#NeverForget: Some Trying Times of My Life
Written by Maria Cristina P. Bawagan
Way back in 1970, on Wednesday afternoons, the Young Christian Community (of which I was a member) of Maryknoll High School would walk across Katipunan Avenue toward an urban poor community located somewhere to the right of Shoppersville. Here, we would spend some time playing with the kids, bringing them paper, pencils and crayons, and teaching them their ABCs. The children were clad in dingy rags and smelled of sweat, but their eyes were attentive and they readily held on to the crayons we offered as they excitedly scribbled whatever they wanted to express on the pieces of paper we brought.
Among the many things my Maryknoll education has taught me, one of the most lasting was this experience. It made me realize that first, poverty was prevalent and second (and more importantly), that we could try to do something about it.
When I was in Grade One, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “If only I were a millionaire, I would be able to solve the problems of all the poor people.” But I never became a millionaire. And I know for sure now, that even if this had been the case, I wouldn’t have been able to solve all their problems either.
During summer vacation in my third year in high school, I was introduced to some U.P. students and professors who belonged to the Humanist League of the Philippines. The year was 1971, the height of the First Quarter Storm. That summer was a very busy one, indeed, spent with discussion groups (DGs) which tried to analyze the Philippine situation and offer a solution to its problems. These sessions were interspersed with rallies, where I tasted my first experience of tear gas and violence on the streets. My enthusiasm over the “newfound knowledge” that our country’s problems had a “clear and sure solution” would eventually lead to a break-up with the first “love-of-my-life” In retrospect, I suppose it was because our telephone conversations started to lose all semblance of romance and began sounding more like teach-ins.
My first attempt at organizing was with some lower-year Maryknollers. Eventually, in college (U.P.), I would go into community organizing. Of particular significance was my experience at the Constitution Hills (the present site of the Batasang Pambansa). This area used to be a temporary relocation settlement for urban poor communities. The conditions there were pathetic. I distinctly remember one shelter (a one-room shack made of cardboard and scrap pieces of wood). One could enter this only by crawling. One or two children living there died of measles. They never saw a doctor.
The cemented road which now leads to the Batasan used to be red clayish soil (almost impassable during the rainy season). It was during this season that U.P. student volunteers initiated the “Operasyon Tulong” project — wherein we solicited food, clothes, etc., to bring to the “Consti-Hill” residents. Eventually, we called ourselves the “Consti-Hill Committee.” When the rainy season had passed, we continued organizing the residents, helping them set up the “supot-making industry” — where mothers made paper bags out of telephone directory pages, then sold them — for additional income. During some weekends or school vacations, we would spend nights there, living among the residents, being one with them.
My political involvement became deeper throughout college days, so that right after graduation in 1976 (a ceremony which I did not attend), I became a full-time activist. It was also in the same year that I married my husband, Ishmael (Jun) Quimpo Jr., in the wedding rites of the movement.
In January of 1977, I left to join my husband in the countryside, in Bicolandia. We engaged in student organizing for some time. However, by April, it was assessed that our movements were being monitored by a military informant. Thus, we immediately decided to move to the mountains to engage in peasant-organizing.
My experience with the peasants and the mountains and the forests is something I shall forever cherish.
From the peasants, I learned how generosity can be manifested by those who are almost absolutely bereft of material possessions. From their lifestyle, I learned how evenings could be so enjoyably spent by simply talking and laughing with each other. I experienced being surrounded by astonished peasant children shouting “Mantikilya! Mantikilya!” as I typed away on my “makinilya.” During mealtimes with them, I learned how boiled sweet potato (kamote) could be such a luxury compared to their usual fare of boiled cassava (kamoteng kahoy). And how rice was rarely part of the meal for some families. In the camps, I experienced how sautéed onions could be an enjoyable meal when feasted on with comrades while reminiscing on the flavors of adobo and other delectable dishes tasted long ago in our respective homes. I felt the selflessness and warmth of the barrio-folk who carried me on a makeshift “duyan” during the night when I could no longer walk due to infected sores on my legs.
From the mountains, I learned how beautiful our country is. I discovered how spiritually uplifting it could be, walking on top of a mountain on a moonlit night. I experienced how a fallen comrade and poet made his presence felt amidst the innumerable stars which guided our path. I became familiar with the feel of walking on carabao tracks in knee-deep mud while viewing the beautiful Mayon Volcano against the horizon.
In the forests, I felt lonely, thinking of home as the birds called out in mournful tunes. I experienced having field rats for breakfast, snakes and frogs for lunch, and hermit crabs for snacks. I learned to live with just two pairs of clothing and a duster for bathing. I became accustomed to washing myself with Perla for the skin and Superwheel for the hair. I developed the skill of brushing my teeth with guava tree branches and salt. I experienced the pain of seeing Mama cry each time she would visit then say goodbye.
In late October 1978, I went home for a while for medical treatment. Mama made plans for a family trip to Hidden Valley; she became so excited over the trip. Before this plan materialized, however, a messenger arrived with a letter from my husband asking me to return immediately. There were no mobile phones at that time and telephones were nonexistent in the mountains. For security reasons, I had to leave. This left Mama heartbroken. In retrospect, perhaps I should have sent the messenger back with a note explaining the circumstances. I could then have advised my comrades when and where to pick me up at some future date. At that time, however, I lacked experience in this sort of thing. Besides, I was too “disciplined” and “concerned about the welfare of the organization,” so I left immediately.
Fear of death
I n 1979, I experienced a strong sense of “fear.” The security situation was often tense — and I would often fear possible death. I feared the possible death of my husband — and didn’t know if I could take it. I feared my possible death — because I didn’t know if Mama could take it. At this point, I declined to conduct education sessions (EDs) for the organized peasants. I felt that I was not qualified to do so, since I was not courageous enough to face the possibility of death. I shared my feelings with my husband, who suggested that I make a request for transfer to Manila for an indefinite period of time. This I did.
So in 1979, I returned to Manila. While there, I organized a support group.
By 1980, I felt ready to return to the mountains. But due to some differences my husband had with the leadership, my husband and I requested transfer to Central Luzon. It was there where I was arrested on May 27, 1981. It was there where I experienced torture and molestation at the hands of the military.
I learned that the soldiers had the freedom to choose whether or not they would participate in the torture of captives. Some officers were sincere and others were outright egocentric. I witnessed one interrogating officer shy away in embarrassment from my mother, when I introduced them later on. The camp commander could be truly devious, pretending to be concerned about the trauma I had earlier experienced in the hands of his soldiers (and aide), while actually attempting to exploit me himself.
From the torture, I discovered the importance of practicing “mind over matter.” I also realized how grateful I was that I did not have to undergo the electric shock treatment (“Meralco”) or water cure (“Nawasa”).
I was eventually incarcerated in Camp Olivas, Pampanga. It was there that my blindfold was removed. After a few weeks, my request to join other political detainees was granted. It was then that I said goodbye to my roommates — some spiders and a few lizards.
From my fellow inmates (not the spiders and lizards), I learned how much fun it could be sharing experiences and living together. It was thus almost sad for me when just after a night together with them, I was released.
It was on December 14, 1981 when my husband, Jun, was killed. I learned about it on December 17. My mother and I were lying in bed when we heard a loud knock on the door. My mother went out to answer it. She was at the door a long, long time. My sister entered the room and put her hand on my shoulder. Then, I knew. I immediately asked her, “Kailan?”
From my husband, I learned how lovely the songs of John Denver are. (He used to be a folk-singer and composer in his own right.) From him, I learned how important it is to learn more about the other person — his thoughts, his feelings, his problems, his fears. How an evening with “grim and determined” comrades can be lightened with a nonsensical tickling spree. (He was such a fun-loving soul.) How his death should not depress me.
When Jun was still alive, he had made a few revisions to Marra PL. Lanot’s translation of a poem by the Cuban, Luis Marré. After giving it a tune, Jun changed the title of the translation, “Awit,” to “Kasama.” The first part of the song reads:
Kasama, ang iyong mga mata’y
Hindi maaaring ipikit.
Makita mo sanang walang ulap
Ang araw kung ako’y masawi.
By December 14, 1981, I was ready to accept Jun’s death. I guess my experience of torture, incarceration, and long separation from him had tempered my grief. After my release from detention, I came upon the book, Life After Life. I talked to Jun very often since his death, asking him to help me reconcile the “spirit world” with “dialectical materialism.” He never bothered (or so I thought). I surmise he was too busy elsewhere.
“Some Trying Times of My Life” was originally published in Tibak Rising: Activism in the Days of Martial Law in 2011. It is republished in The Science Scholar with permission from the author.
(Maria Cristina P. Bawagan, or Ma’am Tina as her students know her, is currently a Social Science teacher at Philippine Science High School-Main Campus. She was a prolific activist during the Martial Law era, and it was then when she also met her first husband who was killed in 1981. Undeterred, Tina continued fighting for her ideals and for freedom. She is happily remarried, the mother of two, and a well-known social science teacher in PSHS with the intent of retiring as one.)