Recuerdos de Filipinas: Album-Libro

Util para el Estudio y Conocimiento de los Usos y Costumbres de Aquellas Islas

con

Treinta y Siete Fotopias Tomadas y Copiadas del Natural

por

Don Felix Laureano

I was very lucky to have come across this one neglected book in the Filipiniana section of National Bookstore, Mall of Asia. Translated and edited into the English language by Felice Noelle Rodriguez (with Renan Prado and Ramon C. Sunico), Recuerdos de Filipinas is a lively and engaging first-hand source on the late Spanish colonial era. As stated in the subtitle, the photo-album contains thirty-seven photographs depicting scenes of Filipino customs and landscapes (mostly in his native Iloilo) and, more importantly, accompanying descriptions and contextualization by the colonial settler Felix Laureano, not to mention an appendix pertaining to Luzon, Manila, and the Visayan Islands.

This source is important not because it presents images of the great city of Manila and the famous Ilustrados and the other principal members of elite Philippine society; on the contrary, the photo-album is especially important because it presents day-to-day images of ordinary life. True, the images were staged (inevitably, given the technology of the time), as stated by Rodriguez’s introduction. And yet the texts that accompany the images possess so much detail and even a hint of humor so that when Laureano invites us to a luncheon of adobo, tinola, and kari (which one suspects to be kare-kare, a variant of the Asian curry) in a calenderia, when he regales us with stories of elaborate courtship rites when he should have kept on describing the wedding procession, and when he romanticizes the beauties of the Filipina mestiza, we, the readers, are indeed being transported into an age that has long gone.

And yet for all his good intentions and pose of objectivity, Laureano’s faults also shine through. Noticeable is his bias against the Indios, the indigenous peoples, and the Chinese: the Indios he described as suplado or proud; the Ati-atihan, vulgar; and the Chinese, swindlers and tricksters. While he dwells on the beauty of the women taking a bath on the sea, he does not mention names: the characters he try to bring into life end up becoming mere nameless faces. However, even Laureano’s faults also add to the learning experience: we see here the Ilustrado who, in spite of disdain and pretensions to superiority, still highlighting what he thinks is the best in his country. Especially after finding out that the photo-album was launched in 1895, just a year before the Philippine Revolution, we readers cannot help but be a little skeptical of his quaint and peaceful depiction of a (slightly) romanticized and exoticized Philippines. (As an aside, one may wonder how, in spite of his stand-offish attitude towards his Indio subjects, he has acquired so detailed a knowledge of their customs.) And yet, we also end up pardoning Laureano for having done these things, first because, as the title says, the photo-album is his memory of the Philippines, that country which he, having named himself as a “Filipino,” must have loved.

All in all, Recuerdos serves as an excellent first-hand source, despite its focus on his local Iloilo, and even despite his biases and other such quirks. Or perhaps, “despite” is not the right word, for even in these “despites” his worldview, his feelings, and his rationale as a Filipino shines through. It is in two levels, namely, the information he provides of the country and its customs as well as the information he unwittingly provides of himself and of his class, that Recuerdos proves itself valuable and informative.

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