filipino household by questioning her husband’s ideologies and encompassing the so-called limitations of a woman.” - Recommended by Reena Medina, University of Santo Tomas Teatro Tomasino alumna


America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

”Bulosan’s memoir is about his childhood memories of immigrating to the States as a young boy from the Philippines. It depicts an immigrant’s journey as a laborer in the rural West trying to survive in a different country and culture, far from what he has been accustomed to back home.” - Recommended by Ludo Madrid


Feast and Famine by Rosario Cruz Lucero

“This book is a compilation stories about Negros Occidental that encompasses the entire Philippine history--from the Spanish occupation up until the Marcos era. Four stories and one novella are enough to tell the tale from a far-fetched province that felt the passage of time through the years.” - Recommended by Nicko de Guzman, assistant editor at Anvil

Seeing our heritage and the years of history embedded within the pages of books shapes our ideas of what the Philippines has become through the memories that continue to haunt us. And with those, a teeming desire to pass on what we know to people who are curious about our nation as well. My only request is that you pass on what you know about our nation’s history that many Filipinos try to discover but often fail to remember.

We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers! If you’d like to contribute, send us a note at info@bosfilipinos.com.

This is Our Strength: Why Filipinos Celebrate Fiestas and Festivals

By Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

In many Filipino homes, there will always be a corner for reverence. You will find an altar with many statues of saints perched on top, with candles, rosaries, and novenas adorning the table where it is set. In the States where I do not have my own altar, I  have a makeshift one instead: a small area of my study table is occupied by stampitas—images of the Pope, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ on bookmarks—staring straight at me while I read my notes for grad school, allowing me to remember where my religious roots lie. Beside those on my desk, a rosary hangs around a small lamp. My mother usually chats me up on Messenger in the evenings, “Don’t forget to pray before going to bed,” she says. “And ask for guidance while you’re away.”


“I will, Ma,” I reply. “I always remember.” I close my laptop and head to bed.


I make it a habit to remember that February is the feast day of Santa Misericordia, the patron of my mother’s town--and to some extent, mine--in Legazpi, Albay. It is a small town in Bicol, Philippines. Tourists who visit our place long for beach weather and white sand, clear skies and fresh flowing water, but reality is far from that. Where my mother comes from, there is not much but sea and storms, the wind brushing past from the east side of the peninsula. There is also an active volcano that erupts every so often, spreading lava to the nearby towns and dusting every rooftop with ash. My mother loves visiting our province--both her hometown and my summer spot--in time for the fiestas; my grandparents, too. They are all religious devotees of the Virgin Mary.

 There is this concept called Panata, or a votive offering, wherein families pass on the tradition of servicing the Church. The religious statues symbolize the faith of many Filipino households, always revering the saints in altars secluded in a corner of living rooms. The scent of candles, fragrant oils, and incense waft through the house; rosaries, novenas and prayer books decorate the pedestals. It is our way of connecting with divinity. In addition to this, some families give out donations, others volunteer their sons and daughters to partake in the parade for the festivals of their patron saints. In my family’s case, we promised that we would give our patron saint, Nuestra Senora de Santa Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy), her dress for the parade. It is a tradition that has been upheld and passed on for generations.

My mother is an avid believer of this Panata. It is her promise of attending to Our Lady in exchange for a good life for everyone in our family. Imagine buying fabric, getting the measurements, sewing the dress, adding beads and sequins, and putting ornaments on a statue. Imagine numerous preparations, sleepless nights on choosing the best design “worth wearing by the Virgin Mary,” hands overworked from threading through a needle. My family does all of this because we believe there is value in these acts somewhere in the afterlife. However, my family also does it to show how close-knit we are with the community. Not many people understand our customs and traditions, but it is in that mystery behind the beliefs that make them want to see it for themselves. What’s so amazing about this culture of togetherness that other nationalities find so fascinating? What is so special about the Filipino handaan (feast) and salusalo (get-togethers), the kamayan or boodle fight, and the festival etiquette that is associated with it? Why do we love celebrating feasts and even eating with our hands with the food served on banana leaves as a way of sharing food with the entire community?

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Photo provided by Reina Adriano

Popular festivals such as Masskara, Sinulog, Ati-Atihan, Dinagyang, Panagbenga, and Moriones are part of tourists’ bucket lists. These festivals are mostly connected to our history and Spanish influence due to the 300-year occupation. Needless to say it also anchors us down to our religious history of the dominant Roman Catholicism. Many tourists watch penitential rites during the Lenten Season, thinking its all colors and loud music when in fact it’s all about people reflecting on their faith and their way of life—a time for contemplation and penance. I remember as a child watching other young girls being dressed up as an angel to help in the Salubong for Easter Sunday, as a flowergirl for Flores de Mayo, and as Reyna Elena, if chosen for the Santacruzan parade. It should be worth noting that these are quite different from the livelier festivities tantamount to fun and enjoyment. However, if they stay long enough until Easter they will find themselves surrounded by activities that signify rebirth and renewal. Cash-prized contests such as Bingo and raffle draws, palarong Pinoy (Filipino games), and even beauty pageants are also part of the week-long activities.

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The food will not disappoint, either: the adobo, palabok (festival noodles), kare-kare (curry), lumpia (egg rolls), all the smells of palatable cuisine which the household is ready to share to anyone who chooses to enter. Sometimes I would watch my grandmother toil in the kitchen in her own sweat, wondering why she tries to give so much when in fact she receives very little in return. She would let me taste-test a few of her treats, lest she’s expecting a lot of guests knocking on our door. “May bisita, Apo (We have guests, Granddaughter,” she would tell, “Papasukin mo lang (Just let them in).” Never mind the small, cramped living room, or the lack of air-conditioning in the house. We have extra monobloc chairs and mini-electric fans, anyway. Never mind that there isn’t much to go around; what’s important is that we have something to share.

The fact remains that people will always invite you to eat at their place, even when you tell them you're just passing by, or that you just wanted to see the parade, and then go your way after. The locals would even ask you to take some food along before you leave. This is also the reason why we love karaoke over beer and good company while singing to our heart’s desire, why we can fill an entire house with a dozen relatives or more from both sides of the family. We remember our faith and traditions by celebrating these festivals. But we also love to leave the impression that we can always share, despite the strain in financial resources or in times of trouble. We choose to welcome those who are estranged, those who rise above adversity, those who have strength to hope. All I can say is that Filipinos endure. I am miles away from my family right now, but I can imagine everyone happily eating with their hands. I can smell the waft of great food from the kitchen. I can hear the chatting of relatives and the queuing up of songs on the jukebox. Somewhere in the corner, the saints and our offerings. This is our way of community.

We’re always looking for BOSFilipinos blog writers! If you’d like to contribute, send us a note at info@bosfilipinos.com.