Filipina historian receives highest award from Spain’s Universidad Complutense de Madrid

Rose Carmelle Lacuata, ABS-CBN News

Historian Ros Costelo (second from right) with her thesis adviser and members of her doctoral thesis panel. Photo courtesy of Ros Costelo

MANILA – A Filipina historian has been given the highest academic honors by Spain’s Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

In a statement, the Philippine Embassy in Madrid said Dr. Ros Costelo was given the mark of sobresaliente cum laude, the highest possible mark given by the Spanish educational system.

Costelo defended her doctoral thesis last January 28. Entitled “Public Works and the Spanish Colonial Agenda of Sanitation, Order, and Social Control in the Late 18th to 19th Century Manila”, Costelo detailed how the Spanish colonial policies shaped the creation of public works in Manila during that period.

Costelo received praise for her original research and its contribution to the study of the 18th and 19th century Philippines.

Her panel is composed of Spanish, French, and Filipino historians.


In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Costelo explained that her dissertation focuses on the development and urbanization of Manila during the late 18th to 19th century, crediting Spain both for the successes and failures of their colonial policies on public works, sanitation, and order.

“Kasabay ng urbanization ang paglitaw ng sala-salabit na problema ng sanitation, order, at control,” she said, noting the housing, sanitation, and environmental problems in the city.

(Along with urbanization came interconnected problems in sanitation, order and control.)

She also explains in her thesis at from the late 18th century, Manila was no longer divided areas inside and outside the walled city of Intramuros. Rather, the city was divided into the areas located on the right bank of the Pasig River, and those on its left bank.

Areas in the right side of the Pasig River include Binondo, Tondo, Quiapo, San Miguel, Sampaloc and Sta. Cruz, while those on its left bank are Paco, Ermita, Malate and Intramuros.

By looking at how the Spaniards organized Manila in that period, Costelo said she saw that problems of road congestion, mobility of people, sanitation and public order, and even lack of housing, can be traced back to this period.

She also said that the problems in Manila in that period can still be seen at present.

“Bakit problema na natin sila ilang siglo na ang nakakaraan, at nakikita pa rin natin ngayon?” Costelo said.

(Why is it that they have been our problems centuries ago and yet we still see them at present?)

During the course of her research, Costelo was also able to produce original maps of 19th century Manila, drawn based on the information she gathered.

Costelo, likewise, said her research did not only focus on the positive side of the Spanish colonial policies, as she also showed the different forms of resistance and negotiations that existed at that time.

“Ipinakita ko sa dissertation ko ‘yung iba’t ibang forms of resistance ng inhabitants of Manila, iba’t ibang forms of negotiation,” she said.

(I showed the different forms of resistance of the inhabitants of Manila, the different forms of negotiation.)

“The making and remaking of a city (Manila) needed more than just the transformation of the physical space. More importantly, it involved the conversion of mentalities and habits of people,” Costelo added.


Ros Costelo with fellow Filipinos in Spain who supported her during her thesis defense. Photo courtesy of Ros Costelo.

Having stayed in Spain for a little over 5 years, Costelo said the biggest challenge for her and for other Filipinos who might also want to study there is the language.

Costelo wrote her dissertation both in Spanish and English, as she had to study the language in order to access the archival sources in Madrid and Seville.

She also said it is very important for the younger generation of Filipinos to rediscover the country’s colonial past by looking back at the sources and writing it in the Philippine perspective.

“Very important ang ating pag-rediscover ng history through our own eyes,” Costelo said.

(It is very important to rediscover our history through our own eyes.)

And as if the language barrier was not enough, Costelo contracted COVID-19 last October.

Luckily, she only suffered from mild symptoms and was able to recover at home.

Costelo hails from the town of Tunga in Leyte, the sixth of eight siblings. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in History from the University of the Philippines, and is currently an assistant professor at the Department of History in UP Diliman.

Before taking her Ph.D, Costelo also took another master’s degree in contemporary history, also from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, whose notable alumni include Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna.

Aside from teaching, Costelo also participates in events organized by the Philippine Embassy in Madrid.

“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,” Ambassador Philippe J. Lhuillier said about Costelo.

For any questions or clarifications, Costelo may be reached via email at [email protected]