From our apartment on Taft Avenue, I went to an appointment with Vincente de la Cruz, a filmmaker who was facing censorship. Vincente was very open and frowned constantly. His frown seemed to come from his intense nature. What seemed to come from his intense nature? His constant frowning.
“At least I have the film in the can, waiting distribution,” he said. “We’re going through a tumultuous period, and it could go in a number of directions. There are the students, God bless them. There are students I think who are playing into the hands of Marcos. They don’t realize it. They don’t realize that they’re setting fires that they won’t be able to contain. Meanwhile Marcos cracks down. And then someone asks, ‘aren’t we a democracy?’ and Marcos loosens up. Then maybe all we have to do is call his bluff. Only he’s not bluffing. Then there are those of us who know that all the president has to do is turn loose his goons. The official reports never jive with facts. If they did, Marcos might lose. Wonderful, to shift suspicion elsewhere, he needs someone like me to stage an attempted coups. Obviously, instead, someone whispered in his ear and said, “’Sir, Mr. de la Cruz is a dangerous man. Therefore, we must keep his latest movie off the screen.’ My movie, however, isn’t radical enough. But my next movie will be. It will be like tossing a hand grenade into a crowd.”
I asked him what he thought Marcos would do next.
“Marcos doesn’t know what he’s doing now,” he said. “We are a people who have been led by our noses for too much of our history. Most of our heroes were either executed or were failures. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Meanwhile, students fall behind in their studies.”
After I found an editorial friend of mine in his office, we enjoyed a drink together. He was rushed and had a deadline to meet. He was always rushed but always found time for a drink. His English was perfect, and his comments were balanced. I don’t know if he was fair.
“ … If I had a crystal ball I’d say Marcos would win this spat. He won easily round one. But I’m nervous and know the Philippine people. I see them stuffing their rage until they eventually explode. I told Imelda this, and she, bless her soul, didn’t disagree with me. Since she shares a pillow with the president, I hope my warnings are repeated. At some point I may have to go into exile because of where I sit. ‘On the fence’ some say. Meanwhile, I have to sweat it out. You never know.”
As I wandered around Manila, I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here?” I sought out people on both sides, people on the fence, and people who weren’t paying attention. There were those who were struggling to stay alive. They literally had nothing more to lose. For them, slogans had no meaning, politicians were a threat, and students were from a different planet. Abandoned, they were aliens in their own country, whereas I was an alien far away from mine.
The sprawling University of the Philippines campus in Diliman (Quezon City) was by and large open. It was built around an oval formed where Manuel Roxas Avenue and Sergio Osmena Avenue met. It was lined with benches and trees and important buildings such as Palma Hall. Quezon Hall housed the administration, and was situated behind and, with its elevated and colonnaded façade, dwarfed the Oblation- a sculpture of a young naked man by Guillermo Tolentino. The sculpture greeted everyone. At the campus entrance, the Oblation signified the act of offering oneself in the service of the nation.
The plaza in front of the sculpture was where students confronted the cops and the military. And many of the demonstrations took place in front Palma Hall. Nick met me on the steps and was dressed in a white embroidered polo and a loose pair of slacks. He had a book under his arm. A number of students, also in polo shirts, were using the steps to go to and from class, chatting and laughing along the way. Nick introduced me to a group of them. I didn’t catch their names.
I asked Nick what was being done about squatters on campus.
“So far it’s not a problem. They’re members of our alumni who we all know. I’m not kidding. And we’re known as the University of the Poor, and to have the administration evict them would send a wrong signal. Students would scream, and I ‘d hope the faculty would join them. Why didn’t you give me a heads-up about you sneaking back into Mindanao? I might’ve wanted to go too. We could’ve planned another trip around Christmas and the New Year. I’d think you’d have the courtesy to at least tell me your plans.”
I asked for his forgiveness and quickly change the subject. I wanted to go without stirring up things. There was enough hostility down there without creating any more.
Next I met a student leader by the name of Ben. He helped organize most of the demonstrations on campus. We also met on the steps of Palma Hall. We exchanged small talk.
“I’m studying law,” Ben told me. ”Originally I thought I’d go into politics. Now politics make me sick, but I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten politics out of my system. Ninoy Aquino should be president.
A friend of his walked up. Ben introduced him as his point man.
“The country’s greatest problem is complacency,” Ben’s friend observed. ”People generally do nothing. They think our problems are unsolvable.”
Another student wearing glasses then joined us. She was Ben’s girlfriend, and her duties included keeping track of him. “Ben has to be encouraged,” she says. “Since our freshman year, we’ve come very far. Ben often doesn’t see it. But things are about to break. I see trouble ahead.”
“What specifically is being done about squatters on the campus,” I asked for the second time that day. “As I’ve gone around the city, I’ve seen squatters in many places, and I’m told that there’s not much that can be done about them. Well, I know what I’d do. I’d give them all lollipops.”
The “Trialogue,” a small room at the far left end of “student owned” Vinzons Hall (the student activities building) became a hangout for young activist. It served as headquarters for demonstrators. That was where Ben and his girlfriend took me. Surprisingly I was accepted, after Ben introduced me as a “neutral” journalist. Brown leather couches with matching coffee tables helped make the room a cozy place.
“With persistence, we’re making headway with President Lopez,” one of the students told me. “He arranged for Marcos to come to the campus and discuss vital matters and from that our eighteen demands were met. Mayor Amoranto assures us that the Quezon City police won’t enter our campus without a written request from the university.”
He stood up, went to the door, and looked down the hall, giving someone else an opportunity to say something to me. “Because of our general strike and because we shut down the university, Lopez was forced to issue Executive Order Number One. It gave greater autonomy to all student organizations. Now maybe we can get the university to release to us some money. We’ve asked for a lot of things. But it’s only the beginning.”
Dean Felixberto Sta. Maria (President Lopez wouldn’t see me), dean of the College of Education, was then feeling the heat. “Students are after my hide because I won’t give them everything they want,” he informed me, after warmly welcoming me into his office. “There’s still a process in place that allows them to air complaints.”
I said something about how unrest seemed to be growing.
“You have to realize that we have repeatedly given in and that a line has to be drawn somewhere. Of course, I’m not opposed to organized opposition and believe in academic freedom. Now about the question you raise about unrest, perhaps it should be organized in ways that classes are not disrupted. But in a democracy you can’t control everything. That’s why governments such as ours get into trouble. But I’ve so far been able to keep the doors open, as demonstrated by Marcos coming himself to the university, not once but twice.”
After my visit with the dean, I went to see Nick at his apartment. He still had a Chinese flag, a Red Chinese flag hanging on his wall. He talked to me as he finished a bowl of noodles. To me he enjoyed making slurping sounds. He asked me how I got into see Dean Felixberto Sta. Maria.
“I’m surprised that you know about it,” I said. “Between appointments, he squeezed me in. He spent most of the time defending himself.”
Nick heated water for tea on a hotplate and went on talking about the dean isolating himself. “Even when we do get in to see him, he claims he can’t make changes any quicker because we live in a democracy,” he said. “It’s a joke. Marcos certainly hasn’t paid attention to the Constitution. It has taken a general strike to get as far as we have. We were only asserting our rights.”
I asked him what he thought would happen next.
And he gave me a vague reply, and said, “Marcos has friends on campus, and by friends I’m talking about informers, even within various student groups. Marcos thinks by giving us a few cookies he can pacify us and save his own skin. There have already been students arrested for nothing but exercising their rights.”