On a back page of today’s paper I saw the following:
SANTIAGO, Oct. 6 (Reuter)- Sixteen more leftwing extremists were executed by firing squad after being sentenced by courts martial in three Chilian cities, the ruling military junta announced Friday night.
And whether the report was intended as a warning in the Philippines or not it served as one.
As a young man I traveled from Spain to the New World, then to these islands. In the fateful year of 1595 I fought Venegas’ men in the Cathedral, where I fled with my men. I don’t recall whether Venegas actually fought or not. I don’t recall, but it wasn’t long before he found out his fate, or whether he considered fighting worth fighting over a mortar and a pestle. Venegas was one of the ruthless men who took advantage of the hapless … the hapless and the helpless. We took over this kingdom in the sixteenth century and a bit more, and a little later the world was divided between Portugal and us. I now live a stone’s throw from the Cathedral (it’s not clear whether he was talking about the Malate Church or not). Once inside the Cathedral we found allies …people who were abused, cheated and there also were those whose relatives were killed by Venegas. All Venegas’ men were slain, and as for Venegas, before the end of the day he was placed under arrest. Then in 1898 I was near Moralya (near the present-day Philippine Naval Patrol Headquarters on Roxas Blvd.) when Americans first raised their flag and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In Malolos, the next year, I was there when President Aguinaldo stood up, took a paper out of his pocket, and told people of the newly formed republic to they could forget three centuries of oppression. And I was there when the U.S. destroyed the Malolos Republic.
I still ask why President William McKinley forcibly annexed the Philippines. I know that American military officers who served in the Philippines and personally knew Filipinos spoke in favor of giving them their independence. And at first America never intended to keep the Philippines. In the beginning they never intended to. Then in the early part of June 1898 I read in English papers about how the British had become alarmed over the prospect of a republic being set up in the Orient. The British! Come on! They were afraid that it would set a bad example for their subjects in Borneo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and East India. In November 1898, a narrow gauge train that was taking me to Malolos passed through the lines of Filipino insurgency and I knew that it wouldn’t be long. I got down; and I recall that there were half dozen or more Filipinos soldiers on patrol. They were strutting up and down the platform. They were on guard and were looking at me suspiciously. It reminded me of when I first arrived in the Philippines, after having braved the New World and perils of a long voyage. I landed in the middle of a conspiracy against us. That was in 1588.
I was amazed by how popular General Aguinaldo was. He was fighting the United States, into whose hands the islands fell. When I came up to his house, a sentry stopped me and asked me for my pass. He seemed to take his time as he looked at it. Incredulous but happy, and as I stood there waiting, I thought of all the men who were willing to take a stand and, if need be, die for a cause. Once again, I was part of a struggle. That night I slept well knowing that people were willing to die for a cause.
But years later it was disquieting that the struggle hadn’t ended. I’m certain it will continue like it has over the centuries, but in the first chapters, and even when the Japanese were here, the trenches were more clearly defined than they are today. Today I perceive something different. That’s because the country is clearly divided. I think everyone sees a need for a change yet can’t agree on what needs to be done. I believe, however, that we’re all sickened by Failure! Defeat! Poverty! Nostalgia! We’re all sick.
The story I’ve been a part of may seem disconnected because it spans so much time. First we have the conspiracy of the Maharllikas when I first arrived in 1588. Noblemen or datus of Manila who swore to revolt by anointing their necks with split eggs plotted then against the government and lost. It was only one of several revolts. None of them amounted to much. None of them lasted long because the majority of the native population sided with the government, but that would change over time.
In the second chapter (or was it the third or the fourth?), an exile, who dappled in many things, became famous after he wrote a couple of novels. These novels were inflammatory and have inspired people every since. Later, in his last goodbye, he spoke of “our Eden lost,” and that with gladness he gave his life. These words belonged to a man named Rizal. That man became a national hero. That man inspired a revolution. If there hadn’t been a breakdown there wouldn’t have been a martyred Rizal, just as if there hadn’t been a breakdown in 1970 there wouldn’t have been the martyrs on Mendiola Bridge.
Unfortunately such anomalies seem to be reoccurring, and since I’ve lived through so many of them let me help you discover the truth. Here we are living through the latest chapter. Like alleged I was part of the commotion on the bridge in front of Mendiola gate, just as I was also there back then when the Maharllikas anointed their necks with cracked eggs. I conspired against the government then and I’m conspiring against the government now. One reads how students marched from the Congress building, after demonstrating there, and as they approached J. P. Laurel Street, they heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. It sounded like firecrackers. I can testify that this wasn’t false, and what was significant was that students weren’t deterred. They continued their march. Then when the crowd got to Malacanang, all hell broke loose.
It was dark by then, and lights on the gates weren’t turned on. There were shouts of “Sindihan ang ilaw! Sindihan ang ilaw!” Then lights were turned on, and then everyone started throwing stones and sticks, and one by one lights were knocked out. This act of defiance, though warlike, had to have seemed insignificant, and was insignificant compared to an earlier demonstration in front of the congress building. That all changed when a commandeered fire truck breached the Mendiola gate and more daring demonstrators surged through the breach. They surged into the yard of Philippine White House itself. A dark element then stoked my curiosity. It stoked my curiosity as I followed the battle closely. As rebels lobbed molotovs and pillboxes inside the grounds and a battle raged through the night. Japanese they were not. Nor were they Americans. Instead they were Filipino students. It was noteworthy that they went down a path in the latter half of the twentieth century of Aguinaldo, and earlier struggles, and though they didn’t settle anything (immortalized and yet not settle anything), they were willing to die for a cause. As for the cost, four dead and almost 300 demonstrators and bystanders were arrested; most of them were detained at Camp Crame since the dungeons of Fort Santiago had been sanitized and opened for tourist.
When dawn came and smoke cleared, there was no longer any doubt that it was only the beginning of another chapter. To insurrectionary elements, he gave warning: “Any attempt at the forcible overthrow of the government will be put down immediately. I will not tolerate nor will I allow Communists to take over.” By then the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines had been placed on alert.
It was not strange that weapons had changed and that people could’ve been confused about which century they lived in. I’d lived through it all, and the audience must’ve been surprised to see an old conquistador like me on a modern stage when I should’ve been dead like Aguinaldo, Rizal, and all the rest of them. Maybe eventually, like all men, my time will come.
Postscript (1987)- On January 22, 1987, 17000 peasants, workers and students marched across Mendiola Bridge when police opened fire on them. It led to the deaths of thirteen marchers and the wounding of 100 of them. The event speaks of how the struggle continues and how it doesn’t seem to matter who is in power. The day after the massacre, President Corazon Aquino created the Citizens’s Mendiola Commission to investigate the event. Since then no one has been charged with a crime and families of the victims haven’t received compensation.
As soon as smoke cleared and the fire truck was removed and gates fixed the birds returned to Malacanang, while Marcos still sat on his throne. It was a pleasant place then. At the turn of the century the palace had a throne room and has one today though it might be called a library. It’s a library filled with codices and books dating back to the days of Don Luis Rocha, a darling then of the cosmopolitan crowd. His stone mansion enclosed by high stone walls was a gathering place. It was a gathering place and a place for aristocrats just as it is today. It is in a small area surrounded by water in the heart of Manila. A small place in a huge city, and it is only significant because it’s where the palace and the seat of the Philippine government are located. Otherwise it has its share of garbage, filthy streets, clogged drainage, and noise. The area also has a name (San Miguel). It has a hospice, a church, and an orphanage, and those looking for the hospice will find it on an island.
Today Malacanang is prone to flooding. A century earlier, nearby, on the shores of the Pasig, at Tanduay, near the San Miguel boundary, there were native sugar refineries, buildings of which are still there and stand out because of a tall chimney. So there were better places to live than San Miguel, such as Malate, Malate which in early 1900’s was considered a prize residential district with first class apartments and hotels, parks, and the Rizal Memorial Stadium which was built in 1934. Rizal Memorial Stadium was a handsome stadium where stars such as Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, and Jimmy Fox once played and was used by the United States and Philippine Armies as an arsenal and a storehouse. The Japanese army converted it into its headquarters where sentries were placed at every gate and where passers-bys who failed to bow, salute or doff their hats were severely punished.
Nuns deplored this and particularly atrocities and destruction that followed as trapped Japaneses frantically fought for their lives. “Once nuns were dead to the world, but now it was different,” as they experienced horrors of liberation like everyone else did. This was when some of the most inhuman acts against civilians (guilty or not-women, children, and religious) were committed, and their church was burned to the ground. It was very difficult, very astonishing, for risks even for nuns were real. (Desecration we should fear, when the long medieval habit, starched wimple and stiff headdress covering shaven heads weren’t respected. You should never touch a nun!) The Japanese intrusion pained them. The Japanese intrusion pained them as much as anything. It pained them more than it embarrassed them. Then nuns were cloistered. It was like they could remain isolated when the death knell was sounded. One night, the Canillas family of Leveriza was tortured, and all of them killed at Harrison Park. The lawyer’s five daughters were raped and then killed by Japanese soldiers. The discovery reached nuns in their convent and that was when they could anticipate their own fate.
There were those who sought refuge when there was no escape. There was no escaped, and afterwards there was no way to forget. Nuns, in similar fashion, wanted to forget in order to be rid of resentment. For a while they tried to forget by adhering to a strict regimen that governed their whole day. They tried to forget by continuing their rituals. Tempered by diligence and by a strict routine from morning to night, but could they ever forget? Could they really remove rancor from their hearts? Yes, they tried. And they tried. And they rebuilt their convent, as their church was rebuilt, and as they tried, they once again retreated from the world. They also tried by erecting walls of silence and through prayer (and covered themselves with black shrouds). And they didn’t foresee the day when things would change. But most of all they wanted to remain faithful to Jesus Christ and not make a mockery of their vows.
As far as they were concerned, Jesus was the path that would save them from themselves. So they spoke only at certain times; their letters were censored; they weren’t allowed to read newspapers or magazines, watch television or go to movies; they were put on rations and ate only when it was time to eat. And at no time could they complain. They couldn’t complain because they weren’t allowed to have opinions of their own. This was what life was like in these communities, every facet of life regimented.
Like all those who took the same vows, before the Vatican Council II changed everything, they were all supposed to be the same, when of course they were individuals. Thus when reform came as early as 1964, the most obvious change began with a change of dress. First, the skirt was shortened. It was first shortened to mid-calf, then to just below the knees … although now it is much shorter because of current fashion. After that the headdress was modified to reveal the ears, then the neck, and now part of the hair is shown. Then heavens forbid, they could choose what clothes to wear, and many of them chose to wear everyday dresses, or “lay clothes.” “But we’re not changing for the sake of change,” Sister Romona Mendiola stressed. Instead they wanted to be human. Before then there were so many restrictions that they were ignorant of the realities outside convent walls.
But for some nuns it was too big a leap. For some it was too big a leap to make. For them change seemed drastic, and they approached it at first with disdain and then fear. It was said that Jesus was very accepting since a prostitute was one of his most devoted and important disciples, but it seemed like some of nuns in Sister Mendiola’s convent forgot this. When it finally came down to it, it was hard for them to accept that they were human and it was hard for them to act human as long as they were cloistered. Still most of them chose to wear pastel dresses, flesh-colored nylon stockings and mod shoes … and at night set their almost shoulder-length hair, which showed that they were indeed human. I would even go as far to say that no two of them were alike and that it didn’t matter to Jesus because the vilest sinner was precious to him. It didn’t matter to him because one sinner’s soul (He affirmed) was worth more than all Pharisees put together. Time does not alter Jesus’ teachings; they will be the same an eternity for now. And these changes were revolutionary, though not universal. And it seemed to have come directly from the Pope. Even then they were getting ready for the Pope’s visit to Manila. Little did they know what his visit would bring.
The old conquistador felt embarrassed for them. He had lived a very long time. He lived a long time and had seen many changes in his lifetime. Years later, when the Pope did come to Manila, the poor garbage pickers of Tondo remembered how 90, 000 people, nearly half of them Catholic, filled Dan Pan Street near the Port of Manila to receive his blessing, and most of them tried to forget that he was almost assassinated. The Pope was almost assassinated “This could never happen in Manila.” “Oh, yes it could,” said the old conquistador. He would say anything to incite a crowd and say it again to keep them going. “And if all fires that I have started were to ignite at once they would engulf the earth, and we’d have a hell right here.” Then he cried out, because flames had already begun to engulf the republic.
By 10 a.m., Metrocom soldiers surrounded the campus, but Jose Mariano and the students continued to fight. They all expressed solidarity. They expressed solidarity with those who died on Mendiola Bridge. And they fought the same foe and risked their lives. The old conquistador stood by as students, male and female, came forward as combatants ready to defend the university. Their strength came from within, if one was to believe reports, since they were outnumbered and the military had more firepower. (Over the years countless had martyred themselves in this fashion.) A regime that had just begun to flex its muscles had begun to arrest and persecute those who opposed it, many of them students and faculty members of the university. These students and faculty members had courage of their conviction and would remember Pastor Mesina who unfortunately died during the struggle. Initially in support of the demands of jeepney drivers for a rollback of gasoline prices and fueled to a larger extent by an invasion of the campus by the military, the standoff lasted for almost a week. They stayed at the barricades 24 hours a day sustained by food brought in by neighborhoods around them. They were ecstatic when they repelled Airforce helicopters. But morale slumped whenever a student was shot.
History remembers them because they refused to give in, but they’ll be remembered most for their courage. It is well to note that they had to improvise since they had no weapons. There was no time to build up a cache. What they did was more or less spontaneous. Soldiers entered their dorms and entered their rooms and took their wallets and watches. Similar things happened to students all over campus. This angered them. They were frustrated and angry. They weren’t about to take it, and there was no stopping them once they got started. Many of them, with other students and faculty members, converged on the Faculty Center and set up barricades. Chemistry students created flame-throwers from huge LBG tanks and these and self-igniting molotovs created by Physics professors were used for defense. They blocked the street and used rooftops as launching pads for their homemade missiles. It was a wonder that they were tolerated.
All were set against Marcos; they cursed and ridiculed not only the president (for singing “Pamulinawen” to Dovie Beams, an American starlet who he was rumored to be having an affair) and the president’s wife. Marcos was already planning to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus when the bombing of the Liberal Party proclamation rally in Plaza Miranda occurred in August of that year. Marcos may have contrived it. He may have. Who knows? Though he restored the writ of habeas corpus a year later, bombs continued to go off throughout the country, including the bombing of the United States Embassy and when pillbox explosives where hurled at the gate of Malacanang. Once again Mendiola Bridge was the scene of an assault, but Marcos would claim that his reaction to it all, which he privately called “the September 21 movement” (to mark the date he enforced Proclamation 1081), entailed much more than saving the Philippine Republic. He claimed that he needed to stamp out the social inequities and old habits that made military action necessary.