Thursday, February 1, 2007

Ateneo’s 11

That is what we are about…It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning…We are prophets of a future that is not our own. –Martyred El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

In reverse alphabetical order: Manny Yap (1951-1976), Nick Solana, Jr. (1949-75), Lazzie Silva (1952-75), Ditto Sarmiento (1950-77), Dante Perez (1951-72), Eman Lacaba (1948-78), Edgar Jopson (1948-82), Sonny Hizon (1952-74), Jun Celestial (1950-74), Billy Begg (1959-75), Ferdie Arceo (1952-73).

All so young and so committed. Will there be another generation like theirs? (Yes, like ours, if I may interrupt and interject.) Will there be another call such as they had heard, will there be a another harvest such as this special crop?

The book “Living and Dying: In Memory of 11 Ateneo de Manila Martial Law Activists” by Cristina Jayme Montiel tells the story of these young men’s individual lives and deaths. It is about the process of their becoming, their journey into the wilderness and the final shedding and pouring out of their substance—so that others may live abundantly. Their dying was not only a physical one, it was, and more importantly, a dying to self even while they were alive.

Yap who disappeared in 1976 remains missing to this day. Sarmiento, a campus journalist and activist, died at home after suffering in military detention. The nine others died from bullet wounds and torture wounds in the hands of their military pursuers or captors, separately and at different times, far from home, in remote places the faint of heart would fear to tread.

As the poet Lacaba had written:

The road less traveled by we’ve taken--/And that has made all the difference:/The barefoot army of the wilderness/We should be in time. Awakened, the masses are Messiah,/Here among the workers and peasants our lost/Generation has found its true, its only home.

Captured alive, Lacaba was shot twice—in the mouth and the chest—and tied by the ankles then dragged to a mass grave. Arceo was shot on a seaside in Iloilo. Begg, born an American but chose Filipino citizenship, met a brutal death in Isabela.

Writes Montiel: “Bill was captured alive. Before killing him, however, the soldiers mercilessly tortured him, leaving him with 17 stab wounds, eleven gunshot wounds, a broken rib cage and smashed hands. The day Bill died marked his third month in the Isabela area, a short five months after he joined the struggle in the countryside. He was 24.”

But it has to be stressed that while the moment of death may look dramatic and climactic, it was the trajectory of their lives that provided the substance. This was reflected by the choices they made early on. This was distilled in their thoughts, ideas and ideals (as gleaned from their letters, poems, journals and from the recollection of family, friends and comrades) and, most of all, in the way they lived.

All 11 stories move in almost parallel ways, chronologically, that is, from birth to death. But as a story progresses, one gets tempted to jump pages to get to the heart of things and on to the climax. The uniform, predictable progression makes the stories easy to follow and allows the reader to compare the stories. This must have been deliberate on the part of the writer.

Still I wish the writer had provided some surprise beginnings, rapturous peaks or throat-grabbing denouements at the most unexpected places. Well, simply because the subjects’ lives must have been full of cinematic if not dramatic twists and turns. The setting was the worst of times, remember.

But this is not to say that the life stories are bland. They are not. And credit must indeed go to Montiel, professor of Peace/Political Psychology, who bravely embarked on the project. Montiel is coordinator of the doctoral program in Social Organizational Psychology at the Ateneo.

I use the word “bravely” because for Montiel, a known activist during the martial law years, writing the stories meant wading into a difficult past. “I cannot separate myself from this book,” Montiel says, “not only because of past personal friendships shared with two of the featured activists, Edjop and Dante, but also because of landmines in my heart that come alive whenever I remember martial law days.” At the time she wrote the book Montiel was just recovering from a long string of both painful and healing experiences. Yes, she bravely enumerates them.

“I was afraid that old psychological and political scripts in the shadows of my heart still battered by martial law would take on life again. Hence I could not go too near the fire, afraid of ignition. I apologize if these 11 stories may lack the personal or political intensity so befitting martial law lives and deaths.”
Yes, Tina, I understand and appreciate.

“Living and Dying” is the second in a series of “truth-telling” book projects of the Ateneo. (The first is “Down from the Hill”.) And so Montiel so rightly “truth-tells” and takes on this Jesuit institution by pointing out in the stories how several of the Ateneo 11 had been sanctioned, even unceremoniously dismissed, because of their ideological causes.

Well, that is why the book launching was also called a “coming-home ritual”, with families of the martyred alumni coming home on behalf of their departed sons, praying and lighting candles with kindred spirits, singing songs and sharing precious memorabilia.

All 10 names, except that of Solana Jr. (data still lacking), are inscribed on the memorial wall of Bantayog ng Mga Bayani. But somewhere on Sacred Heart Hill, near the Church of the Iesu in the Ateneo campus, is a marker shaped like an eternal flame. It is in memory of these special young men who gave all. Ad majorem Dei gloriam.