“Who would remember our words except the people who were there?”
X told me fervently as she recalled the time when she and her friends seized control of DZUP, the official radio station of the University of the Philippines. At night, when people were cocooned inside their homes, X and her friends were crammed inside the old DZUP office—a room slightly bigger than a closet—where they openly broadcasted their thoughts about the corrupt and unjust government.
The year was 1970. The president was Ferdinand Marcos, recently re-elected for a second term. The Philippines was facing a dire economic situation as prices of commodities, particularly of gasoline, soared. Politics was even dirtier than usual—Marcos’s second win as president marred with incidences of vote-buying and violence.
It was a time X referred to as “very dark days.”
“Magandang gabi po! Ito ang tinig ng malayang komunidad ng Diliman,” they would greet their listeners who were huddled around their radios, straining to find courage in their static-laced voices. In the mornings, X and her friends who didn’t man the station braved the streets and faced the violent Metrocom soldiers.
“Back then, our student leaders didn’t need to call on students with their megaphones. They didn’t need to come up with gimmicks,” she said, not bothering to hide her disappointment. “What we have here now in UP cannot even be called activism.”
Students were preparing for the big strike tomorrow against the budget cut in UP. Laid out on the floor were banners that students will be holding while marching around the campus. I was caught off-guard when X asked me questions that, according to her, a true student activist can easily answer with a “yes”: Can you face a barrage of soldiers who are firing after you, the bullets from their rifles just whizzing past your ear? Are you ready to leave your family, forget your studies, and live in the mountains?
I couldn’t utter a word.
“They did not need to be coaxed out of their classrooms to join the rallies. We could fill fifty buses with student rallyists!”
From Welcome Rotonda in Quezon City, X and her friends would march to Quiapo, books still in hand, and converge with other university students in Plaza Miranda. Dimasalang Bridge was always a surprise. Below the swell of the bridge, they would meet a wall of Metrocom soldiers hiding behind their shields, and hidden behind their shields were guns loaded with bullets. Pillboxes exploded just a few meters away from where they stood. The uncertainty of choosing—should they go forward or should they retreat?—would constantly keep them rooted to the spot. But on they fought.
X recalled the events of the First Quarter Storm with a wry smile. Her wrinkled eyes glazed with memories of her time as a student activist. We were standing by an open window at the Faculty Center, the very place where, about 40 years ago, she was captured by a man in military uniform.
“You never know when they were going to take you. And you never know if it was the end.”
Inside the office of one General Aguinaldo, hours passed as X was bombarded with questions concerning the whereabouts of her fellow student activists. The door of the small room was locked. It was guarded by three other men in uniform who carried guns. On General Aguinaldo’s desk, newspapers and photographs were spread out and X was asked to point out the faces she recognized. Her heart hammered against her chest whenever the General dropped the name of someone she knew—usually a friend that she would quickly label as a mere acquaintance, as a classmate she barely talked to. Lying saved most of them from being questioned or tortured. Or both.
After the interrogation, X thought it was the end for her, that she would never see her family again, that she would end up as a desaparecido like some of her friends who suddenly disappeared and were never found again. But God is good; General Aguinaldo and his men let her go.
Despite being detained several more times, X was unfazed. Operations in the DZUP office commenced during the height of the Storm. X sneaked food into the radio station whenever it was possible. The students who took over DZUP were afraid of losing their fortress if they stepped out of the office even for a while.
A Speech and Drama student, X was only 17 when the protests broke out; 17 but well on her way to graduating cum laude. Her parents had no idea that she was an active part of the student movements. “They would kill me if they knew,” she said with a laugh.
But in 1972, when Martial Law was declared in the country, and when the 19-year-old X was already an instructor at the University, the secret she had kept from her family finally came out.
It was her sister who noticed the man who was hovering outside their home since morning. Partly hidden by the trees, only a short distance away from their house in UP Village, the strange man could be seen carrying a rifle in broad daylight.
“There is an armed man outside our house,” her sister worriedly told X and their mother.
X’s mother was a nervous woman. She wanted to live through the dark days of Martial Law in peace. Afraid for her family, X decided to tell them the truth, “It’s me, mother. They are following me.”
What happened next truly pained X. For fear that the military would raid their home for evidence, X’s mother went into her room and collected all of her books. She burned every single one of them.
After the First Quarter Storm and the Diliman Commune, all throughout Marcos’s regime, up until his fall and his death, X and her friends remained strong. They fought, albeit discreetly, together as one. There was no Roberto or Magda or Juan. There was no I. “So when you write about me, please, call me X.”
All the same, there were those who survived and those who ended up as desaparecidos.
“One day, he asked me whether the underground movement was still going good,” X said of a colleague who neither survived nor disappeared. “We were talking on a stairwell here at the Faculty Center. Talking aloud during the Martial Law made people suspicious, so we whispered to each other, even used codes.”
That was the last time she talked to him. Two weeks later, his death made the headlines.
“Us who survived, whenever we see each other now, we would exchange hugs. And me, I would always tell them, ‘Buhay pa tayo, buhay pa tayo.”
X told me that the UP student who sincerely sacrificed his interests for the good of many is gone, long gone. A desaparecido of sorts, he is but a memory of the Golden Years of the University. Soon enough, the memory will be lost and will only be recovered in library archives and history books.
“Our stories have to be retold,” X said. “Young people need to learn about what we went through, so they can appreciate the freedom they are enjoying today.”
Outside the window, I could see that twilight has fallen. X and I fell silent as drums started beating and the voices of early protesters began howling in the air.
(Posting this 1 year and 3 days after submission. With edits.)