Photo of a survivor crawling from the Mendiola Massacre amidst bodies and debris. From Dino Doliente's album
We left Honolulu for the Philippines in 1986 after the People Power Movement ousted Marcos, to live in my grandmother’s home in Sucat,Paranaque. My parents, whose student visas expired as doctoral candidates at the University of Hawaii, headed back to Manila on a PANAM flight wearing matching yellow t-shirts to celebrate the democracy Cory Aquino represented.
Twenty-five years ago, I was in kindergarten at UP South School in BF Homes, Paranaque when the Mendiola Massacre occurred on January 22, 1987. While police bullets were showered into a crowd of unarmed farmers at the lip of Malacañang Palace, I was protected by the walls of my subdivision. We lived an average middle-class life in Metro Manila, I guess. I didn’t know that much about my mother’s province other than there was a time she lived. I knew that my great-grandparents were English teachers. That my great-grandfather had land, and then lost it somehow. I knew that my mother was born in Iriga (which I thought was a province in itself until I was 16), and then she and her family move to Naga, where they had a sari-sari store. There was a limitation on the Bicolano she retained. Whenever I saw my grandmother, her mother, speaking to her in Irigueno, the interaction was pretty similar to the way Filipino kids who grew up in the States found comfort in keywords and familiar vowel sounds whenever their parents would talk to them in their home dialect. Eventually, my maternal grandmother’s siblings settled in various parts of Metro Manila. My grandmother was an administrative assistant to someone at the US Embassy, and my mother’s siblings all went to university in Metro Manila. Most graduated from Diliman, and became white collar professionals. Some went onto the United States, and ultimately, a majority of us settled in New Jersey.
And here I am.
But between my family’s migration story, and before I returned to New Jersey at the age of 6, I was living in Sucat, Paranaque. My family definitely has a clan mentality, and we tended to settle close to one another. For safety reasons, I guess. I attended school in Metro Manila for a short period of time, and learned how to speak Tagalog by watching Batibot, the Philippines’ version of Sesame Street. I don’t remember what exactly I did on Black Thursday, but I probably lived the life of a typical four year old. Minimal worries: get up for school by 6 am, get through classes, avoid the bully daughter of the van-service owner which drove me home, and find a way to buy an ice buko from the corner after completing my homework. This was a typical day.
Being at the forefront of a peoples movement has never exactly been on my family’s agenda. In the Philippines, we were a typical middle-class family where genuine agrarian reform is more of a foreign, rather than a welcomed, concept. My family’s been rooted in Metro Manila since the 1970s, so traces of our Bicolano roots are now long gone.
The farmers at Mendiola that day in 1987 were fighting for genuine agrarian reform. This is the basic issue that’s swept every major protest by community organizations across the Philippines for decades. It’s simple – only a small percentage of the Filipino population live in the major cities, and the majority of the Philippine population are still a peasant farmer class in the outlying provinces. When there is no more land to till due to foreign land-grabbing, or exploitation by local landlords, people starve and leave for the city in the hopes of finding contractual labor. Where is the justice for victims 25 years later, when the class action lawsuit on behalf of victims and survivors was denied twice?
Land reform has been the basis of several bloody battles in the Philippines. In fact, the Cojuangco-Aquino owned Hacienda Luisita (which was represented at the mobilization at Mendiola back in 1987 and where another massacre occurred in 2004) has only recently gained a concrete victory in the partial redistribution of the 4,915-hectare estate.
So, how does a person like me, of the middle-class who has never tilled the soil for a day in her life, become a sympathizer for agrarian reform? To which I answer: easily. I am the group who left. Having no more land, and there being a complete shortage of jobs in the Philippines, my family used its upward mobility and access to leave and find jobs abroad. I am part of the diaspora that stemmed from farmer life, moving to Manila, and ultimately, settling in the United States. The same economic factors pushed me and my family further and further out. Being further from the injustice means we’ve also had the privilege of having blinders on. This choice of non-participation and denying the connections to the struggles back home is what being involved in movement work actively changes in my present life.
There are some questions that surface from time to time while I maneuver through the movement work. What does it mean that my family supported the Cojuangco-Aquino administration (remember: matching yellow shirts on a PANAM flight?) when the same administration fired bullets into a crowd of unarmed protesters in Mendiola in 1987 and Hacienda Luisita in 2004? Why are there people in the Philippines who are still in the streets waiting for justice after 25 years? Why are farmers and union organizers being killed in the fields and picket lines? Why are people who are fighting for basic human rights and survival, being killed simply for wanting a better stake in the world?
25th Commemoration March for the fallen farmers of the Mendiola Massacre. January 22, 2012 - from the album of Amihan Mabalay
On a more personal level, living in Manila at the time of the 1987 Mendiola Massacre has raised other questions. Why didn’t my parents feel that this was something significant that they should have taught/explained to me? Even today in the US, there are so many important things that kids should know, because they likely know others who are experiencing these abstract concepts in their daily lives: immigration, the DREAM Act, this recession, and the ways kids experience entitlement/access/privilege/gender roles. These are some very important lessons that should come from parents, rather than hindsight. And when I think about it, I’m surprised at my parents since they prided themselves on not having ignorant children.
NOTE TO SELF: When I become a parent, I want my children to know that these struggles matter. I want to teach my child how to construct better world. I want to trigger the ability within them to be critical, rather than foster naïveté. I want them to value the lives and experiences of others.
I share my family history because these questions are still something I am processing. I don’t blame anyone in my family for what they’ve done in order to survive in the best way they knew how. I know the stories that rotate during holidays and get-togethers. I know my family worked hard to be where they are today. I share the version I understand of my family’s history to question my own values at this juncture, as well as to create teaching moments for myself amidst these pronounced narratives.
With that, I want to honor the slain during the 1987 Mendiola Massacre, and all who continue to fight for genuine land reform in the Philippines. And for other Filipinos living in the United States, don’t forget that the struggle you left behind continues. This is the very same struggle that has led you and your family to other shores. May we always remember that.
JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS OF THE MENDIOLA MASSACRE!
GENUINE AGRARIAN REFORM NOW!
Junk CARP, CARPER, SDO, and All Other Land Reform Shams!