The day Manila fell silent

By Filipina Storyteller Ninotchka Rosca

Ironically, the most quiet day in Manila of contemporary times began with noise:  a loud pounding on the glass door of a penthouse apartment I was using at the time.  The friend who was hollering and shouting and bruising his knuckles on the glass, blurted out, as soon I slid the door open, “Martial law na…[Martial law already]”  A split second of silence;  then I pivoted and clicked on the radio.  Nothing but white noise.  Turned on the TV.   Nothing but a white screen and static.  Distraught friend said, “no TV, no radio station… everything’s closed down.”  We eyeballed each other.  The previous night’s last news item on TV flashed into my mind:  a still photo of a car, its roof collapsed, windshield shattered; a male voice saying that the car of the Secretary of National Defense had been attacked but he had not been in it… It was truncated news; I thought,  “What?  An empty car was bombed?” As I was going to bed, I noticed that the government building behind our apartment building was all lit up: floor after floor, from top to bottom, blazing with lights. I said then, “Something’s happening; and it’s happening all over the city.”

Now this friend stuttering about martial law triggered an avalanche of images in my brain. This would become a habit with me ever after, this going into mental hyperdrive, correlating incidents and data, during crisis. The cascade stopped with the face of a smiling Senator Benigno Aquino, as he said to me, while we stood in the red carpeted foyer of the old Senate, “Marcos will not catch me lying down.” I’d asked about Oplan Sagittarius, rumored to be the secret blueprint for martial law.  We’d all assumed that if ever, it would go into effect in November-December.  So I just teased the senator, calling him President Aquino.  It would be my last face-to-face with him.  In 1983, when he was assassinated, I muttered to myself, “I’d better fix my papers; Marcos will fall.”  I was in New York City by then.  I had filed for political asylum but it was just in stasis.

What is the point of this recollection?  It is to stress that martial law was personal… PERSONAL.  Everyone felt it, was affected by it, had an opinion, a thought, a feeling, about it.  The day it was declared, with a friend standing there, his hair practically on end, I remembered how, a week before, a minor journalist on the military beat had generously offered to check if my name and address were on an arrest order. Young though I was, I wasn’t exactly naïve. I gave him an old address. Sure enough, the place was raided.

We moved quickly.  I had to find a secure telephone so I could find out what had happened, was happening. Outside, it was so quiet, so quiet…  Manila had always been a noisy city:  music blaring from car and jeepney radios, from juke boxes;  television noises;  people yelling.  But this day, it was so very, very quiet. Aboard a jeepney, there was only desultory human voices:  Para, mama;  sa kanto lang…  No music; no talking; and we avoided one another’s eyes.  We were all beginning to be locked within; imprisoned as it were.  When the jeepney passed a newspaper building with its front doors barred by rolls of concertina wire, we all took a sidelong glance and averted our eyes.  We did not want to seem overly interested.  We were beginning to learn NOT to call attention to ourselves – a very strange thing for Filipinos who, to this day, love to strut and crow and flap wings.

Being a journalist, my first impulse was to call the National Press Club.  I asked for Tony Zumel, who was NPC president at the time.  The secretary — she was called Baby, if memory serves me right — upon hearing my name, switched to this unusually saccharine vocal inflexion :  “Haaaay, hello, how are you…long time no hear” – which nobody but nobody used with me at the NPC.   I asked for Tumel, our nickname for Zumel; and she sang out, “Oooooh, he’s not here.  I don’t know where he is.”  Pause.  I asked, “Military there?”  And she said, “Yessss…”  Nothing left but to say thanks, goodbye.

Years later, in 1986, with Marcos still in power, I’d be in the same building, looking for Tony Nieva’s office which was at the back of the NPC.  A young cigarette vendor asked what I was looking for;  I inadvertently said, “The office of Tony Zumel.”  His eyes glazed and he looked far, far, far away, seemingly at a caravan crossing the desert, and answered, softly, “Ay, matagal na pong wala iyon…Matagal na. [He’s been gone a long time. A long, long time.]”  I looked at him with wonder, a kid with an unbreakable connection to history.

It was personal.  It was not just a piece of paper with a signature, not just a voice making the announcement;  it wasn’t even the orders barked at rows of khaki- or fatigue-uniformed men. It was an absolute threat, a palpable danger, a loss of self-power and security. It endangered the usual, the common, the ordinary details of daily life.  Years later, Rodolfo Salas, then chair of the Communist Party of the Philippines, would tell me of how about 200 students ran for their Central Luzon guerrilla base, throwing his group into a tizzy — though it’s hard to imagine Bilog, as we called him, even slightly nervous. “We had to feed them,” he said smiling, “and used up in one day our month’s supply.”  Bilog then instructed his unit to interview each student.  Those not under direct threat would return to town or city to help in the resistance.  Those with “serious threats” would be given the choice of moving elsewhere:  northern, southern Luzon;  the Visayas;  Mindanao.  He said that some who were not under direct threat chose to be sent elsewhere, willing to take on the very difficult task of opening new guerrilla fronts.

Romantic in the telling, it wasn’t, in reality.  The half-joke then was that if one survived for a year in the countryside, one was already a veteran.  Still, many chose this manner of struggle.  Because martial law was personal.

A lexicon grew for clandestine work, so that information could be imparted without naming the information. Sunog meant raid, capture.  Nanununog meant someone was talking.  Nasunog meant someone had been betrayed.  And of course, at the end of every meeting, INGAT, which recently is translated as “take care.”  No nothing as innocuous as that.  It meant “be careful” out there.  And as if to underscore the intellectual underpinnings of the budding movement, the Communist Party was the Q, following the symbolic logic formula, if p then q.

Thus the struggle against martial law would begin – quietly, carefully, slowly, in a process of learning, unlearning and refinement as it went along.  It was fought not only with guns, since even guerrillas could not survive without supplies and there were no deep bases as yet.  Supply teams were set up in Manila for various regions, because while there was food of a sort in the countryside, there was little by way of cash.  Certain things just had to be bought.  I recall at the time that the request for supplies for the Cordillera region, then called Montanosa, came to a measly 800 pesos a month.  For as long as I could, I gave all of it.

One early coup de plume would cheer the city of Manila, at least. A poem, well written, was published by a magazine controlled by Marcos’s cronies. Just a little poem but all the letters starting each line, when scanned downward, read: Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta… Via the grapevine, we learned almost instantly it had been done by Pete Lacaba. The owners tried to have all the copies recalled but one was delivered to my residence, so I was fortunate enough to have seen it with my own eyes. This kind of daring would set the tone for the struggle’s propaganda.

The first issue of Liberation came out in 1975, I believe. The making of it had its comedic moments. Since the cover had to be photo-stenciled, one young man went to a Makati Gestetner store, pretended to be buying a machine, and when the sales agent was distracted by a phone call, loaded the designed front page into the machine. Remember that one had to apply for a license to even have a mimeograph machine. Distribution of copies was done by a Volkswagen so old its driver door kept swinging open every 350 meters, as it were, revealing all the newsletter stacks on the backseat. But by 1986, I was assured that copies were being inserted into Marcos’s election propaganda, distributed by his party for the election. It was no longer the mimeographed version I was familiar with; it was printed, likely by the same printing presses doing Marcos’s propaganda and equally likely, paid for by the same budget appropriation.

The struggle learned how to struggle and in that learning were many, many stories – of rage and laughter, of loss and gains. The death of Puri Pedro, murdered by a military officer, was a palpable pain over our neighborhood. The escape of political prisoners, on the other hand, brought an almost carnival mood. It is my hope that one day, all stories will be told, affirming that those who were imprisoned — 100,000 by the then Secretary of Defense own admission – can be named; that those who were murdered – 3,000 plus have been documented but more died in so-called “encounters” – can be named; and those who disappeared – 759 documented, though there were more – can be named.

For on the day Manila fell quiet, it was not only noise, music, talk, chatter, the hum of a vibrant life, that martial law sought to take away from us. Martial law sought to reduce the millions of names in the archipelago to the handful of the Marcos clan and cronies, denying millions the right to be, to exist, to be named. Martial law reduced the entire population of the archipelago to the Marcos clan and cronies;  nobody else was of significance; no one else’s desire, wishes, goals and dreams mattered. Martial law sought to erase all of us, rendering us merely props on the stage where the supposed magnificent destiny of clan and cronies would unfold. Martial law dehumanized us, rendered us NAMELESS. We were all rendered non-persons. The response was to take martial law as personal and to work for both an individual and collective democracy fascism couldn’t break. This was done in the interfaces of life which couldn’t be policed, away from surveillance, in the days most quiet need. From time to time, the little noises would break out into a huge yell – a noise barrage protesting the fraudulent Manila election; students banging on the door bars and window rails quickly installed at university campuses.

Forty years later, here we are, in a re-collection of those times, at a cool basement gallery, in a neighborhood of a city so different from the terrain where what we have re-collected occurred. We are on the other side of the globe, though I’m pleased to remember the first reading ever honoring the murdered poet Emman Lacaba (at the Bowery church) and the first reading honoring murdered and imprisoned Filipino poets (sponsored by PEN American Center for which it was excoriated by the head of PEN Philippines) took place in this city – two events I was fortunate to help set up.

In our own fashion, in the Philippines, in the US and wherever we were, we dealt with martial law and the continued usurpation of the archipelago by the Marcos Clan and Cronies.  We learned as we went along, as martial law was a very new thing, we had no models of resistance to it. But we learned, making as much noise as possible as we learned, and we learned very well indeed.

Which is why the national (official) reluctance to deal with martial law, to name it for what it was,  to extract justice for the damage it inflicted upon people and the islands – this reluctance has been so distressing. The revision of history began almost at once, and it took the form immediately of denying the power of the people in the overthrow of the Marcos Dictatorship. Instead, the overthrow has been ascribed to a few names – “heroes” – and supernatural elements. Hell, if people hadn’t taken their courage in hand, all the “heroes” would have died under tank fire. But so it goes;  the rich and powerful preserve their own construct.  Victims of human rights violations remain bereft of justice; those who imprisoned, murdered, raped, still walk untrammeled and often in power; those who shared in the division of loot and turf continue to hold on to what they had stolen – even as the people, yes, the people, were being reduced to metaphorical observers in the narrative of the struggle against martial law.

Because of this national (official) reluctance,  the legacy of martial law continues: the impunity of assassinations, murder and relentless violence, warlordism and turfism, the perverse view that public money is the private treasury of those in authority and the idea that the people are unthinking lumps of matter entitled only to lies and trickery. How steadily amnesia has taken over minds and hearts – with those who should be in disrepute elevated to pedestals of respect. Marcos Clan and Cronies are finger-painting daisies on a curtain being drawn over the putrid night of the martial law years. Their egos, swollen with the unlimited self-indulgence of the martial law years, have not shrunk to proper proportions. Only truth can do that; only justice can do that.

Forty years after Manila fell silent, let us push away the cacophony of lies and sink ourselves once more into the quiet truth of that day. Because as martial law was personal then, it is still personal now.

As they seek to perpetuate the legacy of martial law, we must perpetuate the legacy of those who fought it. What can we, who live so far from the hard heat of a Philippine summer, the cool of monsoon rains, what can we do – we who are on the other side of the globe, in a strange city, in a strange neighborhood and who are now gathered today in a cool basement gallery, so very different from the terrain visited by martial law?

Many of you weren’t even born yet when Marcos was overthrown, much less when martial law was declared. And yet here we all are, fighting NOT to be nameless in this neighborhood, this city, this state, this country, in the intricate workings of capital.

Through the years I have seen and been engaged in many big and small movements, artistic and political and often both; they waxed and waned, surged and ebbed, and petered out, even as our numbers increased. Many poets, many writers, many painters, many sculptors of Filipino descent worked and struggled in this country, trying to bring an awareness of what has transpired, is transpiring, in 7,000 islands on the other side of the globe. And like a Sisyphean  task, we have seen the words we wrote, images we drew, figures we shaped, shatter and fade even as we continued to write, to draw, to sculpt.

There is a need for permanence to our work, a deep-rootedness, to mark it as of this place though prism-ed by events elsewhere. We need to affirm that we are of this place and of this time, though our lineage may be elsewhere. We need affirm our right to be here – to be visible and engaged in this country, to be as a branch of the banyan tree which, even as it issues forth from the mother trunk, seeks to sink its own roots into the alien loam. By affirming our right to be here, our right to fashion a life and a destiny for ourselves here, by affirming our right and duty to make history in the time and place of our lives, by affirming our right to have a name, as it were, here, we defeat the original intent of martial law. In the process, we also help create a genuine democracy for ourselves, our communities, our brothers and sisters of different colors and different ethnicities. And that, as we did learn in the years following the day Manila fell silent, is the path to victory.

Thank you and, because dangers continue, INGAT.

Talk on 9 September 2012,  Bliss on Bliss Studio, Queens, New York City.

Ninotchka Rosca has two novels, two short story collections and four non-fiction books. Her novel State of War is considered a classic account of ordinary people’s lives under a dictatorship. She is a classic short story writer. She is also the author of the best-selling English language novels State of War and Twice Blessed. The latter won her the 1993 American Book Award for excellence in literature. Her most recent book is JMS: At Home In The World, co-written with the controversial Jose Maria Sison, who has been included in the U.S. list of “terrorists.” Rosca was a political prisoner under the dictatorial government of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. She was forced into exile to Hawaii, United States when threatened with a second arrest for her human rights activism by the Marcos regime. Rosca was designated as one of the 12 Asian-American Women of Hope by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project. These women were chosen by scholars and community leaders for their courage, compassion and commitment in helping to shape society. They are considered role models for young people of color, who, in the words of Gloria Steinem, “have been denied the knowledge that greatness looks like them.” Rosca has worked with Amnesty International and the PEN American Center. Rosca was also a founder and the first national chair of the GABNet, the largest and only US-Philippines women’s solidarity mass organization, which has evolved into AF3IRM. She is the international spokesperson of GABNet’s Purple Rose Campaign against the trafficking of women, with an emphasis on Filipinas.