I Knew Marcos, The Dictator

Respected journalist and editor Jo-Ann Maglipon talks about the value of writing...and how it saved her from a dictator.

writers against martial law

 

(SPOT.ph) Editor's Note: This was a speech given by Jo-Ann Maglipon at the 7th Philippine International Literary Festival on April 28, 2016. Jo-Ann Maglipon is a widely respected journalist, editor-in-chief of YES! magazine, and Editorial Director of Summit Media.

 

I think I did my biggest growing up when I was 20 going on 25.

 

One normal day, I was at the printing press to work on the Chi Rho, our school paper, where I was features editor. We were closing that day. In the dim light the editor-in-chief saw the managing editor and I arriving, and said, sarcastic like, “You’re so eager to work, huh.” Then she flipped her long-but-thin hair and turned her back on us. The managing editor and I could not find our proof sheets anywhere, and the people around seemed to have been instructed to act like nothing unusual was going on. We were being shunted out of our pages! We were stunned.

 

That was 1971, I was in my last year of college. A debate was heating up campus papers then. One side wanted the paper devoting itself solely to campus concerns—problems with lavatories and parking, the safety of Ferris wheels at school fairs, profiles of teachers coming and leaving—after all, went the argument, it was student tuition money that paid for the paper. In my campus, that side had the editor-in-chief, the associate editor, and some staff. The other side wanted the paper devoting some space to the world outside—education policies, unrest in other schools, extension of the President’s term limit—after all, went the argument, the student population was part of the citizenry outside. This side had the managing editor and myself, and, more quietly, a few other editors. The staff was torn in half.

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The editor-in-chief with the long-but-thin hair, convinced we were Communists and believing she could call all the shots by herself, was resolving the divide by simply booting us out. Since I didn’t know the first thing about catfights where you grab someone’s long-but-thin hair, I searched for the home address of the Chi Rho moderator, and the very day I found it, I rang her doorbell. The strangest thing happened. She never asked me to come in. From inside the half-open small door of her big gate, she spoke to me as I stood outside, on the pavement, under the sun. I explained myself anyway, saying that shunting us out was arbitrary and unfair, especially because the managing editor had taken the editorial exams and had earned that post. Not half-done with my explanation, the moderator, squinting through her glasses, dismissed me: “The editor-in-chief can do what she wants. She has my backing.” Then she shut the small steel door. I stood outside the locked gate, humiliated. I had never known such unchristian behavior from anyone, through a school life spent entirely in two private convent schools. And as she was the final authority, I was unmoored. I never returned to the paper.

 

To this day, I remember every detail. I remember the moderator’s slight frame, the small face, the creased brow, the white skin, the cold eyes, and the green gate on Panay Avenue, a walking distance from Tropical Hut. Many years later, I think seven years later, I saw her one more time. I was at the corner of the same Tropical Hut, about to get in the car, and there she was, in person, as I breathed. She looked slightly stooped and smaller, she was alone and, in my mind, lonely. I froze. By then I had survived the Underground and one year in prison, I was even married already—but an unbidden chill still blew inside me.

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This was the person I had trusted, at 21, to mediate in a clash of ideas, the one I thought would most uphold reason, the school official I looked to for an educated process for resolving the issue. But, nothing. She turned out to be the autocrat that would give me my first taste of injustice and censorship and unkindness. She used her powers to inflict a wrong—and was never made to face that wrong, or atone for it. After her, I never again put faith in authority. I never again assigned virtue—to a boss, a doctor, a president—that had not been earned.   

 

Atonement, that is big for me. People make mistakes, people have their epiphanies, people change for the good. Yes. But none of that can happen without atonement.

 

So, if you tell me today that the son of a frozen dictator is the right vice president for this country, I say no. This well-fed, sleek, and unrepentant son, who now charges into politics with the old family name, never returned the money his parents stole as conjugal dictators, never apologized to the women and men his father’s regime scarred for life, never gave recompense to the children of the dead or the disappeared, never even acknowledged the careers wrecked by the Marcos regime, and yet dares to ask, almost insanely, “What is there to apologize for?”

 

No atonement. Thirty thousand arrested in the first weeks of martial law alone, systematic torture, billions in foreign debt to prop up a regime.* No atonement. Now the boy wants to return to Malacañang because he lived in it for 21 years—and is feeling entitled? With no apologies, I say no. (*Martial Law Never Again by Raissa Robles, 2016)

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But, I get ahead of myself.

 

Clearly I would meet, in the course of my years, worse autocrats than the school moderator with the cold eyes and the editor in chief with the long-but-thin hair. But I discovered that, cornered, they all did the same thing: they hunkered down, stretched the months, and let the issue run cold. By simply maintaining the status quo, they won.

 

Our campus paper simply carried on with its conservatism, keeping the paper insular, its content so far afloat from reality that, by the time Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in '71, or late that year, much of the campus was clueless. Yet outside, the country was convulsing—and changing, permanently.

 

That ’71 suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was, in fact, the omen. For the suspension meant, applied to today, if you were taken by the cyber police because you’d been posting stuff they didn’t like—irreverent jokes in your blog about the First Family, hilarious memes of the First Lady, unflattering Instagram shots of generals, a dubsmash of the State of the Nation address—you could be taken, as in Liam-Neeson-Taken, kept incommunicado for days or months, in an undisclosed military safehouse, and your frantic parents could not do a thing about it. Your constitutional right to go to court and answer charges against you has been suspended; there was now nowhere to go to demand that your captors produce you. You were stuck in the safehouse.

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The very next year, ’72, martial law fell and suspended the whole Constitution entirely. You could then languish in a camp in the fields of Laur, Nueva Ecija, as Senators Ninoy Aquino and Pepe Diokno did, and your captors were not compelled to tell you how long, nor were they compelled to inform your family where you were, unless the President decreed it was okay.  

 

My world was beginning to sound scary. I guess it was scary even before that, but I was all of 20 when I first began to see it. Coming from a middle-class family, with a lawyer father and a public-school principal mother, I was pretty sheltered. Nuns had schooled me all my life—first, strict Belgian nuns; then, hipper American nuns—so I was steeped in the lesson that if somebody slapped your cheek, you gave the other. I had also been a Sodality of Mary member and a catechist in Baranca, and the most athletic thing I’d ever done was play first base in softball in Grade 7.

 

I… was… useless. In the fight against thunderous proclamations by an emerging dictator, I was useless.

 

But thus began my forced education on the perils of writing—that literature had the power to needle the powers, that self-expression could be hazardous to the health, that thinking like a liberal was subversive. Of course, I knew about Rizal and the Luneta. But, I saw Rizal as a literary giant from another time. At 20, I wasn’t very deep.

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Now that my time had come, I could panic. Writing was the only thing I knew. Take that away, and what was there?

 

What saved me was, just months earlier, in the summer of '71, I had joined a conference of college editors nationwide. Actually, I got sent. Nobody in my campus paper was interested in wasting summer in far UP Los Baños to attend some dowdy, serious, national conference.

 

It was, for me, serendipity. That conference was where I met women and men so earnest, so smart, and so engaged they were almost weird. All of them writers—possibly younger than 19, no older than 22—they had tunnel vision. They were only interested in talking about ideas (proletarian literature, liberation theology), and were forever breaking down into parts the big issues (nationalizing basic industries, growing militarization). They talked and talked, even during lunch and at billiard breaks. Unbelievably, they also listened well, as though their companion’s every word would impact on their thinking. It was with these weird people, in a campus with overarching trees and old wooden dormitories, that I saw my first activist play.

 

The tiny auditorium was darkened with black canvas. Against that backdrop, pierced only by slivers of yellow light, a scattered chorus began a rhythmic whisper, then a hiss, then a cry: “Asan si Charlie? Asan si Charlie?” The story revolved around the agitated search for someone respected and admired. It turned out to be a true story. The story of PCC professor Charlie del Rosario, who at the time had just gone missing. Today, his name is in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, etched in a wall of remembering, along with the names of others who fought a dictator. Today, his two dignified sisters show up whenever new names are etched on the wall. Charlie was abducted 45 years ago. His body was never found.

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There are events in one’s life that cause change to creep into one’s system, but this one caused an explosion. I was about to enter my senior year, and all the literature I had known was European and American—Western canons I still admire—but nothing like this Kamanyang play. This was of this world. This was an explosion of all my senses. I did not know, until then, that you could write about angst and anger against the setting of a busy Morayta, off the dusty España underpass. Literature just 15 minutes away from where I lived! I didn’t need to look to fjords and pastoral fields and streams. I didn’t have to imagine a thing. I simply had to see.

 

I also learned that literature did not begin with the first music video that blew your mind and did not end with the last inspired indie you were making.  Neither you nor I is the center of the universe. There is always something that came before and always something that will come after—and all come together, if we but look, to tell the story of who we are.

 

In our story, of course, there will be false heroes. And if you tell me that the man to lead our country today is the latest popular strong man—the man that boasts, once he is president, he will kill all criminals and pardon every policeman charged who draws his gun on the job; the same man who, not yet president, snaps at women to go to hell that speak up against his bad rape joke—I say, once more, no.

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Someone who sets himself up as judge and executioner is someone who is just two years away from declaring martial law. And the horrors begin, again.

 

I borrow from a German poem that rose in defiance of Hitler: First they came for the druggies, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a druggie. Then they came for the vagrants, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a vagrant. Then they came for the protesters, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a protester. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

 

But, I get ahead of myself.

 

There are people we meet that will give us not just friendship—they will give us courage. This band of editors from around the country did that for me. Writ or no writ, they charged right ahead, producing pooled editorials, distributing tabloids beyond their safe campuses and on to bustling Plaza Miranda, Plaza Lawton, Mendiola, keeping tabs of provincial campus editors who are subjected to more persecution, and expanding their network of lawyers, nuns, and businessmen that can help writers everywhere. This band of writers faced a threat and fought it.

 

I can’t say we were always serious. Just because we fancied ourselves militant writers did not mean we weren’t typical of our age. Being 19, 20, 21—of course we had late nights boozing at The Little Prince, a dive in Morayta where we felt safe and food was cheap. Always, we talked. We couldn’t help it. Something was being thrown our way always: some nervous universities, bent on killing activist school papers, threatened not to include school-paper fees in the school tuition, effectively leaving the papers without funds! But, being silly and playful, we managed anyway to throw hilarious, personal stories in there. And with editors crisscrossing paths all the time to fight each new form of censorship, of course romances bloomed and heartaches followed.

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But ours was not the normal social life for 20-year-olds falling in love. That had been taken from us. We didn’t get dolled up for dates to nice pubs nor did we take in more than the occasional movie nor did we have long fancy dinners. Somehow, with the times so volatile and upsetting, we were forever working on a manifesto, putting together an editorial, composing a resolution. And since writing was something you did pretty much alone, it was a blank sheet you stared at, more often than the face of the boy you privately liked. (Although, on a good day, the boy waited patiently for you to finish.) Writing was demanding as it was, but writing with a looming martial law was a bummer for romance.

 

As a new convert to liberal ideas, my writing started off rather grim. In school, the first essay I wrote was about how religions and their fanatics have caused more deaths in the history of tribes and nations across continents and time than any plague. I totally forgot that I was in an all-girl Catholic college and that, to my audience, I must’ve sounded like a commie. That is another thing you learn, mostly by mistake and often a bit late. You may have a brilliant idea, but you have an audience, and if you don’t speak their language, you lose.

 

As soon as I could get out of school—I skipped the graduation march—I jumped into magazine writing. I didn’t care much for newspaper reporting. All you ever wrote there were simple sentences, and you couldn’t even add an emoticon to the ghastly statements of politicians you were reporting on. Later I did some straight news reporting too, and later I learned that news writing was as artful as any writing form.

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But in April of '72, I was a fresh grad, a comparative lit major, I was a fan of Shakespeare for his flourish and of the Bible for its passions. So it was off to feature stories and interpretative pieces for me. I wrote stuff like Press Under Siege, because censorship and the muzzling of editors were already happening then. But, looking back, I was young, callow, and overexcited. With this particular article, for instance, two of my interviews needed more verification. That is another thing I learned quickly enough. I had to verify what all my sources were saying, but I particularly had to watch the sources I was soft on. The source could be having a bad day.

 

What I really liked about magazine writing is that I could talk about real life, and real life, to me, was going farther and farther away from official institutions, from ponderous power brokers, from people famous for being famous. By taste, I liked writing about those who were ordinary. By instinct, I liked talking to people who told it raw. By reflex, I liked telling the stories of those no one bothered with.

 

Later, I would come across the term “literary journalism,” and I liked the sound of it. The term had a looseness to it. It allowed writing to have as much noise or as much quiet—it was all up to me. It combined the best of fiction—structure, voice, description, the whole instrumentation of storytelling; and the best of journalism—facts, dates, names, quotes, figures. (An added bonus was that all the years spent in schools teaching mainly in English came in handy.)

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The only thing literary journalism required was that I did not invent. No composing a perfect character out of three characters, no making up a quote because it was perfect for the scene, no saying there was a storm when it was just a squall. I could have flourish, I could have passion—but I did not invent.

 

It was this kind of journalism I wanted to return to when I came out of prison—I was 23 when I was arrested and held incommunicado for eight days, and my 24th year I celebrated among women prisoners, some of whom would be dead in a few years. The press doors weren’t exactly flung open. The opposite, in fact. Many editors watched out for their jobs. Publishing an ex-detainee’s pieces could be trouble. I couldn’t blame them.

 

Marcos paid special attention to writers. His Letter of Instruction No. 1 under martial law was all about closing down newspapers and magazines, including campus papers. Next he had big publishers and big editors arrested. Then he allowed “self-regulatory bodies” for media, but by then he had entrenched his trusted men at the helm of big media companies. And anyway, publications were still being shut down: Signs of the Times, Ang Bandilyo, and The Communicator, all produced by church people. One after another: two foreign priests deported, an Associated Press editor denied entry, one foreign correspondent not extended his visa and three more arrested while covering a rally, foreign magazines not circulated, Philippine Collegian editors imprisoned. All this in the ‘70s, within the first five years of martial law, and did not count journalists already corralled in the first weeks of martial law. (The Manipulated Press: A History of Philippine Journalism Since 1945 by Rosalinda Pineda-Ofreneo )

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So, I taught myself to tell stories. No getting into the picture. No spelling out how the reader should feel. No manipulation of emotions. Let characters and conflicts reveal themselves through dialogue, geography, color, texture, tone. Write poor without saying poor. Write massacre without saying massacre. The words had to fall, but with a soft thud.

 

Well, sometimes, I got too subtle, I almost didn’t understand myself. So I had to rewrite the whole thing again! I edited myself so much, it is the norm with me even now that the editing always takes longer than the writing! But I had to get the story to sidestep so many censors, and I certainly didn’t want on my hands an editor losing her job.

 

One time I returned from a long stay in Davao. I had been told by lay workers that a tribal village in the Paquibato mountains had been scorched by soldiers descending from helicopters. Since I was a free lancer, I did not have protection or funding from any publication. I went around with a generic National Press Club I.D., and I told myself to just speak a lot of English if I was questioned. For the Paquibato coverage, I did not even have a photographer with me. No one wanted to take the eight-hour hike, where we could allow ourselves only brief breaks, because we had to be out of the mountains and in the village by nightfall. Paramilitary forces patrolled the area at night, and it was shoot-to-kill for anyone moving.

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At last, American Maryknoll priest Jack Walsh agreed to make the journey. We stayed a few nights among the chieftains. Then I came back with the story, all eager like, the pictures of the burnt huts secure in my Manila envelope. But, I was devastated. The editor said she did not have the space.

 

So, I offered her a shorter story, one about Punta Dumalag, a fishing village also in Davao. This one, I told the editor, had no soldiers burning huts, just big illegal loggers killing the livelihood of fisherfolk. But, after offering me nice coffee in her kitchen, she said she couldn’t go with that one either. “Delikado ngayon” was her terse reply. 

 

But, I get ahead of myself.

 

At 22, I made possibly the biggest decision of my life. What to do now that martial law has come down? I could go on as I was, living in our home, doing nothing and risking nothing, establishing I wasn’t a hard-core radical. I could just let all this tension pass. But when the time came, all it took was one phone call from my friend Obet. He said, “Gusto mo lumabas? Ang tagal na rin di tayo nagkikita, kain tayo. Sunduin kita.My friend was asking me to go Underground. And I said, “Sige, magkita tayo sa kanto,” then hurriedly stuffed maong pants and camisa chinos in a bag, and walked out of the house. 

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The Underground was what we called the complex network of allies, organizers, artists, writers, cultural workers all working, at risk to life, to bring down a frightful regime. We had left our families and, for their protection, left them with no addresses. For a long while, we shut down communication. Instead, we began to live with others, some of them we were meeting for the first time. But since we were grouped according to our tasks, which were determined by our skills, writers ended up with writers. This would be my collective.

 

It was easy to get along. All seemed to have brought their best selves to the Underground. At least in my collective, it was so. We had a professional journalist, a writer-organization man, a novelist, a poet, a literary writer, a painter, and me, a kolehiyala just starting to be a mainstream writer. Life in the Underground meant moving from apartment to apartment, changing identities, creating a system of communication that was careful, crude, and complicated, buying food, cooking food, handling money meticulously.

 

Always, we protected our portable typewriters. We typed all day, taking turns. We carefully padded the base of the typewriter with folded blankets, to deaden the sound. For added cover noise, we had the radio on. I was in the Underground when I got the message that soldiers had come to my home to arrest me. They flashed the ASSO (Arrest Search and Seizure Order) signed by defense minister Johnny Enrile. They searched the room I shared with my sister, opened all cabinets and drawers, ruffled through everything, checked pockets of clothes in hangers, but they did not disturb the mattresses, maybe because the room was done neatly that day. My activist reading was there.

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Our first Underground house (UG for short) was in Bulacan. There we worked on a newsletter we called Taliba ng Bayan, a page slightly larger than a long bond. Our deadline was twice a month, we distributed in Manila and provinces, and our circulation was regularly three to five thousand, although we may have reached 10 thousand at best. It would be the first underground paper circulated under martial law, and it would last almost two years.* (Not on Our Watch. Martial law really happened. We were there. Obet Verzola chapter, “Lest We Forget” 2012) 

 

We knew the punishment for writing. Even having the paper in your hand was punishable by reclusion perpetua. In our tight, little collective, Pete Lacaba and Obet Verzola would get it especially bad upon arrest. Accounts of their torture are now part of martial law literature, as are thousands more, and shame to anyone who says torture happened only in isolated cases.  

 

Martial law sought to erase a Movement, but what it erased was any feeling of being alone. I had found persons I could trust my life with, who gave my very dangerous years dignity, who became family—and, at the age of 22, away from all things familiar, away from all people I loved, that was such a gift.

 

The story of our feisty little Taliba has yet to be written. There are six of us in that collective still around, and we’ve met about four major times, but the making of the book is still at a crawl. Life gets in the way. Even too much democratic consultation gets in the way. But, we all know this is solid personal history we have to make public.

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As it is, our schools do not have the literature that could spell out how things really were. As it is, we are not a reading nation. As it is, we are not a remembering people. As it is, our mental understanding of the past is not profound, let alone our emotional connection to it. And as it is, we know the highlights of our country’s history, but we know little of the basics of patriotism.

 

I believe this is the first time I’ve spoken about my twenties. I’ve always thought the stories of others are far more worth telling, and I still think that. But I hear now that my generation is being blamed for the lack of writing about martial law, a lack that has helped both the Unrepentant and the Unenlightened seek the vice presidency and the presidency in the here and now.

 

Being so blamed makes me a little unhappy. We’ve already been through hell, after all. We just happened to survive it.

 

But, I’m listening. Yes, our generation must write some more. I do have so many scenes in my mind. One does not forget a period that intense, when every day could bring life or death, death or life.

 

Once, I was saved by the writing. In the fight against a dictator, it was my only slingshot. I hope to bring it out again. And I hope, when your time comes, you can have the writing to save you, too.

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