August 21, 1983. I have written and rewritten my recollection of this day and events that happened exactly 35 years ago. But in its retelling, there is always something new and good that I discover about myself, our people, and this country. And so I come back to that day again.
It was a quiet Sunday. I was then living in the House of Being (now Chicken Bacolod) in Katipunan Avenue. Dr. Leo Garcia, former Dean of the Ateneo School of Humanities and first Dean of the Ateneo College of Arts and Sciences, had organized that house of philosophy teachers and students when he came back from his doctorate studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium..
I was on my first year teaching philosophy at Ateneo de Manila and had also just begun doing my masteral studies on philosophy. I was aiming to do a thesis on Karl Marx, with no less than Fr. Joel Tabora SJ, now President of Ateneo de Davao Univeristy and then newly returned from Germany, a true master of Marxian texts, as my mentor. I was hoping to go to Italy to study Antonio Gramsci for my doctorate.
I had just come from two years teaching philosophy in Xavier University where I was a Jesuit Volunteer and was interested in a Marxian approach to social change and the role of culture in that approach. My experience in Mindanao, specially with students who joined the movement and underground, attracted me to the idea of helping build a united front against what was then called the US-Marcos dictatorship. Because of that I was more open to the national democratic movement than most of my colleagues and friends in Ateneo de Mania who were mostly social democrats. I was also not sympathetic to the so-called traditional opposition such as Salvador Laurel.
Today, I still believe in a united front of the left and center. But I am less critical of politicians now. My ten year stint as the dean of the Ateneo School of Government required me to engage with them and I have found enough good ones to work with. My experience especially with the Kaya Natin Movement for Good Governance, which was incubated in our school ten years ago, made me appreciate good politicians who are also servant leaders – among others, Jesse and Leni Robredo, TG Guingona, Francis Pangilinan, Bam Aquino, Fr. Ed Panlilio, Grace Padaca, the late Sonia Lorenzo, Mary Jane Ortega, and many others.
But in 1983, I was ambivalent about Ninoy Aquino although my mother Inday La Vina had met him in Cagayan de Oro and liked him very much. According to her, “My impression of Ninoy is not that of a suave politician but a man of vast knowledge under the sun: books, music, movies, literature,all the good things in life beyond politics. Indeed, it was a great honor that I will treasure forever in my heart to know a man of all and for all seasons. To quote Shakespeare,”whence come another?”
I must admit though that in early August of 1983, when word came that he was coming back to the Philippines after the family exile in Boston, I didn’t care much. This is something I regret now. I wish I were in the airport that now carries his name – to welcome a man willing to lay down his life for the country.
I should have taken Ninoy for his word when, quoting the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he spoke in Los Angeles in 1981: “My friends do not forget that your readiness to suffer will light the torch of freedom which can never be put out. Do not forget that we who are now in the middle of our years must inspire the youth when they are almost in the brink of despair. Do not forget that the purpose of life is precisely reexamining our being, not merely a floating flotsam in the time, in the floods of time. Do not forget, as Longfellow said that we should never be like driven cattle, but be a hero in the strife.”
And so on August 21, 1983, in the afternoon, I was somewhere in Cubao, Quezon City., and chanced upon Tina Montiel, my social psychology professor – upset, crying, asking me if I have heard the news about Ninoy’s assasination at the tarmac.
I rushed back to the House of Being where my room mates had slowly gathered, with one of us coming from the grocery to make sure we had supplies in case the political situation worsened. We were all numb, anxious. We knew something had irrevocably changed. I was not sure if it would be for the good or the bad.
It took a number of days before I realized how nation-changing Ninoy’s assassination would be. The next day, or maybe it was two days after the assassination, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I lined up for hours in the Church of Santo Domingo to view the remains of Senator Aquino where he was transferred when the lines in the Aquino’s Times Street residence became too long.
In the funeral march a few days later, I marched under the rain with Dr. Garcia all the way to Luneta. It was a glorious experience marching under a huge banner that said it all – “Justice for Aquino, Justice for all!”. In that iconic streamer, were the pictures of Ninoy, and others killed by the dictatorship – Edgar Jopson (he and Eman Lacaba, both Ateneans, are my personal martial law resistance heroes), Macling Dulag of the cordilleras, and Bobby de la Paz, the UP doctor who served the people in Samar.
It took another three years but the dictatorship was defeated. I was already in law school then, inspired by Diokno and another great human rights lawyer, Haydee Yorac, to learn to use the tools of law – reason, knowledge, word, authority, and power – to fight the dictatorship and to help build a just society.
We defeated a dictatorship that I, a martial law baby, thought would always be there for the rest of my life. Later also, we expelled the US military bases, a presence that I also thought would always be there.
But we also failed on so many challenges, and especially on addressing the scandal of poverty, taking care of our environment, and defeating impunity for corruption and human rights violations. We failed in the last 32 years to reform our social, economic, and political structures.
And now we have a government, two years old only, that has now a much worse human rights record than the Marcos regime that lasted for 14 years. Once again, our democracy is threatened, including through a charter change process that could repeat the 1973 experience when the Supreme Court legitimized an unconstitutional change.
In this country, one cannot rest. Until workers, farmers, the urban poor, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups free themselves from their oppression, until we have permanent peace agreements with all our revolutionary movements, until economic development becomes inclusive, until we are unified as people with a government that is truly Team Philippines and not DDS or dilawan, we cannot rest.
Still, today, as I do every year in August 21, I will celebrate. I will wear yellow, not my usual color. I will attend the anniversary mass in Santo Domingo in the afternoon. There, in that church where Ninoy Aquino was waked, I will pray for this country. I will thank The Lord for the gift of Ninoy Aquino who laid down his life for all of us. I will pray for eternal rest for his widow who also served us and strength and wisdom for their children. And I will promise to continue to do my part mainly by teaching and writing to help build a county of prosperous, just, peaceful and happy communities.
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