‘Subversive Lives’: A family’s story
For some, the dark years of martial law belong to history books, but for the Quimpo family, it is a story of how middle-class, Catholic-educated boys and girls, torn between reform and revolution, and between filial piety and social justice, became student activists (and one girl, an Opus Dei member), full-time rebels, political detainees and, disillusioned by their chosen faiths, successfully reinvented themselves in a changed world.
“Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years” by Susan F. Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo (Anvil Publishing, 2012), chronicles the life of the 10 Quimpo children, two of whom would die in the course of the armed struggle: seventh child Ronald Jan sometime in 1977 and second to the youngest Ishmael or Jun in 1981. All the boys would spend time behind bars as political detainees. In Orwellian doublespeak, they were common criminals, not political prisoners.
The book contains essays, some extended and reflective, others more like entries in a diary or journal, that begin in the family home in Manila. They were typical Filipino middle-class: pro-American parents, the father employed by Coca Cola, the mother a full-time homemaker who stretched the family budget to feed and clothe 10 children. The kids all went to nearby Catholic schools, the boys to San Beda College (except one who got an Ateneo scholarship), the girls to College of the Holy Spirit.
Their story confirms what I’d always suspected: that at that time, the Catholic high schools were unwittingly the best recruiters for the New People’s Army. Through them, the kids were immersed in talk about social justice and the “preferential option for the poor,” and sensitized them to the inhumanity of poverty and inequality.
So when these kids went to Diliman or Loyola for college, and the Kabataang Makabayan stepped in and said, You’re absolutely correct! Let us show you how to do it!, it’s as if the Catholic-educated kids were primed for that moment, just waiting to be recruited. Eldest son Norman, Ateneo math professor, captures the typical dilemma: “I was now on the lookout for an activist group that was radical but mindful of Christian principles.”
The book shows how this process happened, slowly and incrementally, among the Quimpo brothers. They were altar boys who even formed a choir for Sunday Mass. And yet even their music shifted from church songs, to anti-Vietnam War protest ballads and, I suppose toward the end, to the Internationale. And then one by one, they began attending their first protest rallies, and their father disapproved: “Demonstrations and rallies—you call those extracurriculars? Pretty soon you’ll be neglecting your studies …. You could even be kicked out of school… If you go, you will never set foot in the house again.”
(On a personal note, I saw one familiar name in Norman’s memoirs: Billy Begg, an Ateneo SDK member who was eventually kicked out and moved to UP where he joined the Alpha Sigma Fraternity. I joined the frat in 1975. I now realize that at that time Billy had just been killed in a gun battle in Isabela. And that is why as a neophyte, I was told to memorize his full name: William Vincent Acuña Begg.)
The book also shows us the full impact of martial law at a personal level: of how some of them would live life on the run, assuming aliases wherever the people’s war would take them; of arrest and torture (electric shock, body blows with a filing cabinet’s locking bar, bullets between the twisted fingers); of boredom and degradation behind barbed wires in the detention camps; of ideological rifts within the erstwhile monolithic Philippine Left, especially the boycott campaigns during the 1978 parliamentary elections and, with a resurgent aboveground opposition after the death of Ninoy, the 1984 Batasang Pambansa elections. Nathan, one of the authors, became a leading theoretician and eventually left the movement, got a PhD, and is now a political science professor in Japan.
Perhaps it is likewise a sign of the ideological shift toward the “private sphere” issues that, of the many memorable quotes from the book, one that stands out for me was a speech delivered by a then 11-year-old Ryan, who was stricken with polio as a seven-month-old baby, before a meeting of orthopedic specialists: “While my classmates have fun at games, I sit around and watch from my desk. Unkind children tease and make fun of me. I don’t mind too much now. My parents love me and I am happy. I am thankful that I’m alive. But there is nothing like having two good legs.” Ironically, today it is Deng Hsiao Ping’s son (yup, Deng, the No. 1 “capitalist roader”), crippled by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, who is China’s leading advocate for PWDs.
While reading the book, I braced myself for the end. I wondered: With all of them disillusioned by the life-changing beliefs they had embraced, and for all the pain and agony they have borne, how will this story end? Happily, I think, as if to say, No regrets. As the last chapter’s title said, it was “The End of a Revolution,” where Ryan spoke of “the end of an era of passionate activism. It was the death of a dynamic movement that had unprecedentedly mobilized millions of Filipinos to change their destiny.” That the dream failed is not their fault. That they chose to be part of that glorious crimson dream is their virtue.
The book closes with an epilogue titled “Aftermath,” that closes with Susan, the youngest child, reminiscing about a visit to a memorial ceremony for martial law’s martyrs and overhearing a man pointing out to his son the name of Ishmael (Jun) Quimpo. Apparently the man and Jun had worked together in the slums of Tatalon. Lighting a candle, he told her: “This is my son. I named him after Jun.”
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