Looking Back

Martial law baby

Reading “Subversive Lives” by Susan and Nathan Quimpo reminded me that I belong to a generation known as the “martial law babies.” I was 11 the first day martial law swept over the Philippines in September 1972. The weather was fine, it was not a scheduled holiday, but classes were suspended. The adults seemed anxious because the newspapers were not delivered that morning. Radio and TV were dead. Everybody seemed to be indoors; the street outside our home was unusually still. I ventured out the village gate to find Edsa empty, then I was ordered back into the house.

Later in the day, Ferdinand Marcos announced on TV that martial law was upon us. He was in charge. It was not a military takeover. That blurry image captured in black and white, now part of archival footage, forms part of my childhood memories together with the Bagong Lipunan song, curfew, drop boxes to surrender firearms at street corners, and slogans like “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan.”


Mr. and Mrs. Marcos often interrupted our limited TV fare. Today we have so many choices on cable TV; during martial law there were times that all channels carried an “important public service announcement” featuring the Marcoses and annotated by either Rita Gaddi Baltazar or Ronnie Nathanielz. Children remembered Marcos on his birthday, Sept. 11, and even celebrated the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21 as “National Thanksgiving Day.” Some children were raised with “nutribuns,” and our vocabulary enlarged to include backyard farming known as the “Green Revolution” to contrast with the evil communist “Red Revolution.”

History was enlarged, such that KKK associated with Andres Bonifacio and the Philippine Revolution of 1896 gained another meaning as a livelihood project. New meanings were crafted for old words. Pag-ibig, for example, was not just “love,” it could also mean housing loans! Love was associated with the first air-conditioned buses in Manila known as the Love Bus that made a loop from Cubao to Makati to Escolta, and Bliss referred to low-cost tenement housing.


I have not checked the current Oxford English Dictionary to see if the Philippine usage for “salvage” has been recorded. In English, “salvage” means to save or recover something; in Philippine English it means the opposite. “Salvage” is used to describe brutal extrajudicial killings, often preceded by torture. To understand Philippine usage is to know how the multilingual Pinoy used the Spanish adjective  salvaje (savage) as a verb sinalbahe. When written in Spangalog as “sinalvaje” and read like English, you get “sinalvage” hence salvage and salvaging.

Reading “Subversive Lives” reminded me of my warped childhood and opened my eyes to the horrors of martial law that the government dismissed as rumor punishable by law as an offense called “rumor mongering.” The book reminded me of all the acronyms in use at the time that will have readers consulting the appendix of the book often. I remember people being described as “NatDems” and “SocDems,” terms also used by the Quimpos who seem to have forgotten the “GodDems.”

I’m glad I work on the late 19th century because people like Rizal left 25 volumes of writing. If Rizal had a cell phone or an iPad, Ambeth Ocampo would have no career. The historian working on state papers in the 21st century has a slightly different challenge from his predecessors. The invention of the cell phone, e-mail, and Skype means that many things are lost to history, that these are not written down.

Anyone studying Marcos, for example, has to track down many papers lost during the looting and cleaning of Malacañang in 1986. Marcos had a sense of history, which may yet be his undoing: He left us with a daily diary that remains to be published. Many of the papers that landed on his desk carry marginal notes. Where are these papers today? Did Cory Aquino work on papers the same way? Fidel Ramos was another President who liked to write on margins in different colors, each coded for emphasis, priority, and action required. Which papers were stored in Malacañang? Which papers were taken to his museum, which papers ended up in the National Archives or the scrap paper dealer?

Historians looking for state papers have another enemy in the paper shredder. What documents are filed, what are classified, what are destroyed? The other enemy is an ordinary bit of stationery we know as Post-it. These yellow squares of paper with adhesive contain important presidential notes or instructions pertaining to a document that remains spotless once the historical or incriminating handwritten scrawl on Post-it is removed.

Then there are the things that remain unsaid or unwritten. I told a diplomat in Manila once that a future historian would find their diaries an important primary source for the period. I was dismayed when he declared, “We are not supposed to keep diaries.” I asked why and he answered, “Diaries can be subpoenaed, so it is best not to have them.”

Martial law is a significant period in Philippine history and I’m glad there are books like “Subversive Lives” that not only tell us about one family’s experience but, more importantly, how the members came to terms with their past. Martial law needs to be revisited and the more primary sources available, the better it will be.


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