During martial law, then Senators Benigno Aquino Jr. and Jose Diokno were detained in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.
Friends and relatives knew the senators by their nicknames “Ninoy” and “Pepe,” but here the Marcos-era military gave them code names, Greek letters based on the first letter of their surnames. Thus, Aquino was referred to as “Alpha” and Diokno as “Delta.” The original structure, I was told, was torn down but was rebuilt and spruced up many decades later for a visit by Corazon C. Aquino. It was spruced up again last week for the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, and renamed the Aquino-Diokno Memorial and Armed Forces of the Philippines Center for Human Rights Dialogue. This memorial reminds us of the dark side of martial law because our textbooks highlight its sunny side. The memorial is erected not to instill hatred but to ensure that what happened to Aquino and Diokno and countless others does not happen again to anyone.
Imprisonment affects people in different ways. The loss of freedom can embitter, bore, and depress one, while another can use the solitude for study and reflection. The Aquino-Diokno Memorial reminded me of the Rizal Shrine in far-off Zamboanga del Norte, a memorial to Jose Rizal’s exile in 1892-1896. Writing today’s column brought out different words used for this period in Rizal’s life and the different meanings they carry: exile means being away from one’s home or country; deportation means the expulsion of foreign nationals from a country; while banishment means the expulsion of nationals. By today’s usage then, Rizal was exiled or banished to Dapitan.
Ninoy Aquino was a changed man after solitary detention in Nueva Ecija; he lost weight and became wiser. One can only speculate how the same experience would have affected Rizal, who was not put behind bars but was banished to a place so different from the European capitals he knew so well. Rizal used his exile to make Dapitan a better place. When he arrived in July 1892, he wrote his mother saying that nobody went there because only one mail boat docked every 27 days. He described the climate as good and healthful. He wrote: “Don’t send me anything, absolutely nothing, for I need nothing more than a pair of good shoes, and these are hard to send by mail.” Even then, things got lost in the mail!
By January 1893, Rizal had become busy. In a letter to his brother-in-law Maneng, he narrated: “I have formed a partnership with a Spaniard to supply the town with fish of which it lacks. In Dapitan alone there are 6,000 inhabitants, and in the interior some 2,000 or 3,000 more, and for so many people there is nothing but small sakag that catches little fish of the size of the talaisá. Aquilino told me that with one pukútan alone like yours, the whole town could be supplied with fish, because here, there is a good beach and fish abound a little distance away from the shore. If you wish to sell me your pukútan at an agreed price, and if it is still in good condition, I would buy it. If not, I would appreciate it if you would buy me a pukútan in the same condition, good, strong, etc.
“Nobody here knows how to weave mesh for a net. I would appreciate also very much if you would look for me for two men or families in the beach of Kalamba who understand fishing. If they come, I will pay their fare. They take passage for Cebú on the mail boat that comes here without saying from where they are or whether they are going to Dapitan, and when the boat passes here, the governor will disembark with them. The fare from Manila to Cebú costs less than one-half of the fare from Manila to Dapitan, and a curious thing, the boat touches at Dapitan before Cebú. I would appreciate it also if you would tell me your arrangement with the fishermen, so that we would know how to deal with them. They will have a house and all they may need for their subsistence. I believe this would be a good business. For the payment of the net, please ask our Father who holds for me some money.
“Do me also the favor of telling our father or Antonino (anyone of the two) that if my money is not yet invested, to please send me P500, delivering it to the Professor Superior of the Jesuits of the Manila, for I intend to engage here in the buying of abaca. If there is no money, paciencialo.”
Rizal’s letters brim with excitement over business opportunities. Land was cheap and fertile. He acquired land with fruit trees and he cleared a portion to sow rice and corn. He studied the return on investment in abaca and, as can be seen above, he planned to teach the people of Dapitan how to pull in more fish from the sea than they were used to. The added bonus to all this was that there were no friars to meddle in his affairs.
In one letter Rizal wrote: “Thank God that my banishment can bring something useful to Dapitan.” Well, Dapitan today boasts of a beach resort and an amusement center, but it remains very much as Rizal left it over a century ago. Compared to Manila and other urbanized cities, Dapitan is still a sleepy hick town. But it is a city not just because Rizal lived there but also, and more importantly, because he made it better than it was before he was exiled there.
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