Penman No. 380: Commemorating the FQS

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Penman for Monday, February 3, 2019

 

STARTING LAST January 26 and until early this month, some members of a generation of Filipinos now in their 60s and 70s would have commemorated—or at least noted in one way or another—the 50th anniversary of what came to be called the First Quarter Storm, or the FQS. It was a tumultuous season at the very start of the 1970s, a period that would see deepening disenchantment with the Marcos regime, the rise of student activism, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in 1972. For those of us who were part of that generation, it was also the abrupt abbreviation of our carefree youth and our hastened transformation into missionaries of a kind, idealists fired up by the notion of becoming the Rizals, Bonifacios, and Gabriela Silangs of our time.

It was a political but—as with all politics—also a cultural awakening. We began by reading—not Marx or Mao, but Renato Constantino and, a bit later, Jose Ma. Sison. For me, it was William Pomeroy’s The Forest—a lyrical account of an American GI’s unlikely entry into the struggle of the postwar Huks—that sparked my fascination with rebels and revolutions. I was only in high school when I read it, but I swore that, in my own way, I was going to make a change in society.

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I didn’t even have to wait to get to college for that opportunity. On January 26, 1970, I joined the throngs of uniformed students who gathered in Manila to protest against Ferdinand Marcos, who was delivering the SONA at the old Senate building. I can’t recall now what the specific issues were, but we had a sense that there were very large causes involved of which Marcos was only a part. The Vietnam War was still raging and for many young people, “Make love, not war” was the answer; we had watched Woodstock as a movie on the big screen, we had memorized the Beatles, and Mao’s China was still shrouded in mystery. We were somewhere between dreaming of becoming hippies or becoming bomb-throwers.

Indeed, on that day—a Monday, according to the calendar, so we were all skipping our classes—I still counted myself a moderate, marching under the banner of Ed Jopson’s National Union of Students of the Philippines. We filed out of our assembly grounds on the UST campus toward the Luneta, where large crowds had already gathered, some sporting the streamers of more vocal militants like the KM and SDK—whom, at that point, I held in both suspicion and awe. I was too far to listen to the speeches being made by the likes of Gary Olivar, whom my high-school English teacher had held up for me as a bright young man worth emulating. When things started flying through the air, beginning with the mock coffin someone had brought along to exemplify the death of democracy, and the police began wielding their truncheons, I scampered for the life of me, muttering oaths under my breath directed at both the police and the radicals for spoiling what had been a very nice day. I had just turned 16 barely a week earlier, and I was too young to die or even just to get my head bashed in.

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As it happened, I did get radicalized; before that year was over, I was a freshman at UP, where I joined the Nationalist Corps and later the SDK. Within just three more years I would become part of the Diliman Commune, witness the killings of Francis Sontillano and Sonny Mesina (both of them my fellow scholars at the Philippine Science High School), drop out of UP to work as a newspaper reporter, lose my job under martial law, and be imprisoned in Fort Bonifacio for seven months. I grew up even faster than I thought I would; shortly after my release, I met and married my wife Beng (with so many people dying around us, we couldn’t wait too long), and I became a father at 20.

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That’s what a few books and the FQS all led to—a quick but bracing immersion in youthful rebellion and forced maturity, from which I learned quite a bit about myself and about other people, indeed about human nature itself, beyond providing material for the obligatory semi-autobiographical first novel. Today, as a retired professor, I’m often asked (and will be again, this week) about what all of that meant, and I say that it was about taking charge of your own life and taking your people’s interests to heart, and not just yours.

What I once disavowed as my vulnerable and wishy-washy liberal core turned out to be me at my most honest and perhaps my strongest. I still seek and fight for freedom from any kind of despotism, whether from the Right or the Left (and these days, when both extremes have cohabited, when the mouthpieces of the old Left now sing the praises of the Right, you have to trust your own compass to point northward). I commemorate the FQS not by boxing it in the past and putting it away, but by hoping that a new generation of Filipinos, made curious by books and refusing to accept easy answers, will see themselves as part of a larger struggle to be human, and to be free.

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(Paintings by Juanito Torres, courtesy of Jack Teotico)

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 117: The Way We Were

IMG_4726Penman for Monday, October 6, 2014

 

I’D LIKE to thank the people who’ve given me their time and accorded me their hospitality during my current visit to the US. I’m here to do more research for a book project—an oral history of the First Quarter Storm (the story of my generation, in other words)—and so far I’ve had wonderfully productive interview sessions with some people who were either active participants in the anti-martial law movement or were on the other side of things (or simply on the roadside) at the time.

Those who’ve helped me out, either as interview subjects or facilitators, include former campus journalist and retired engineer Gerry Socco and his wife Chet; lawyer Rodel Rodis; editor Rene Ciria-Cruz; tech journalist and developer Joey Arcellana; and journalist Gemma Nemenzo and her husband, Col. Irwin Ver. All of them are conveniently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Beng and I flew out there from DC for a long weekend of interviews and reunions with old friends.

Rodel and I go back all the way to the Philippine Science High School, where I served as Rodel’s associate editor when he helmed The Science Scholar. It was also in high school—when I myself became editor in chief—that I first heard of Joey Arcellana from our adviser, Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea (mother of the accomplished Doy and Rey Vea), who told me one day: “There are two young writers I’d like you to read. One of them writes for the UP Collegian, and his name is Joey Arcellana. The other is still in high school and writes for the Highlights, and his name is Gary Olivar.” Gemma, who now edits the ezine Positively Filipino, also edited the late, lamented Filipinas magazine, which I used to write a column for. Gerry I knew from the pre-martial law College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and we met again in the worst of possible circumstances—as fellow political prisoners in Bicutan; today, in our sixties, we share an unabashedly bourgeois passion for collecting vintage pens and watches.

In Washington, DC, where I’m formally based through my association with the George Washington University, I’ve been lucky to meet and to interview one of the torchbearers of the anti-Marcos resistance on the East Coast, Jon Melegrito, a retired librarian at GWU who now writes for the DC-based fortnightly Manila Mail. I’ve also been glad to gain the insights of three former State Department officials: former Ambassador John Maisto, who headed the old Office of Philippine Affairs and served in Manila in the late 1970s; his colleague Hank Hendrickson who now serves as executive director of the US-Philippines Society, of which Amb. Maisto is the president; and Santiago “Sonny” Busa, a Filipino-American who has served as consul in Manila, Addis Ababa, and Kuwait, and who has taught International Affairs at West Point. I’ll be doing a bit more traveling to see people in New York and possibly the Midwest.

So far, I’ve interviewed about 30 people for the book, which I’ve begun to write at my sister’s place in Virginia. It’s very strange in a way to write about bloody encounters in coconut groves in the Philippine South while reveling in the sight, outside my window, of bluejays and robins perched on the branches of trees just beginning to acquire an autumnal glow. But perhaps it’s precisely this physical and psychological estrangement that I need to handle such an emotional project—emotional, at least, for members of my generation.

Sometimes what I hear gets a bit too much; for the first time, after having written and published over 25 books with a very dry eye, I wept as I listened to an account of someone I knew shooting—executing—someone who had been her best friend. At the same time, events that might have been terrifyingly life-threatening 40 years ago can now sound absolutely hilarious—or deadpan ironic, such as when firebrand Fluellen Ortigas, selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of 1968, stands beside President Marcos at the awarding ceremonies, with a book titled The Essentials of Marxism in hand. “Join my staff,” Marcos tells him. “I can’t,” Ortigas replies. “You’re going to be a dictator!” Ortigas would later work for Ninoy Aquino, go underground in Panay, get arrested before martial law, get released in 1976, flee to the US via Sabah, get an MBA, and become a businessman in San Francisco.

I have many more stories like Flue’s to tell, each with its own highlights and insights—Elso Cabangon being ambushed on Taft Avenue and taking four bullets, one of them tearing through his cheek; Boy Camara auditioning for the role of Judas before eventually playing Jesus Christ, Superstar; a female comrade being married in the rites of the Party, one hand on her heart, and the other on Mao’s Quotations (it’s a marriage, like many in the movement, that will unravel). But they’ll have to wait until the book itself, which I hope to finish by early next year.

Even now, many old friends and comrades are probably wondering why I haven’t approached them yet or asked so-and-so to be interviewed, because they have interesting and important stories to tell. I’m sure they do, and I have to extend them my apologies in advance, simply because I just don’t have the time or space at the moment to include everything and everyone I should be covering. I’m almost certain that this oral history will lead to a sequel, all the way to EDSA (a book that someone else should begin writing soon). Some people I’ve asked haven’t replied or have declined, and I can only respect their implied wish to be left alone.

Again, this book will be about the past, and while we might bemoan the innocence we lost, or even wax romantic about the way we were, I don’t think too many of my respondents will want to relive their lives in exactly the same way, knowing what they do now. We might not regret what we did—it arguably needed to be done—but we or our children don’t have to repeat it, if it can be helped. That’s how history helps the future.

Penman No. 78: My FQS Project

CEGP Penman for Monday, December 23, 2013

FOR SEVERAL weeks now, some friends from way back—more than 40 years back—have been getting private messages from me, inviting them to take part in what could be an important historical project—important not only to our generation, but more especially to those who have come after us, who know so little about their past.

I’ve just begun what I consider to be my lifelong dream project: The First Quarter Storm: An Oral History. It’s not as if I don’t have enough books to write; at the moment, I’m working on five books in various stages (two nearly done, two halfway through, and this one just started), not to my mention my third novel, which has had to sit on the back burner. I’m no Superman, but I write books for a living, and take on every engagement as a privilege and a responsibility. Still, this one’s a special self-assignment.

After writing biographies and histories for such varied personalities as the Lava brothers, the business icon Washington SyCip, and the former Marcos associate Rudy Cuenca, I felt the time had come for me to do something for my own generation, whose political awakening came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That was one of the most politically charged periods in recent Philippine history, a time many Filipinos my age call the “First Quarter Storm” or FQS, referring to the tumultuous years just before and after the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972.

Those few months around martial law were both frightening and exhilarating, murderous and ennobling, challenging a generation of young Filipinos to offer themselves up to the altar of revolutionary resistance. The martial law regime would last for 14 years and claim thousands of lives, and cause deep damage to Philippine democratic institutions. By the time a peaceful street revolt restored democracy in 1986, the course of Philippine history and the complexion of that FQS generation had been irreversibly changed.

And yet today, 40 years later, many principals from the martial law regime remain entrenched in power along with pretty much the same ruling elite that prospered under martial law. Despite more democratic space, the same deep-seated problems of poverty and injustice remain. It is as if nothing has been learned—most Filipinos born after 1986 have no inkling of what happened before them—which is not surprising, because a definitive history of martial law and the FQS has yet to be written.

I’d like to help in redressing that amnesia by writing an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, a project that will involve conducting in-depth interviews with many of the surviving principals from that period—from the resistance, the government, the military, the religious, and ordinary citizens—while they are still alive and accessible. My interest in the subject is both personal and professional. As many readers know, I myself was imprisoned for seven months as an 18-year-old student activist in 1973, an experience that became the basis for my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing, 1992).

I’ll focus less on the broad sweep of policy than on personal narratives, contextualizing these against particular flash points of the FQS. These personal accounts, I think, will reach deeper into the consciousness of Filipinos today and allow them to grasp the realities and implications of martial law more effectively than an academic paper could.

I’ll be looking for personal stories—including but not limited to or focused on the most harrowing cases of torture and imprisonment (although we’ll certainly have those, unavoidably and necessarily). I’ll be looking for stories of everyday life both aboveground and in the underground; of people preparing for demonstrations and for war, of dealing with separation from family and loved ones, of watching from the sidelines (or even the other side of the barricades), of trying to live an ordinary life amid the chaos, of achieving some kind of balance between the personal and the political. I want stories of courage, of doubt, of heroism, of betrayal, of commitment, of guilt, of loss, of survival. I’ll also be looking for funny, poignant, ironic stories. And then I’ll have an update on everyone interviewed—what they did and what they became after the FQS—for a brief epilogue.

I have no overarching agenda for this book, just an honest recording of people’s memories (as flawed or as self-serving as they may turn out to be), before those participants in and witnesses to history vanish. I don’t mean for this book to be a manifesto or an indictment or any kind of political treatise; I will maintain strict journalistic and scholarly neutrality, endeavoring to gather a multitude and a variety of voices. I will be contextualizing what people say with some factual background, but I will not editorialize or romanticize or make judgmental commentary. Rather than take an obvious stance, I will let the book’s stories speak for themselves, and will leave it to the professional historians and political scientists to use the book as material for their critical evaluations. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge a grant from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, which kindly offered their assistance after hearing about my project, as part of their own project for the documentation of the martial-law period.)

I’ve begun with a small group of people I know, which I expect to enlarge over the next year that I will devote to this project. (So far, they’ve included former SDK and later GMA spokesman Gary Olivar; former UP Vanguard and UPSCAn Ed Maranan; UP activist stalwart Rey Vea; former Makibaka member Sylvia Mesina; Cebu firebrand and now Judge Meinrado Paredes; colegiala-turned-activist Joy Jopson Kintanar; former UP Student Council Chairman and Upsilonian Manny Ortega; and Jesus Christ Superstar and Afterbirth mainstay Boy Camara, among others.) Of course, I’ll remain open to suggestions about whom else to reach out to. I’m particularly interested in stories from the military and the police, as well as from government officials, businessmen and ordinary citizens who may have vivid memories of that period. I’m interviewing people who were active in the Visayas and Mindanao. Sometime next year, on a visit to the US, I will also be interviewing US-based former activists and other principals.

If you think you have an interesting first-person story from that period that you can share with others—whatever your political position was then, or may be now—send me a message at my email at jdalisay@mac.com. (I’m not surprised—I do feel doubly responsible—when some interviewees tell me that “I’m telling you my story so my children will know what really happened and what I did.”) I can’t promise to include everyone’s story in the final manuscript, which will be subject to space and other editorial limitations (I’ll be sending everyone whose story will be included a copy of the text, for their final revisions and approval); but I can promise to be fair, and to render what people tell me as faithfully as possible.

By so doing, I hope that this book can contribute to a deeper understanding of how democracy has been challenged and has survived in the Philippines, and to continuing efforts at national reconciliation, by bringing out the human and more personal aspects of a nation in crisis and a society under stress. This way, it might also provide guideposts for the thinking and behavior of young 21st century Filipinos facing their own choices and challenges as individuals and as citizens. Wish me luck!