“I couldn’t go to the rallies,” my mother says, “because you were too small.”
This is how it starts, with a mother telling her eight-year-old about the revolution that freed a country from a tyrant. I was born in December of 1985; two months later, the people rose up in the People Power Revolution of the Philippines. In an almost bloodless revolt against the martial law that had reigned in the country for over a decade, people took to the streets and forced a dictator to flee. My mother was twenty-five then, a young professional nursing me, her firstborn child. She made sure to play music to me while I was in her womb, cupping the cassette player close to her rounded belly every night. Mozart, because that was meant to help develop your child’s brain.
“You could have taken me,” I say, because this is what I always say, because I cannot imagine a life where I am not in some way protesting some wrong. Because the world is made of injustice and I was raised to speak out against it. Because I am young and do not yet know that there is always a cost to speaking, and it is often paid in blood.
My mother, who has yet to show me the red-gleaming weight of her own sacrifice, goes on as though I have not spoken. “Your father went, though,” she says. “And your uncle. They heard the tanks rumbling through the streets…”
I listen, both to what she’s saying and what she isn’t. She couldn’t take me to the streets because of the crush of the crowd and how children made easy hostages; even strangers would surrender to keep an infant from coming to harm. She couldn’t leave me alone, because my grandparents would be left with me, no one to defend them from soldiers knocking on doors, and children never left their parents in danger. She couldn’t risk anyone because the military’s guns were already trained to kill our people, and also, also—if things turned badly, she had to be there to lead our escape, to ensure we made it to safety. Women have ever been the last line of defense against annihilation.
My mother is telling me now about the singing, the way the music shook the streets in chorus after chorus of blood-thrilling resistance, how it took hold of the very foundations of the earth.
She does not tell me about the fear.
This is a story about stories, as every sharing of truth must inevitably be. I was a little girl when my mother told me the story of Sleeping Beauty, reading it to me so many times I ended up memorizing the whole thing. I was not much older when she told me of her own mother during the war, hiding under sacks of grain as their battered truck rumbled past Japanese troops. I did not memorize that one. The details were blurry, as if they hurt too much to hear.
My mother also told me folktales. How the pineapple was once a disobedient girl, whose stubbornness drove her dying mother to curse her with a thousand eyes. How the gumamela, the hibiscus flower, has no scent because she woke up too late to receive the gods’ blessing. Growing up I didn’t need to be told to obey or to wake up early; no one wants to turn into a pineapple or be a scentless blossom. I followed these lessons for survival as faithfully as I could.
She also read children’s books to me, in both Tagalog and English. One of them was a retelling of an incident from the childhood of our national hero, José Rizal. One night, his mother read him the story of the unfortunate gamu-gamo, the little moth who fell in love with the flame’s brilliance and was inevitably consumed by its heat. The book moves to the young Rizal pondering the moth’s fate and ends with a few short lines on Rizal’s death, martyred under Spanish colonial rule.
I did not need to be told that one must burn to illuminate one’s country. I did not need to be told that burning leaves nothing but ashes.
When I was a little older, I began to meet some of my mother’s friends who had been activists during Marcos’s rule. Most of them were in academe, angry students who had survived to grow into angry teachers, pouring all their passion and brilliance into papers, essays, poems, novels that would set the world on flame if only it would listen. They had good memories—for sieves.
Many of them had been tortured under martial law. They never spoke of it, of course, except in euphemisms, words gliding around the way cigarette butts were ground into their flesh or how they’d been raped or electrocuted or beaten until no color in the world existed except the purple of bruises, the red-brown-black of blood. It was always That Time, so far-off I was expected to view it as one viewed fairy tales: Once Upon A Time We Will Never Revisit. It is no accident that to this day the anti-martial law cry is: never again.
My parents were lucky. This is another thing we do not talk about, that the shadow passed over them but did not take them. How easily it could have; how easily it did, for so many others. We do not talk of the terrible lottery of disappearance: you could be standing on a street corner one day, disappeared the next. We do not talk about how martial law asked no questions of justice or innocence: atrocity does not discriminate between bystanders and participants.
Thirty years on, as people are gunned down nightly in the streets of the city where I grew up, we still do not talk about it. Only whisper.
What is fantasy? What is fiction? It’s hard for me to tell. The story of the woman who planted her lover’s dismembered hand and woke the next morning to a banana tree outside her window—how is it any more unreal than a woman who buries murder under a mountain of thousands of shoes?
Here is another story. A few years before my birth, there was an accident at a construction site of a government project spearheaded by the dictator’s wife. Hundreds of workers fell into quick-drying cement. Rescuers were not permitted on-site until nine hours after. Construction continued as planned.
I do not know what distinguishes real horror from its artificial counterpart. There is an edifice in my country built on literal corpses. People wake up to bloody bodies outside their gates. And somehow go on.
“In the night we could feel the asphalt tremble,” my father tells me when I ask him about the revolution. They slept on the streets. The passage of tanks through nearby roads would wake them, and they couldn’t know if the tanks were there for them, whether the soldiers would soon be given the order to open fire on the Filipinos massing throughout EDSA.
They took to the streets knowing they could die. Martial law reigned over my country for over ten years; people had been resisting and organizing and preparing for decades. They knew to expect the highest of costs. After your classmates have been taken, after a student’s bloodied body shows up in the streets days after he embarrassed the dictator’s daughter in a public forum, after the military routinely gang-rapes women activists they have imprisoned—is there any doubt that those in power could kill you, too? You don’t occupy yourself with thoughts saying, surely they wouldn’t do something so extreme. My father says they did not consider the question of military restraint. Rather: what to do if the soldiers started shooting.
Why did they go, then?
“Because we had to,” my father says.
“Because,” my mother says, “if they’re going to kill you anyway, you may as well die fighting.”
Born in stories, born of stories, I grow and learn more tales—this time almost exclusively in the language of the West, with its royal happy endings and fairy tales rewarding virtue, its epic fantasies with humble adventurers questing for justice and their land’s salvation. I learn the countless stories of the Star Wars expanded universe and am entranced. I see why so many people of my parents’ generation clung to it so fiercely—to Star Wars and Voltes V; people fighting an evil empire, uprising against oppression.
I read Cervantes and Rizal; I listen to what Don Quixote has to tell me about madness and seeing the world as it is and not as it should be; I weep at the end of El Filibusterismo, as Simoun dies with his dreams of revolution crushed to bloody pieces.
I take it all and make it part of me. I begin to understand how stories ignited the 1896 Revolution. We are tinder. Stories are the spark.
My first revolution happened shortly after I turned fifteen. I was in my last year of high school, and the airwaves burned and sizzled and hummed with recitations of our president’s wrongdoing, the gross bloated carcasses of his corruption, the extent of his plunder. Week after week our press featured the growing outrage and ever more stories of outrageous excess. The president was put on impeachment trial, but many of the senator-judges were in his pockets. It did not seem that he would face any consequences, and I and many other people seethed.
And then—at last, at last—the dam of public fury broke. The senator-judges voted not to open a sealed envelope of evidence. Such a tiny thing, you may think, but it was enough.
People took to the streets again; EDSA and the roads surrounding it once more shook under the tread of millions of feet, the sound of a million voices. I went with a friend and her family, experienced activists who made sure we had enough water, stayed away from any agitators or saboteurs, and did not let cameras photograph our faces. Tiny things. Small details. Ways to try to keep safer—not safe; there’s no such thing as true safety, especially not during revolutions.
We watched as the president stepped down and the vice president was sworn into power. I remember crying, I was so proud of my country, so full of hope for the future.
Years later, I would cry in a darkened theatre as I watched a documentary about all the election killings ordered by the president who had replaced the one we ousted.
Nothing changes, my elders would tell me. The government is still corrupt. We are still poor.
I understand why people voted for a president who promised he’d kill the “bad elements” of society. We’ve risen up peacefully, they say, and nothing has changed. We’re tired of promises. We’re tired of waiting. We’ll pay for progress in our kababayan’s blood.
We’re so desperate for change, for any sort of hope, any way out of this morass of corruption and poverty—for anything, anything at all—that it has driven us mad.
Sometime at the start of 2017, my friend messages just to chat about work, writing, gardening—normal friend things, except for how answers to the usual “kumusta ka” questions have murders crawling under them like snakes under leaves. My friend’s neighbors are afraid, she says, because one of their relatives was killed recently, his corpse signposted with cardboard and a scrawl that’s becoming commonplace: pusher.
We don’t talk further about the corpses, how the killers put their victims on display with cardboard signs on bloodied bodies, saying: drug pusher. Addict ako. Murderers making corpses confess so-called sins to justify their deaths. My friend and I know all this; we know, too, what this means. It’s a warning to anyone who speaks out. This could easily be you, the signs say. And no one will question your murder, because your posthumous cardboard confession already marks you as deserving.
My friend and I talk, instead, about how to be careful. As if being careful will save us.
Sometimes I wonder if my mother, like so many parents of her generation, did not tell me about her fear during martial law to protect me, as one shields a child’s eyes from roadkill and bloody accidents on the streets. Sometimes I wish I had known more, that others like me had known more. Perhaps we would be fighting harder now. Perhaps we would be speaking.
These days all we can do is whisper.
“Ingat ka, please,” I tell my friend.
This is how they used to say goodbye in martial law. Take care.
Here is a secret that is not a secret. Here is a curse that is not a curse. Revolutions are not redemption. They will not save you, just as ours did not save us back in 1896, or 1986, or 2001.
It is not that revolutions are useless; it is that they are not enough. And, perhaps, that is what damns us: we give everything we have, blood and fire and all our screaming voices, and after that it is still not over—we still have to go on, to carry our country through the painful process of rebuilding and rooting out diseases infesting our systems and finding better ways to be just, and fair, and kind, which is an even longer, more difficult trial, for all that it is less lit by fire.
We go on. And many of us forget, because what drove us to revolution was so terrible we need the balm of forgetting to numb our pain. We forget, because the old patterns of poverty and death, corruption and crime, coil and uncoil under our country’s skin but do not touch us deeply enough to destroy. We forget, because though things are still bad they can be borne, survived halfway. We forget, because nothing has truly changed except the person who occupies the presidency. We forget, because we have not yet reached the point of breaking.
What they do not tell you about revolution is what comes after, all too often: the forgetting, the way collective anger, exhausted by its blazing, settles for its long, long sleep. And—all too often—refuses to rouse again.
I cannot condemn people for forgetting. Memory is a blade. Being awake might kill you in the end: burn you up where you stand in the heat of all your fury, drain you dry of all your hope, your passion, your strength.
I cannot condemn people for their fear. I too am afraid. As I write this our president has killed thousands of Filipinos in the name of a war against drugs, and I sit here and think of survival and wait for another dam to break. I wonder if writing will move the river-rush of people’s anger any. I wonder what more I can do. My keyboard taps softly under my fingers, counterpoint to the birdsong outside. Morning is coming. When it dawns there will be more corpses and families mourning and asking why.
I thought I would have something more to say about revolution. About how it is ignited; about how to surge along its awful force and somehow remain unshattered; about how to survive it—or not, because revolutions are never bloodless no matter what you’re told. They will always demand something from you, something unspeakable, something that cannot be peacefully borne, something that can only be passed to the next generation in blood and tears and the sweat of palms pressed tight, holding on.
I want to tell you to do it, if you can. I cannot say it’s worth it; I don’t know that. My country has seen several regime changes in my lifetime alone, and yet I do not even know whether it is worth it. What is worth, truly? What has changed when my kapatid, fellow children of our mother Pilipinas, are still being gunned down in the streets, starved of food and opportunity, crushed between choices that demand either our sanity or our lives? I do not know. All I know is that we must do what we can, we must keep trying, we must—because to not try is to surrender to the evil and become part of the evil. To not try is to say that this is something that can be tolerated, can be lived with; that some deaths are more acceptable than others, that some injustices are not quite as wrong.
I want to tell you this knowing that asking you to keep trying is a terrible thing to ask. I want to tell you that it’s a choice, and once you have made that choice it will stay with you until you decide otherwise, until you break with it in a severance akin to cutting off a finger: wrenching away your passion and your love for others and your anger and your hope. That once you have chosen to resist, to take part in a revolution for change, you will find a multitude of ways to work for it, in your workplace or in your home, in your community or shops or transport or wherever you may go, communicate, speak. There are always opportunities to stand against the pressure to dehumanize fellow people. There are always avenues to reach out. Always ways to do what we can.
I want to tell you to be careful, as generations of women before me have told our children, pamangkin, apo, students, neighbors, mentees, the children and apo of friends. Back in martial law this was the traditional goodbye for those who resisted, and it carried weight because of what it meant, because of the constant possibility of disappearance, because of the ever-present need to stay alive. To keep that darkness in front of you not as something to frighten you senseless but because you must know your enemy, you must take practical steps to secure your work and your safety, you must be prepared. Put nothing past them. Safeguard your dependents. Make plans. Do not think that this cannot happen to you; it is happening now.
I want to tell you to prepare for a long fight. Your continued survival is a triumph in its own; persistence is one of your most vital weapons. True change can take decades. Hold your anger as a candle to illuminate the need for justice, a light to see by—not one quick blaze that burns out for lack of fuel. Be ready to keep your fire burning through a long and endless-seeming night. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.
I want to tell you that you are not alone.
© 2017 by Dimas Ilaw