How to make history come alive

Sorting through time and making sense of it

At a glance

  • How easily we forget the the names of these men who were the leaders of their time. They were hot stuff! Today, even some historians fail to remember their faces.

Featured image: TARGET LOCKED RFRG Republican Army soldiers in kneel-firing formation

Over the past few days, I’ve been on a time machine ride on steroids, going back and forth between the past and the future in a matter of minutes as I sort though boxes and boxes and albums of old photographs going as far back as the late 1800s. Imagine being in a time worm and every few seconds you find yourself in a completely different era and this happens for a stretch of hours! Talk about mental calisthenics.

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FOR THE RECORD Author sifting through some photos spanning a century

On an inventory of thousands of photographs on hand, I found most of the images loose, with no direct reference to time, as in no dates written on the photographs or any clue as to when and in what context they were taken. So I ended up creating categories based on what the principal subject was doing at that time. First, I identified the subjects, in this case the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos (FM), Imelda (IRM), and their children Imee, Bongbong, Irene, and Aimee. Then within each Principal/Person category I started sorting according to activity and, if I were lucky, I might chance on the name and date of the event. So this is how I have sub-categorized everything: FM Public Speaking, FM Meeting (Formal)… IRM Public Speaking, IRM Meeting (Formal), FM & IRM Foreign Trip, FM &IRM “PaTweetums,” FM with Kids, IRM with Kids, FM and IRM with Kids, and so on and so forth. Still, all these photos are in a jumble. Stacks and stacks of them in boxes of many shapes and sizes, some of them I even found inserted between scratch paper, magazine pages, flyers, and other junk. This task is really not for the faint-hearted and I thank the archaeology gods for giving me opportunities in the past to prepare me for this gargantuan task.

BATTLE GEAR Late 19th century Philippine Army uniform: Folded or unfolded buri hat or a pit helmet, and revolver

After sorting and, though by this time I had become familiar enough with certain images to create piles of “events” based on the outfits of the principal subject or subjects or the location or event space, I’m still figuring out what the images could tell us about the time and place in which they were taken. Good thing there are many books and other publications on FM and IRM and we can cross reference the photos with published images. It can be quite gratifying to solve the mystery of an undated image. Talk about nerding out!

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DANCE WITH MY FATHER Imee's 13th birthday dance with her father the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos

Another thrill I get is while looking at the principal as the subject of the image, I discover a few details I can connect to the present. There was this photo of my uncle speaking in the Senate and the photographer had taken the image from the back of some of the other senators in attendance. I almost failed to notice what was written on the nameplates of the senators in the foreground: Claro M. Recto and Gil Puyat, names we only get to hear nowadays when the accented disembodied voice coming out of Waze says them. How easily we forget the names of men who were the leaders of their time. They were hot stuff! Today, even some historians fail to remember their faces. How unsettling is that! It’s unsettling how little of the past we know to help us navigate the present or chart our course to the future. It does make you think not to sweat the small stuff because even the big stuff gets forgotten—in time.

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RELIVE HISTORY Artillery officer and infantry officer standing by

Then there are photos of people you get to see often whom people respect today as leaders when they were young. One can’t help think of the possibility of the reality of destiny.

I spend most of my days now sorting through the past, but I know of someone who gets to live it—Alexandre Jel G. Avila. Alex to his friends, this 25-year-old Malabonian and military historical reenactor has been a cosplayer for anime and pop culture conventions since 2019. A friend introduced him to Republica Filipina Reenactment Group (RFRG) in 2021.

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ROLE PLAY RFRG reenacting the victory shout of rebolusyonaryos

Alex has always been a history buff and his grandfather’ stories during the Japanese occupation of Ilocos in the Philippines solidified this interest. Although Japanese history and World War II are his forte, he has refocused his attention on the late Spanish to Philippine-American War period (1896 -1902) since it has been so lacking in representation to the general public. “No one is talking about it much,” says Alex. Now he is hooked on the period of the Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) and the First Republic (1899-1901), especially while researching for military drill commands during the Spanish era and wanting to learn more about the role of Malabon against the Americans advancing toward Malolos during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).

PASSION PLAY Alex (standing elevated at the back off center) as a member of the Guardia Civil Veteran squad

As a kid, Alex grew up watching the History Channel. He was in awe of how history was told via the reenactments of historical events that occurred across the US and Europe. This turned into a dream of his—to be part of a historical reenactment group such as the RFRG.

The RFRG is the largest, most active reenactment group in the Philippines and its goal is to make history come alive.