Filipina Historian Awarded Highest Mark at Spanish University

Dr. Ros Costelo (4th from right) at the conclusion of her thesis defense, with members of her doctoral thesis panel, Philippine Embassy officials, and members of the Filipino community in Spain.

A Filipina historian has been given the highest academic honors by the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain’s most prestigious academic institution and a university that counts ilustrados and Philippine national heroes such as Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna among its distinguished alumni.

Dr. Ros Costelo was given the mark of sobresaliente cum laude, the highest possible mark that can be bestowed by the Spanish educational system, after the presentation of her doctoral thesis titled “Public Works and the Spanish Colonial Agenda of Sanitation, Order, and Social Control in the Late 18th to 19th Century Manila.” Costelo defended her thesis in front of a panel composed of some of the most well-known historians from both Spain and the Philippines the last 28th of January.

In her thesis, Costelo detailed how Spanish colonial policies helped or hindered the lives of Manileños through the creation of public works such as water systems, public streets and lighting, slaughterhouses, public markets, and cemeteries. The panel lauded her work for its original research and its contribution to the study of colonial life in the waning days of Spanish empire in the Philippines, with her research having produced several original maps of 19th century Manila drawn solely from her analysis of archival texts. Dr. Costelo’s writing analyzed and documented not just the physical infrastructure created by Spain’s colonial power, but also how these works themselves served to create or reinforce existing social stratification in Manila, via the physical control they exerted over the city’s inhabitants.

When the head of the academic tribunal announced that they were awarding her the highest honors, Costelo could only utter “wow” in response, a word that was certainly inadequate to capture the momentousness of her achievement. Obtaining a Doctorate in Contemporary History, with flying colors and in a foreign country, came at the end of a long road for Costelo, but she never forgot the sacrifices she and her family made for her to achieve her dreams.

Hailing from Tunga, Leyte, Dr. Costelo is the sixth out of eight siblings born to the late Francisco Costelo, who was self-employed, and Cleta Costelo, a public school teacher. Theirs is a classic story of a Filipino family doing everything possible and making any sacrifice to ensure all an education for all of their children. To the Costelos’ joy and satisfaction, all their children became successful in their careers.

Through hard work, talent, and an irrepressible passion for learning, particularly for Philippine history, Dr. Costelo obtained her Bachelor’s degree in History and landed a coveted spot as a lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman History Department, a job that allowed her to share her passion with equally enthusiastic students.

As is so often the trajectory of Filipino historians studying the colonial Philippines, she eventually found herself deep in research within Spain’s archives, and then studying for a Master’s degree at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Even with the added challenge of having to learn Spanish while simultaneously studying and researching, she earned a sobresaliente in her Master’s course.

While in the midst of preparation of her doctoral thesis defense, COVID-19 infections spread across Spain and a lockdown eventually ensued. Dr. Costelo herself was not spared from contracting COVID-19. In her own words:

Learning a foreign language and adapting to new ways of living were some of my first struggles in Spain. Last year, the pandemic brought so many uncertainties for everyone. In my case, it began with the closing of universities, libraries, and archives. Also, news from home was dispiriting. Our Tatay passed and Nanay got ill.

Then, I tested positive for Covid-19 while I was in the final stretch of thesis writing. Pero, laban lang! History has taught us with many narratives of people’s responses to the challenges of the time. In the end, this achievement would not have been possible if not for the support and prayers of many people and institutions. I am beyond grateful. I just hope that my work can contribute to the fuller understanding of our nation’s story.

Even with the demands of her studies and her obligations to her students in UP Diliman, Dr. Costelo still found ways to give back to the Filipino community during the lockdown in Spain, including participating as a resource speaker and moderator in the virtual events organized by the Philippine Embassy in Madrid. For Dr. Costelo, it was just another way for her to share her skills and resources with her fellow Filipinos in Spain, a community that has made her feel at home in the six years she has been in the country.

Dr. Costelo’s academic achievements and support for the Embassy’s cultural events have not gone unnoticed. Ambassador Lhuillier noted, “Dr. Costelo is not only smart, motivated and hard-working, but she has a good heart and is always there to help towards advancing Philippine-Spain relations. I am certain that she will continue to make the country proud.”