I had my education in an exclusive all-women convent school. Not only were we cloistered inside the concrete walls of the school, but we were also shut out from the world, from anything that could shatter our “pretty” lives. For years, we begged the nuns to allow us to form a student government and allow us to attend rallies. They finally relented in my third year of college. We were allowed to go to Congress to protest the reelection of President Marcos in 1970, in an election that was won through massive fraud. With parents’ permission slips on hand, we boarded the bus that took us to Congress. Luckily for me, my boyfriend’s mother was leaving for the U.S. that afternoon, and I left the rally early to say goodbye to her at the airport. We all know now what happened that day – many of the students were beaten up and arrested. Of course, when my father came home that evening, he adamantly wanted to know who among the children attended the demonstration, and my mother whispered my name. From then on, I was constantly reminded that if I didn’t stop my “Communist activities,” I would be disinherited. My relationship with my father during those tumultuous years is another story for another time.
Motherhood however, took precedence in my life as my marriage crumbled, so student activism had to be also put aside. The children and I started new lives in San Francisco in 1982. Aside from being a single mother in a country where divorce is not allowed, I did not want my children to grow up in that political climate. My family and I, in particular, because I was working at the bank, became targets of people claiming to be from the “underground movement” to release political prisoners and depose Marcos; they tried to take advantage of the political situation, my past activism, and my family’s wealth. If my father was not who he was, I probably would not be here today.
My children and I left everything behind except for two suitcases. It was the boldest move I had ever made in my life, but one I never regretted. It was time to fully enjoy and dote on my children, and I loved every minute of it, until one day when they told me, “Mom, don’t kiss us anymore in front of our classmates.” That was a sign that it was time to let go, so I went back to school and activism.
I was in awe of Senator Ninoy Aquino as he was not afraid to go against Marcos, even when he was in jail. Imprisonment did not dull his sharp tongue and mind. For many of us, for as long as Ninoy was alive, our hope to quash the dictatorship was still possible. One man’s bravery inspired many in the opposition to continue the fight. So, when Ninoy was assassinated in 1983, I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair for the Philippines. Maybe Ninoy was wrong. Maybe the Filipinos were not worth dying for.
In the 1986 snap elections, there were many demonstrations in front of the Philippine Consulate. I joined the crowd, not knowing anybody there, and the friends I made in these rallies have remained my friends to this day. It didn’t matter what our political ideologies were. We only had one goal in mind: Get the dictator out!
As the People Power Revolution started in Manila on February 22, 1986, Filipinos in the Bay Area also wanted to be part of it. Plans were being made to march to Union Square and then have a program. One of the activists, Mark Castro, (I think that’s his name) could impersonate President Marcos, so he was asked to put a skit together. But he needed an Imelda, and I was drafted. You cannot imagine how nervous I was to be singing in Union Square. I didn’t even like the song “Feelings.”
On the morning of February 25, a friend called me and said, “Your fight is over. Marcos has left the country.” I quickly turned on the TV and could not believe what I heard. I got dressed and rushed to the Philippine Consulate to find others who had already gathered there in a celebratory mood. We did have our march to Union Square later that evening, but I was spared from portraying Imelda.
Filipinos everywhere were euphoric at the turn of events. Finally, after close to 20 years, the Filipino people removed the dictator in a peaceful revolution. The whole world took notice and saw Filipinos in a different light. I wanted to go back to the Philippines to help the country recover, but we had just moved here and I didn’t want my children to have to go through another upheaval. So, I stayed and started Philippine International Aid or PIA so that Filipinos living in the U.S. could channel their resources to help the Motherland. It has been 33 years, and PIA is still here, sending tens of thousands of Filipino children to school.
But the work is far from finished. Our democracy and freedom will constantly be challenged by would-be dictators, power-hungry politicians, and now, narcissistic leaders, not only in the Philippines and the United States, but also in other parts of the world. We must do whatever we can to protect and preserve our moral souls. We need to keep a critical, independent, free press to hold politicians accountable. We must make our voices heard and protest whenever we have to. We must vote at every election, and vote for the politicians who are sincere in serving the people rather than their own pockets. We must protect our rights as human beings regardless of skin color, religion or sexual orientation. Defending our democracy is a shared responsibility. Each of us must do our own part in preserving our democracy and freedom, and in ensuring a better world for our children and grandchildren.
Ninoy’s death provided us and the whole world, the spark to move into action, but ultimately, it was up to us to fight for our freedom. We must be able to do this time and time again, so that goodness will always triumph.
I never met Ninoy Aquino or President Marcos, but I wish I had met Ninoy. I want to tell him, “Thank you. Thank you for being a role model and inspiring me to help my Motherland. Thank you for shaking me up to know what I should be fighting for. Thank you for believing that the Filipino is worth dying for.” And to his sister, Lupita, “Thank you for reminding us every year how Ninoy and other victims of martial law fought to give us back our democracy, how they inspired other countries to follow our lead.” Let us not throw it away again.
Speech delivered on Ninoy Aquino’s death anniversary at the Philippine Consulate, San Francisco, August 23, 2019.