I was only two years old when President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law. My only memories of the time were the sound of the siren announcing the 9pm curfew, and the warning adults told us children when we misbehaved, that the Philippine Constabulary officers would take us: ‘Kukunin kayo ng PC, sige!’ It worked. I didn’t want to be taken, so I ate my vegetables, took my afternoon naps, and did my homework. To this day, I feel nervous around people in police or military uniforms.
Kian Loyd de los Santos, seventeen, wasn’t afraid of cops. He wanted to become one. His parents had voted for Rodrigo Duterte for president. When the police took Kian, he begged them to let him go because he still had exams the next day. Someone should have warned him about the police. But the country wasn’t under martial law. Kian didn’t make it to his exam.
In the Philippines, the bereaved family places a chick on top of the coffin when the death is unjust and unresolved. It is said that the constant pecking of the chick will peck on the conscience of the killers. But Kian’s killers, who made him kneel or lie down and then shot him from behind, didn’t have a conscience. Police officers Arnel Oares, Jeremias Pereda, and Jerwin Cruz testified under oath that they killed the boy in self-defence because he fired at them first. The neighbourhood CCTV footage showed otherwise. After less than two years, the court pronounced them guilty of murder, with a sentence of reclusion perpetua, twenty to forty years in prison without eligibility for parole. To date, they are the only police officers who have been convicted for an extrajudicial killing in the Philippines since Duterte’s drug war began in 2016.
I was fifteen when the Filipinos revolted peacefully against the Marcoses in what is now known as the first People Power. I remember it because on the first day that people marched down the EDSA highway to support the rebel soldiers of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, we were having our senior prom in a hotel in Makati. My Marcos loyalist mom didn’t think it was a big deal, so she still let me go. After all, the revolution was happening far away from our venue, and she was certain the Marcoses had everything under control.
I didn’t care about what was happening to the country. I just wanted to party with my friends. When snap elections were held the previous year, my grandmother asked me to join her in praying the rosary so that Marcos would win over Corazon Aquino. And I did pray for his triumph, in Jesus’ name. When Marcos did win (through fraudulent means), I gleefully praised the Lord for granting our prayers. And when the First Family was finally forced by the revolution to leave Malacañang, I prayed for their safe passage.
My grandfather was a Marcos loyalist by virtue of being born into a family of shameless Marcos cronies. We never received any largesse from the Marcoses. We were the poor relations; Grandfather Manuel was a son by a second wife in the dotage of the patriarch, who died five years after my grandfather was born. And just like Filipino melodramas, the children of the first family treated him like a servant all his life. Still, my grandfather remained loyal to the family.
Every year, the country commemorates People Power in a special holiday. It reminds me I wasn’t part of it—to be on the wrong side of history because of my family. Such a shame.
My mother was not interested in politics either. She had taken up only a secretarial course in Philippine Women’s University. At that time, Filipino women could only hope for jobs as secretaries. The other option was a course in Home Economics, which her two sisters took. A few years after graduating, she married her long-time boyfriend, who promptly left her when she was seven months pregnant. I can imagine that she must have been so busy worrying about her lost husband and caring for her baby on her own that she had no time to worry about protesting martial law.
Every year, the country commemorates People Power on 25 February in a special holiday. It reminds me I wasn’t part of it—to be on the wrong side of history because of my family. Such a shame.
Carl Angelo Arnaiz, nineteen, had dropped out of the University of the Philippines Diliman after his first semester in the Interior Design program because he was depressed. Caloocan police charged with his murder claimed that he had fired shots at them and that they found two packs of marijuana and three packs of shabu on him. But forensics revealed that Carl had been handcuffed, beaten black-and-blue, possibly tortured, before he was shot five times in a kneeling or prone position. His father said Carl’s only vice was smoking. He spent the last two years minding a small store in their house, giving up on his college dream.
Like many Filipino students, I also once dreamed of becoming an Iskolar ng Bayan, a scholar of the country, taking up a degree in the University of the Philippines. I was certain I would have passed the notoriously difficult entrance exam if only my mother had allowed me to take it. But it was non-negotiable. She didn’t want me to study in UP because she was afraid it would turn me into an aktibista. UP was the birthplace of the First Quarter Storm (FQS) in 1970, a protest movement led by student activists whose mass actions were used by President Marcos as a basis for declaring martial law. Many of the students associated with the FQS were later detained, tortured, and killed.
By the time I started college in 1986, martial law had been lifted and the Marcoses had been deposed. There seemed no danger of me becoming an activist. Still, my mother enrolled me in a university known less for nationalism and more popular among the wealthy Filipino-Chinese community. It was also the closest to our home; I think my mom was more worried that I might get pregnant before graduation if she allowed me to live on my own.
She had no reason to fear. Even though I had wanted to join an activist student organisation after attending a Basic Orientation Seminar—a euphemism for recruitment—the national democratic movement was going through difficult times. It was a time of division within the movement and I fell through the cracks. Those were dark, violent days: instead I rebelled by doing theatre activities behind my mother’s back.
Nor did she need to worry about me getting pregnant: I had my first serious lesbian relationship instead. Every day in my third year, I would take a jeepney after class from Manila to Quezon City where my girlfriend lived, and we would have sex all afternoon. Then I’d take a bus to go home to B.F. Homes, Paranaque to my mother, who would routinely berate me for coming home late. On one of these afternoons, I watched my girlfriend shoot up shabu. I didn’t understand why she did it but I told her I would break up with her if she didn’t stop. She promised she would when we started living together. She couldn’t hide it from me then. I suspected she started up again when we broke up a year later.
Police justify the drug-related killings by saying the suspects fought back. Witnesses have spoken up about hearing victims begging for their lives but being killed anyway.
Shabu, also known as crystal meth or poor man’s cocaine, is a synthetic stimulant drug that causes a euphoric high, hyperactivity and a heightened state of attention and wakefulness that can last three days. Apparently, the term ‘shabu’ comes from the Japanese, shaburu, ‘to suck,’ or from the cooking style shabu-shabu. When it was introduced into the Philippine market in the late 1980s it was really cheap; 100 pesos could get one a good dose, like a Happy Meal. The powder is placed on a piece of foil heated up with a lighter then the odourless smoke is inhaled through a glass pipe called a ‘tooter,’ which made the hit seem like a harmless game. I never tried it even when my own cousins offered it to me. I never even felt tempted. I’m just straight that way.
Police justify the drug-related killings by saying the suspects fought back—nanlaban—or by producing so-called evidence, always two packets of shabu. Witnesses have spoken up about hearing victims begging for their lives but being killed anyway.
Reynaldo de Guzman, fourteen, was last seen with Carl Angelo Arnaiz when they both disappeared, but Carl’s parents said that the two were not really friends. Reynaldo, who was called ‘Kulot’ probably because of his curly hair, was a well-loved errand boy in his community in Cainta, Rizal. He would do sundry jobs in order to earn a few pesos to augment the family income and to be able to go to school. He should have been in Grade 8, but was only in Grade 5 because, like many children in poor families, he had had to stop schooling occasionally. Neighbours described him as a good boy. His body was found floating in a creek in Gapan, Nueva Ecija, 106 kilometres away from his home. His head was wrapped in packing tape and his body bore thirty-one stab wounds. The creek was called Kinamatayang Kabayo, or ‘where the horse died.’
Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act, because ‘you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way.’ For your writing to matter, whatever your politics is, it must be a protest against the status quo. When I write my lesbian self into being, I force readers to look at it. I try to make them question their assumptions about women and desire. And even though I do not chant slogans in my writing (heaven forbid), I know I participate in unsilencing the lesbian on the page. Has it been enough? Not nearly. Because I have not written as much as I should have. Even when I was insisting on my lesbian identity, living the demands of a heterosexual marriage muted me. If anyone can fault me for failing as a writer and an activist, it is for not writing more.
The Marcoses were back in power through Duterte, after being ousted by a people’s revolution barely thirty years before.
‘Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta!’ we chanted at a small indignation rally at Freedom Park in downtown Davao City in November 2016. I don’t think I was the only one who never thought I would hear that 70s slogan again. It was a real throwback. I would have laughed at the irony of it, but it wasn’t funny. This was the day the Supreme Court ruled that there was no legal impediment to burying Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani—a name that literally translates into ‘Cemetery for Heroes’. There were barely ten of us from our ragtag group of former leftist activists, martial law survivors, and human rights activists we called Konsyensya Dabaw, the ‘Conscience of Davao’, speaking up initially against giving the dictator a hero’s burial, promised by President Rodrigo Duterte to his allies. The Marcoses were indeed back in power through Duterte, after being ousted by a people’s revolution barely thirty years before. Duterte had never been shy about his admiration for how Ferdinand Marcos led the Philippines with an iron hand. And Duterte’s campaign image of a closed fist suggests an affinity with that leadership style. While it is true that Marcos’ son Bongbong had been elected senator before Duterte’s term, this burial gave some legitimacy to the historical revisionism promoted by the Marcoses around their family’s plunder of the nation and the numerous human rights violations during martial law. It was enough reason for me to go back to the streets. Unfortunately, in Davao, Duterte’s bailiwick, this protest mattered only to us protesters. It was not Davao’s conscience speaking; it was our individual principles. And did I mention how many were there?
Ten days after the Supreme Court ruling came out, the Marcos family stealthily transferred the remains of the patriarch to the cemetery, proving to one and all that three decades after fleeing to Hawaii in exile, they are here to stay. Marcos’ daughter Imee, who would later become a Senator, said during the burial, ‘Let us forgive and let the Philippines move on.’ Marcos’ son Bongbong lost his 2016 bid for the vice-presidency by less than 200,000 votes; he is still contesting it in the same Supreme Court that allowed a family who stole billions from the Filipino people to revise history and somehow declare the tyrant Ferdinand Marcos heroic. To a man responsible for the darkest period in our contemporary history, they gave full military honours. Only in the Philippines.
As a writer, it is my job to remember—not the way historians must, but because of what we see through our remembrance. To keep an eye on the big picture from which we draw hope. We cannot just let things go for the sake of moving on. Nobody moves on without a sense that justice had been dealt. Part of me is convinced that if I ‘moved on’ from what ails me, I would stop being a writer. I wouldn’t have anything to write about. The status quo is not a source of story or poetry. To write a memoir means to remember, to fix memories onto the page, to make history.
We cannot just let things go for the sake of moving on. The status quo is not a source of story or poetry.
Some reports say that there have been an average of twenty-eight killings per day since Duterte became president. Given a six-year term limit, that could be about 60,000 deaths of poor people. A drop in the bucket, some would say. And if they’re drug addicts, don’t they deserve it?
The ‘Death Squad’ didn’t even take a break during the ASEAN Summit held in November 2017, when the police promised zero crime. Maynard Allan Manalo, seventeen, was only sitting with his girlfriend a few metres away from their house at around 6:45 in the evening when he was shot in the head. A few days before, 23-year-old teacher Anne Janeth Francia was shot in the face while buying something from her neighbourhood store. Both were labelled as cases of mistaken identity.
I am not a devout Catholic but I have been praying the rosary more fervently these days, seeking the intercession of St Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless cases. I also ritually light votive candles in the Parish of St Jude on Malvar St in Davao City, where I have lived since 2007, but he has not answered any of my prayers. I keep going there anyway, believing that one day, he will finally see that what I am praying for is truly hopeless and finally send help.
Anybody, hear the prayers of my people.