Footnotes to History

(This article was first published in print in issue 2 of the Philippine Collegian on 23 June 2011 as part of Profaganda in Culture.)

Disciplines like history and journalism are premised on notions of neutrality and objectivity. Two UP professors who recently passed away, however, chose to deviate from the norm.

Their lives have been marked, not just by their grasp of our nation’s history, but by the strength of their convictions that enabled them to influence society and history.

Veteran journalist and educator Lourdes ”Chit” Estella-Simbulan of the Department of Journalism died tragically in a vehicular accident along Commonwealth Avenue on May 13, at the age of 53.  Her illustrious career as a journalist was marked by overt opposition to the Marcos regime and the Estrada administration. Meanwhile, historian Dante Lacsamana Ambrosio succumbed to heart failure on June 4 at the Philippine Heart Center. Ambrosio, known to be an expert on the history of militant unionism in the Philippines, was also the only national-democratic professor to hold tenure at the Department of History.

For these two individuals who made a living out of teaching and writing history, their legacy would be words that challenged accepted truths and enlightened the people.

Professor Dante Lacsamana Ambrosio, Ph. D.

The room that was once occupied by Prof. Ambrosio at the Faculty Center is filled with pictures. On one wall, there is a frame that holds a picture of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. Next to it is a picture of Albert Einstein. And on the opposite wall, there is a picture of Jesus Christ.

Ambrosio was still in high school when he first became an activist; first, in Philippine Science High School and then, later, when he had to transfer to Torres High School in Tondo due to his heart condition. He was part of the First Quarter Storm during the 1970s, a series of protests led by the studunt movement.

Ambrosio’s heart condition proved to be one of the greater obstacles in his life, yet this did(not stop him from continuing his researches and participating in various movements. He spent much of his life as an organizer and chronicler of the labor movement. For a while, he was a staff member at the International Department of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU).  A testament to his expertise in militant unionism was his work “Militanteng kilusang manggagawa sa Kamaynilaan, 1972-1982: paghupa, pag-ahon, pag-agos” which was published in 1992.

When he entered the Department of History, he focused on research and writing about the labor and mass movement during the Martial Law period. In classes, he loved telling stories about that time. His conversations with students would often be peppered with tales of narrow escapes from soldiers, their creative ways to hide leaders at the AS lobby and everyday subversions involving innocent cats. But beyond inspiring his students with his stories of resistance, he obliged them to read to overcome their ignorance. He introduced his classes to works like “Prometheus Unbound” by Jose Lacaba, “Philippine Society and Revolution” by Amado Guerrero and “The Philippines: A Past Revisited” by Renato Constantino.

Save for being a collector of historical memorabilia, Ambrosio also took a liking to studying the movement of the heavenly bodies. Ambrosio once disclosed in a conversation that his fascination with the skies was perhaps developed during his Martial Law detention, said Prof. Ramon Guillermo in his tribute to Ambrosio. Thus, he is also known as the Father of Philippine Ethnoastronomy. Even with his heart condition, he traveled incessantly to research on his dissertation “Balatik: kalangitan bilang isang saligan ng kabihasnang Pilipino, 1582 – kasalukuyan.”

Ambrosio’s room at the Faculty Center is filled with his life’s passion; it is strewn with various bits of old newspapers, posters, photographs, documents and unpublished manuscripts about the national-democratic movement. His life is a testament to humanity’s power to overcome, not just physical limitations, but prevailing social conditions.

Professor  Lourdes “Chit” Estella-Simbulan

“We will all remember Ma’am Simbulan as a person who has this smile andgrace every time she enters a room,” said Eunille V. Santos of the UP Journalism Club, the organization she once headed in the 1970s. “She had a motherly aura which encourages you to work even harder”.

But, beneath her smile and motherly demeanor lies an inner strength and conviction that has braved the tyranny and abuses of administrations. As a journalist, she lived a life that upheld truth and justice through her insightful and accurate reporting.

Simbulan, or Chit to friends, was a graduate of Journalism from UP Diliman. In her younger years, she wrote for the Philippine Collegian, one of the newspapers that consistently opposed the Marcos dictatorship. It was in the Collegian where she met her future husband, UP Manila professor Roland Simbulan. It was a relationship that blossomed during a dark age in our nation’s history, one strewn with political turmoil and upheaval. During a time where press freedom ceased to be, she chose to be a principled journalist, undeterred by the intimidation of the Marcos regime.

The determination and the conviction she developed as a young journalist during the Marcos regime manifested throughout her career. It was most notable when she became the managing editor of the Manila Times. The paper published a report calling former President Joseph Estrada an “unwitting godfather” to a fraudulent deal, pertaining to his involvement in a government contract that favored the Argentinian power firm IMPSA. Estrada sued the newspaper for libel and Robina Gokongwei, then publisher of the Times, yielded to the pressure. The suit did not threaten Simbulan and, along with the other editors, she resigned when the publisher apologized to the president.

She continued this investigative route when she served as the editor-in-chief of the now defunct alternative Filipino tabloid Pinoy Times, which also became known for its hard-hitting stories on Estrada. The tabloid consistently featured articles and photos about Estrada’s mansions and extravagant lifestyle. When the Pinoy Times closed due to financial difficulties, she decided to teach at her alma mater. Her thirst for the field, coupled with a recognized lack of available platforms for investigative journalism, propelled her to establish VERA Files, an online publication, with five other veteran journalists.

Beyond the headlines and the exposés, Chit Simbulan would be remembered as a gentle and compassionate woman. She lived her life as a principled journalist consistent with her advocacy and ethics, standing up for the truth and enlightening a nation during its darkest times.

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