The Learning curve

Why remember the Sept. 21 nightmare?

Sometimes I wonder why I would want to remember that dark day in our history when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos stripped us all of our freedoms and perpetuated himself in power with the declaration of martial law in 1972. Proclamation No. 1081 was signed on Sept. 21, but was only publicly announced on Sept 23. The arrest and detention of his top critics led by Senators Ninoy Aquino and Jose W. Diokno began on Sept. 21, 47 years ago today—the better to have caught us all unaware.

It is a day that still reawakens nightmares for me personally, but I know that despite the harsh and horrible memories, the day has to be remembered, lest we forget the lessons it has left us. Because forgetting would mean rendering all personal and political wounds of the period meaningless, especially with all the continuing attempts at altering our history so that yesterday’s villains are welcomed back into the bosom of society. Or even to be persuaded that the horrors of martial law never really happened. Did we really just imagine it all?


Fortunately, there are books for young readers that render the martial law experience more understandable and more accessible than the usual textbook facts.

“At the School Gate” by Sandra Nicole Roldan, illustrated by Nina Martinez (Bookmark, 2018), is not set during the martial law years, but captures the emotional impact of the period on the young school girl-narrator and her family. Through her chilling personal narrative centered on her father’s detention during martial law at the Camp Crame Detention Center—where she says she was conceived during a Valentine’s Day conjugal visit—to her father’s repeated arrests even in present times, the reader is drawn into a challenging period in our recent history.


The news of her father’s arrest with a price on his head, and hardly recognizing him on television where he is shown handcuffed and in long-sleeved shirt, certainly to hide the evidence of physical torture, weighs heavily on the young girl-narrator. Hearing the news from her Tita Em the day she waits for her in school, she finds herself shutting herself from the present: “I noticed something happening to the ceiling. It slowly swelled and undulated like a huge balloon filled with jelly. It heaved like the belly of a giant reptile…”

The events are familiar and recognizable—the price on her father’s head, the newspaper headlines, the prison visits, the court trials, the harassment of family members through surveillance. The story veers away from father in detention to who is at the school gate. To the young girl, it is someone forbidding, with teeth shiny as bullets and with a gun bulging at his side.

The narrator’s moment of triumph is when she gathers enough courage to confront the man at the gate. She knows he is only doing his surveillance duty, but since he wants information about her, she gives him all that. I know you are military, she confronts him. “Tell Papa I’m not afraid anymore.”

Key to that statement is her father’s statement she has taken to heart: “As long as you see something wrong, you don’t stop fixing it. You never really stop fighting. You just learn to fight in a different way.”

The rich details Roldan uses, as in the reference to People Power (“I thought it was like winning the Sweepstakes and all Filipinos would become rich. No more beggars in the street or little kids selling sampaguita at night.”) and the dictator (“Bad presidents like Marcos may come and go but They will always stay in power.”), humanize the narrative.

One also takes note of the use of “They” and “Them” in their upper case form when referring to the military, as if they were to be spoken of in hushed voices, so dreaded that they could not be referred to by name.

A second book is a translation from a Spanish book, part of a Books for Tomorrow series. “Ito ang Diktadura,” illustrated by Mikel Casal (Adarna, 2017), is a virtual hall of shame, a gallery of dictators who are unmasked and found to be less than courageous. Ferdinand Marcos is part of the roster, in unsavory company with and in the same row as Nicolae Ceausescu, Idi Amin, Pol Pot.


These two books in my growing martial law library should reaffirm and strengthen any freedom-loving citizen’s resolve to always remember what went before, so that “Never Again” becomes more than a battle cry to live by.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos, Jose W. Diokno, martial law, Ninoy Aquino, Proclamation No. 1081
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