I was hoping to be at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, this Saturday, Sept. 19, for The Great Lean Run, a celebration of life of Leandro Alejandro, student activist, hero and martyr. If not for a teaching stint in the Cordilleras this weekend, it would have been nice to be with Lean’s friends and contemporaries, including his widow and now my climate activist colleague Lidy Nacpil. I belong to their generation but having gone to Ateneo de Manila for college, I did not know Lean personally. By the time I entered the University of the Philippines College of Law in 1985, Lean had already left Diliman to become the first secretary-general of Bayan, the biggest and most militant peoples’ coalition against the Marcos regime.
The Bantayog ng mga Bayani website summarizes Lean’s well-lived life quite well: “More than his extraordinary height, Lean stood out as an activist because he possessed insight, a unifying approach, speaking and writing skills, and courage and boldness. Older and more experienced colleagues in the protest movement had him in high regard, and government negotiators who met Lean across the barricades gave him their grudging respect.”
I have no doubt that if Lean were alive today, he would now be a senator or even a presidential candidate of a united Philippine left. He reminded me of Edgar Jopson, student leader from the Ateneo de Manila, who also was destined to lead this country. And like Edjop, Lean was killed at the prime of his life. Lean survived the Marcos years only to be assassinated in 1987 when his vehicle was ambushed near the BAYAN headquarters in Quezon City.
Like Lean, I was a “Martial Law baby”. I was first year high school in Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan in Cagayan de Oro City when, 43 years ago, President Ferdinand E. Marcos proclaimed martial law throughout the Philippines. I still remember how it was like that morning of Sept. 23 when the proclamation was announced. Although Marcos supposedly signed the proclamation on Sept. 21, 1972, the announcement was made two days later to give the police and military lead time to arrest opposition leaders, media people, student activists, labor and peasant organizers, etc. Our school had to close down and when it open a few weeks later, things had changed. Fortunately, our principal then was Fr. Chito Unson SJ, who passed away just last week, and he was a kind and good priest who allowed us some freedom.
As I have written before, unknown to us at that time, my father, Gabriel La Viña, Jr. did something courageous in those first few days of Martial Law. A professor of law in Xavier University, he knew many of the student activists, arguing with and becoming a friend and counselor to them. When Martial Law was proclaimed, some students who decided to go to the hills to fight the dictatorship turned to my father to ask for sanctuary. In spite of the risks, he allowed the activists to hide in our house, then being constructed, at that time at the edge of the center of the city although now we are surrounded by malls. Up to this day, I meet people who come up and thank me for what my father did.
Many years later, when I was a Jesuit Volunteer and a philosophy teacher first at Xavier University and then at Ateneo de Manila, I found myself doing the same thing as my father—helping out whenever and however I could students who made tough decisions, like going underground, to work full-time against the Marcos regime. I admired them for their courage and commitment; ideology did not matter to me as much as an ability to love the people and country. That is why I am not anti-communist. I remind my sons and students never to indulge in red-baiting as it kills people.
Martial Law was an experience of uncertainty. Whenever I am asked why I married young, I always say that it is because I thought my wife and I were going to die young. Because of our work, it was said that intelligence agents followed us regularly to find out what we were doing, who we were meeting, etc. Once my relatives from Bukidnon even banned me from going to that central mountain province in Mindanao because I was in some military list of people to be arrested or killed.
But we survived the Martial Law years. The first experience, yes, was of fear. But later, for me, anger and resistance became my response. I struggled to find my role. I thought of taking up arms but realized that I believed in the absoluteness of human rights and that non-violence is the best way forward to defeat injustice. I came to that decision after becoming aware, through friends who directly experienced them, about the purges in the revolutionary movement in Mindanao during the mid-1980s.
When I came back to Manila in 1983, and after the Aquino assassination, the anti-dictatorship movement accelerated and eventually culminated in the People Power Revolution of 1986. Unfortunately, because of strategic and tactical miscalculations, Bayan and its allies were not well-positioned to be part of the new government. It was painful listening to Lean on radio during the Edsa revolution as clearly the movement he led, which had spearheaded the resistance against the Marcos regime from its establishment, was not in tune with the people.
The night Marcos fell, I was at the gates of Malacañang Palace celebrating. But even then I realized the struggle for national liberation was not over.
The struggle continues. There is so much work still to be done. Our generation is leaving the next with a lot of problems: impunity for human rights violations, corruption, unsustainable development, climate change, social and environmental injustice,, and the poverty of our people are just some examples.
I will never forget the day the great Lean was killed. I remember crying the whole night and writing a letter to Eman (named also for an Ateneo activist, poet, and revolutionary Eman Lacaba), my eldest and at that time only son, about how the future of the country looked bleak without a leader like Lean. I did argue in that letter that we should still hope, that Lean’s example should help us persevere.
Two memorable lines from Lean continue to inspire today. The first give us courage: “The line of fire is a place of honor.” The second gives meaning to what we do as we fight to liberate this country and set our people free from injustice, corruption, and other shackles: “The next best thing to being free is the struggle to be free.”
I did not know Lean personally when he was alive. But I did run with him during many marches and rallies, including in Mendiola, Liwasang Bonifacio, and QC Welcome Rotonda against the Marcos dictatorship. In running with the great Lean, this is the lesson I learned: There is always, dawn, after the night; light after darkness. Hope is always the final word.
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