Hints and Symbols

Oral histories

/ 05:05 AM March 25, 2019

Last Saturday I went, briefly, to the launching of the book “Press Freedom Under Siege: Reportage that Challenged the Marcos Dictatorship,” edited by Ms Ma. Ceres Doyo. The launch was held, fittingly, at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, in front of the wall of remembrance inscribed with the names of martyrs and heroes of the regime. My parents’ names are not on that wall, but the experience was as visceral and affecting to me as if they were.

My parents gave their youth to the struggle, and so much of their relationship had been defined by it, from their meeting — romantically, with my student father in detention and my mother a volunteer who sang songs for the detainees — to their wedding, held simply and without fanfare among their comrades; to my pregnant mother walking along the sidelines as People Power unfolded.


They had later gone on to live quiet middle-class lives, and, I suppose, would have mixed feelings about my romanticizing their youth and their involvement in challenging the dictatorship. However, it is impossible to divorce my knowledge of the dictatorship from the personal element of my parents’ stories, or how they continue to shape my decisions. During my interview for medical school I told the panelists that my parents, without force or coercion, had encouraged a career in medicine because of their civic mindedness, a consciousness of duty to the underserved; a sentiment that the panelists could appreciate as they came from the same state university which had nurtured both my father’s skills and that thirst for justice which is the province of passionate youth. A similar answer was given when I was interviewing for a surgical program, because my mother had remarked on the need for free surgical services among the rural and urban poor, with whom they had worked closely.

They had been unapologetically anti-New Society, and one of my first picture books was a collection of editorial cartoons of the conjugal dictatorship. My father, an artist who made print materials for dissemination and effigies which were burned during protests, spoke casually of things that must have been terrifying at the time, like being shot at, and later detained, at student rallies. My lullabies and singing contest pieces were from the Ibong Malaya tapes, “Songs of freedom and struggle from Philippine prisons.” It’s my late mother’s contralto I hear on the cassettes, and it was through her that I learned a coda omitted from the Freddie Aguilar popularized version of “Bayan Ko”: “Kay sarap mabuhay sa sariling bayan / Kung walang alipin at may kalayaan. / Ang bayang sinisiil/ Babangon, lalaban din. / Ang silanga’y pupula sa timyas ng paglaya.” She was a stickler for grammar but not for social convention, and encouraged freethinking. It’s on the laps of such mothers, one supposes, that subversives are made, but nothing in her mild manner and domestic air would have betrayed her.


My father is self-effacing; some of the names in the book were “nodding acquaintances.” He says of the editor, “noon pa lang may pangalan na siya, pero kami volunteers lang.” And yet the struggle could not have gone on without them and their friends.

I can’t divorce my concept of martial law and freedom from their oral histories, nor do I think I am meant to. It’s such legacies that make those years more than words and pictures. It’s the personal element that makes it impossible to accept when contemporaries remain apathetic or are determined to remain apolitical. It is also this, one supposes, that ought to propel one to bravery, to thinking “If not us, then who?”

I am not writing in the same climate that journalists wrote the pieces included in this book; I have never been threatened or imprisoned; I tweet with impunity, knowing that my words are mere annoyances, less impactful than the “mosquito” press of the time. But the accounts recount signs of a rising evil that we already recognize. I hope that writing in this fashion is still a form of bravery, and that there be more than enough stories of my second-hand, inherited courage when impending doom makes it necessary.

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TAGS: Hints and Symbols, kay rivera, oral histories, Press Freedom Siege
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