Women of martial law
We Filipinos are said to forget and to forgive too easily our oppressors, be they colonizing powers (Japan, in particular, during World War II) or our own dictators and despots.
I’ve wondered though if the amnesia comes more from the lack of publications and films and school educational materials that speak of infamy as well as—I consider this more important—the heroism of Filipinos during the most difficult of times. And when speaking of heroes and heroines, we shouldn’t just be remembering the more visible and outspoken political personalities, but the many more “ordinary” people who made a difference, sometimes simply by holding the fort for those personalities.
I thought about all this last Sunday when I dropped by the wake for Carmen Icasiano Diokno, widow of the late Sen. Jose Diokno, often tagged as the father of human rights in the Philippines because of his work with the Civil Liberties Union of the Philippines and, during martial law, with the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).
The late senator is himself under-appreciated. It took 12 years for Sen. Joker Arroyo and other legislators to get a boulevard named after Diokno, after the National Historical Commission and former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza opposed an earlier proposal to rename Taft Avenue after Diokno.
When martial law was declared in 1972, both Diokno and Ninoy Aquino were immediately arrested and brought to Camp Crame, before their transfer to Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. No visitors were allowed, including their immediate family, until 7 months later.
Aquino was eventually sent into exile. Diokno was imprisoned for almost two years but right after he was released, went to work to defend the few civil liberties that were left. He founded FLAG which worked closely with the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFD) to assist political prisoners as well as to educate the public about their rights. I still remember the booklets they produced, giving advice on what to do if your house was raided by the military, or if someone was arrested.
In the initial years after martial law was declared, middle- and upper-class Filipinos were cynical about human rights. Because of press censorship, many were unaware of the illegal detention, the torture and the “salvaging” (executions or, more bluntly, rub-outs by the military).
There were also many Filipinos who felt that the suspension of civil liberties was warranted. I remember how people would scoff at the words “human rights,” repeating the “New Society” slogan about discipline being needed for the nation to progress—“Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan.”
But as human rights violations increased, more people began to get involved with TFD, FLAG and other groups. The Concerned Women of the Philippines, headed by Manuel Quezon’s daughter, Nini Avanceña Quezon, used their old family names as symbolic capital to speak out against abuses. The religious, too, were particularly attracted to human rights work; in fact, the TFD office was located inside one of the compounds of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM)—the one on N. Domingo Street in San Juan, which was also home to the Sister Formation Institute, where Catholic sisters went for religious studies.
I have many memories of life in that compound, first as a student dropping by every week to pick up copies of Various Reports produced by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. Various Reports contained all the news that couldn’t be published in the mainstream press. Later, after graduation, I worked with the Catholic Church’s social action arm, which included a stint with LUSSA (Luzon Secretariat of Social Action), which was also housed in the RVM compound.
This was where I met human rights workers, many of them women, religious and lay. Feisty Sr. Mariani Dimaranan, herself an ex-detainee, headed TFD for many years, chasing after military officials whenever arrests were reported, to make sure the detainees were safe or, in the all too many cases where they had been tortured or “disappeared,” to force the military to produce the detainee.
Many of the volunteers were the women relatives of detainees. It was here where I met Mommy de la Torre, mother of Ed de la Torre the activist-priest. It was Mommy de la Torre who told me once that many activists tended to underestimate their parents’ capacity to understand political activism. “Talk to your parents, educate them,” she told me.
Mommy de la Torre would travel from her home in Mindoro to Manila to visit her son, as well as give time for other detainees. It was from her where I came to understand the power people have when they are spurred by love of family, even as they develop their political commitment.
I didn’t get to know Senator Diokno’s wife, Tita Nena, but there were times when I had to be in their home for meetings. She was always busy with something, taking care of the many visitors as well as her own large family, and sitting in at the meetings, speaking her mind.
She and Cory Aquino and Mommy de la Torre and many others held the fort—a task that was often more difficult than the challenges those in detention or those who were politically active had to face. The fears and anxieties were tremendous, as were the loneliness and pain that came with the separation from their loved ones.
After Senator Diokno’s death, all too soon after the Edsa revolt, I would occasionally hear of Tita Nena. She was at the inauguration of an Aquino-Diokno Shrine at Fort Magsaysay some years back and in 2007, she delivered a strong statement calling for the resignation of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
The Diokno children have been more visible, continuing to uphold the legacy of their parents, still working for the defense of civil liberties and human rights through organizations like FLAG. The ones I see more often are in UP. Maris Diokno is a professor at UP Diliman, connected with the history department and now the chair of the National Historical Commission. Popoy went back to school around midlife to finish a degree in anthropology and is now working with the housing NGO Habitat.
I also had two Diokno grandchildren in my anthropology classes. One of them, Laya, was an anthropology major, with a strong interest in history. The other Diokno took one of my anthropology classes as an elective; he was quiet and always sat on the same seat at the back. This was grandson Jose Lorenzo, now known for his independent films.
At the wake, I thought of the many Tita Nenas in the Philippines, hovering around and caring for their aktibista -husbands, children. . . maybe even grandchildren. Aktibista too they were, and I mean this as a word of praise, a word as great as bayani.
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