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Opinion: The First Circumnavigation of the Globe and the War of the Communities

Guest Opinion Writer

This article originally appeared in La Jornada Filipina en español.

While almost all of the Philippines celebrates (in many cases, with enthusiasm, in others, with indifference, if not outright hatred towards anything that smells of Spanish) the quincentenary of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, I have been thinking for some time about the way in which we Spaniards arrived in that wonderful country, as well as the lamentable way in which we left. Both things, our arrival and our departure, would be enough for more than two articles …

And it so happens that in my autonomous community called Castile and León — that which was not considered a “historical community” in its day, being probably the most historical of all — we have just “celebrated” one of the most important historical events that Castile, and therefore Spain, has ever experienced. I am referring to the Revolt of the Comuneros, considered by many to be the first modern revolution. It is an event whose echoes, as commented last year in an interesting article in the Diario de Burgos, crossed our borders and reached the founding fathers of the United States centuries later. And I have been thinking for weeks about how curious I find it — from my humble point of view — that this event, a true civil war that mobilized most of Spain, took place while Magellan, Elcano and his men were carrying out their intrepid feat, completely oblivious to those dramatic events.

Moreover, if on April 23, 1521 the Communist troops were definitely defeated in the battle of Villalar, four days later, on the 27th, Magellan died in the “battle” of Mactan (which was previously a skirmish in which Magellan believed, as sometimes happens to Real Madrid, that he could win the game without getting off the bus; in this case, they were caught getting off the boat).

On their return to Seville, Elcano and the 17 survivors, among them my fellow countryman Juan Ruiz, must have been very surprised to learn of the civil war that had taken place in the homeland when the nobles and the Castilian people refused to accept a foreign king and his entourage of “advisors.” How would they sum it up? Maybe at that time there was time, and the war was narrated in great detail. Or maybe not, and everything was summed up in a “don’t you see what you have escaped” or perhaps, with Andalusian grace, in a “… well, things have been very entertaining around here, to be honest.”

For Castile (and Leon), paraphrasing Cervantes, that was “the greatest occasion the centuries have seen.”

“Since then, Castile, alas, has not risen again,” sang the verses of Luis López Álvarez, popularized at the beginning of the transition by the Segovian group Nuevo Mester de Juglaría. The price that the region had to pay was very high: It paid with its freedom, even though we were later seen as the enslavers of half the world. In reality, Castile provided the fame (and the courage, the money, the soldiers and the dead), while others pulled the strings of history. For the Castilians, there remained the infamy of the black legend that we will never manage to eradicate. For those who ruled and would continue to do so, the good duchies that would not end up in their hands in the end — since the enormous debts acquired before the bankers of Flanders or Genoa, the result of a disastrous foreign policy — had to be paid.

Look, I have the following thought: Since history is cyclical and consists of a constant succession of conquests, defeats, rebellions, intrigues, betrayals and revolutions, let’s think for a moment about the Philippine Revolution and try to identify our “good guys” and “bad guys” in the Comunero revolt. Obviously, we would identify the Castilians (our “Kastila”) with the Filipino revolutionaries, and the royalists would be the Spaniards, that is, the “Kastila” of the Filipinos. It is easy to deduce with whom most Filipinos would identify themselves, although some may ask: But hey, so there were “Kastilas” in both conflicts? And how could it be that some were the good guys and others the bad guys, if they have the same name? More than one would cross their eyes, and others would say they could not understand it.

To further compare the two events, let’s think for a moment:

Who was the legitimate ruler in each case? Logically, seen from the opposite side, we can find objections to such legitimacy. But according to the prevailing laws in both historical periods, those against whom the others rebelled — communards in one case, “katipuneros” in the other — were the legitimate rulers.

In the case of the Communities, it is obvious that it was a civil war; I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Now, the Comuneros were protesting against a government they considered foreign and against taxes they did not want to pay. Think of the tea revolt in the United States in 1776. Think of the many occasions in which the Filipino natives must have also protested against taxes that were religiously paid by every Spaniard and from which some Filipinos were exempt (Antonio M. Molina, “Historia de Filipinas”), in recognition of their services to the crown.

Wasn’t the Philippine revolution something of a “civil war”? Weren’t there people who did not know which side to take, and those who were waiting to know which way the scales were tipping before deciding who to support? Weren’t there people labeled as traitors or patriots in both parties?

History is never black or white, much less “pink.” The stories are adapted to certain interests, and they may change with the passage of time. In the light of new research, they may become more or less biased, or free of any bias. Many times — as a friend of mine reminded me who saw how the Americans got upset when a Cuban pointed out to them that what they rebelled against in 1776 was the same thing they had done in Cuba (and in so many other places) — we understand history as it best suits our interests. That is noticeable, but nevertheless, it is the message that best permeates, that of the partisan interpretation of history.

Wars leave a deep mark on nations and generations who have not seen their horrors. They either ignore them or accept the official, imposed or prevailing story or the subversive one, that of the “other side,” the one that was tried to be silenced. Reality, which is always an elusive concept, usually escapes such simplifications. But it is easy to fall into the error of thinking that only one discourse is true: the one I believe or defend. When this happens, understanding is impossible because I refuse to confront something that I consider an essential part of my life with contradictory readings. And that is the pending subject of all post-war generations: to free themselves from this or that partial discourse, to rise above them and to be able to understand the true tragedy of every war. It is also the subject currently pending for a sector of the left that tries to convince itself of the validity of some myths they have not yet managed to banish. The same can be said for a right wing that still lives dreaming of a past time of which, although it knows only an idealized portion, because it has been repeated to exhaustion, it is evident that it was not necessarily better (contradicting Jorge Manrique).

Returning to Villalar, one more year, we have been left without celebration for such a round figure. A few days away, it was not clear what the commemorative events were going to consist of. If we were to ask the people of Castile and Leon what this date means to them, we would be surprised at how little knowledge we have about it. The same as of Magellan’s exploit, of which our young people will have seen something if it was part of the curriculum; otherwise — my daughter, for example — not a sad mention.

I have wanted to intertwine both events, coinciding in time, in which we Castilians were the protagonists of history in case it arouses the curiosity of any reader. They may want to discover who were those madmen (churchmen among them) who dared to challenge the most powerful monarch of their time and, as they say now, could have won. Or what war was that which began a few kilometers from where I write these lines, and which saw the execution of one of its leaders and the beginning of the sentences and definitive liquidation of the communist movement in my city, which must have been very militant. Or why in Castile, as in Australia, we commemorate a defeat every April.

If only one day the Castilian and Manileña jotas would merge in the same song of hope, so that the pandemic would pass! If only one day we could review history looking for the encounter and mutual benefit instead of perpetual confrontation! I don’t think I’ll see it …

Comments are welcome at [email protected].

Álvaro Rubén García Arroyo
Alvaro Ruben Garcia Arroyo is a teacher. His teaching career is divided between music in secondary education, English in high school or language school and the piano as well as other related subjects in conservatory. Passionate about languages and literature since he was a child, he has been attracted to the subject of the Spanish heritage of the Philippines, a topic he has gradually been delving into, especially in recent years.

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