Homage to Tolits Añonuevo

At about the time that Tolits asked his daughters to bring him to the hospital—he was preparing for his last journey—Guy (Estrada-Claudio), Manuel (Buencamino), and I were on our way to the Rama I shopping district in Bangkok. Beth (Protacio-de Castro), our long-time friend now working for a Bangkok-based UN agency, accompanied us. Beth and I hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, and we had many stories to tell to each other.

Beth asked: “Kamusta si Tolits?” For some reason, we zeroed in on Tolits out of so many stories or topics that interested us.


At about the time that Tolits asked his daughters to bring him to the hospital—he was preparing for his last journey—Guy (Estrada-Claudio), Manuel (Buencamino), and I were on our way to the Rama I shopping district in Bangkok. Beth (Protacio-de Castro), our long-time friend now working for a Bangkok-based UN agency, accompanied us.  Beth and I hadn’t seen each other for quite a while, and we had many stories to tell to each other.

Beth asked:  “Kamusta si Tolits?” For some reason, we zeroed in on Tolits out of so many stories or topics that interested us.

As we talked about Tolits, I told Beth that I better write the tribute to Tolits that I had planned to do for his 50th birthday, about one and a half years ago.

I have finally written the tribute, but sadly it has become an obit.

On that day Tolits made his final journey, we felt his presence in Bangkok.  Tolits once again surfaced when Manuel and I went to the Apple store to buy MacBooks.  Tolits would have loved joining us in this shopping, I told Manuel. The Mac fascinated Tolits.  Action for Economic Reforms (AER) issued one for him, without his approval, perhaps the only privilege we had given to our president.  The Mac we gave Tolits, however, was second-hand, obtained from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

And on that night, at about the time Tolits passed away, while relaxing and having coffee at Starbucks on Sukhumvit Road, Maita (Gomez) strangely talked about spirits, premonition, and kutob. The following morning, Maita’s call interrupted my short sleep to convey the bad news.

Only then did I realize that Tolits was indeed with us in Bangkok during his final departure.  It was Tolits who reminded me of the tribute that I had planned to write about him.

Those close to Tolits know that he frowned upon, or at least got embarrassed, being praised or being flattered.  But this time, he would have approved a memorial for him.  That was his cryptic message to his friends who were in Bangkok on the very day he left us.

Tolits never feared death. In his younger days, he responded to people who wanted him to stop smoking by quoting Keynes:  “In the long run, we are all dead.” 

He could have died while marching on the street with Francis Santillano, his Philippine Science High School (PSHS) classmate, whose brains were blown off by a crude pillbox thrown by a security guard from atop the FEATI building.  He could have met the fate of Sputnik Lansang, his comrade at the PSHS Party branch, who was just turning 18 years old when the dictatorship’s troops killed him in February 1976.

Or he could have died not in a blaze of glory.  Once, a ruffian threatened to stab Tolits, then a teenager, because of his angry look.

Death stared at him in two vehicular accidents.  In one incident, he was driving to a store to buy beer for a party at home when a truck suddenly crossed his car’s path. The car smashed into the truck’s rear.  The car’s front crumpled, but Tolits was unscathed.  In another incident, returning from Los Baños, an exhausted and perhaps tipsy Tolits lost control of his car, which hit a railing at the south expressway.

Tolits survived those times that his life was in danger.   He still had unfinished tasks—of serving the people, the country, and definitely not the least, his daughters.

But since 2005, Tolits would often tell us that he was ready to go. That year, Khalila, Tolits and Carol’s youngest daughter, entered the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, with an entitlement of almost free education.  That of course made Tolits happy.  Not only was he happy for Khalila; he was likewise proud that all his daughters had passed the tough standards of UP Diliman.  In addition, he no longer had to worry about education financing.

In June 2006, he retired from teaching at UP Los Baños (UPLB). He complained that the high price of gasoline, the cost of driving from Manila to Los Baños and return, exceeded the salary he received from teaching at UPLB. 

He would devote his time to family and NGO endeavors.  But he would keep telling those close to him that he had already prepared himself for the final journey.

He was confident that his children would be more than capable of surviving and living in this complex word without his physical presence.  For after all, they are strong, intelligent, and independent. Their greatest assets are the quality of education they have received, their diverse skills, and more importantly the values imparted to them by their parents. Besides, the daughters have all reached the age of majority, with Khalila turning 18 in December 2006.

But what about his unfulfilled task of building a just and democratic society, a prosperous, equitable and sustainable economy?

His family and closest friends may recall that Tolits cried unabashedly on the occasion of his 50th birthday in September 2005.  He was crying not because Carol surprised him with a birthday party but because he was sad that the cause he fought for throughout his life was far from being met, that the realization of the good society would not happen in his lifetime.

His generation, my generation, failed to even come close to reaching our noble goals.  But Tolits pinned his hope on the younger generation, that the young would lead the unfinished struggle.  It was time for the old like him, like us, to give way to the new forces.  It is thus fitting that Tintin Morales-Alikpala gave a tribute to Tolits on behalf of AER.  Tintin represents the new generation of leaders.

In a word, Tolits had confidence in his daughters and in the younger generation.  His mission was done.

A lot of good can be said about Tolits.  His relatives, friends, and colleagues will not run out of good and inspiring things to say about Tolits:

  • As student activist and revolutionary: He joined the Party at a tender age, in high school.  He never bent his principles and commitment, even though in a latter period, he left the Party and rejected its program, strategy and tactics.
  • As writer and propagandist:  He was a topnotcher in the Collegian exam, and wrote the celebrated underground manifesto titled Patalsikin ang Anak ng Diktador sa Kampus. Whether the manifesto that Tolits wrote caused Imee’s departure from UP several weeks later can be a subject of debate.
  • As scholar and teacher: His students loved and respected him, despite his being a terror who did not hesitate to fail more than half of the class. For he maintained high standards and disliked mediocrity. He did not exempt himself from the high standards.  He was, for example, not satisfied with our undergraduate thesis, which was about the application of Marx’s theory of surplus value to the Philippine sugar industry.  We got a high grade, though it was a rushed paper as both of us then were more engrossed with student activism than with academic work. In hindsight, he found our paper wanting.  Until recently, Tolits still entertained the thought of surreptitiously pulling out the thesis from the School of Economics library.
  • As economist: His favorite subjects were math economics and economic history, revealing how Tolits viewed economics.  He believed in the rigor of the discipline and the elegance of the models.  At the same time, he knew the limits of the formality and convention of neo-classical economics, turning to history to explain the real world.
  • As government technocrat:  He did his best in his capacity as assistant secretary of agrarian reform to pursue strategic reforms, but he knew that the reform struggle could only be sustained not by having a few heroic individuals but by making it a collective, long-term political project, which was missing.  He eventually resigned, but making it very clear to everyone that the main reason was he wanted to give more time to his family.
  • As NGO leader:  He headed Tambuyog and AER, which I assert are among the country’s finest NGOs.

Sergy Floro, his long-time friend and economics professor at American University, sums up the good in Tolits:  “a man of principles and integrity, deeply committed to social and economic justice.”

That we know Tolits more for his activism, leadership, and intellectual rigor would tend to mask or underemphasize his other characteristics—including his frailties and his emotional side.

Heroes are not perfect.  Tolits was irritable and masungit. He could throw a chalk at students literally caught napping.  He always expected the worst to happen. In our college days, we compared Tolits to the character in the cartoon version of Gulliver’s Travels who always quipped:  “We’ll never make it.”

However, his latest friends like Maita and Manuel describe him as magaang and easy-going. Perhaps, only by having a fresh perspective can we see the lighter side of Tolits.

A quality of Tolits often unmentioned was how loving a person he was.  He may not have been demonstrative to Carol and his children, but he had his own ways of expressing his love. Kene (Raya) observed that Tolits would miss AER meetings and activities whenever Carol was in Manila, meaning that Tolits preferred the company of his wife to the company of his comrades or barkada.  He may have been clumsy at initiating talks with his daughters, but his mere presence at home, watching TV with them, was reassuring enough that he cared for them.

Not a few know that the relationship of Tolits and Carol, just like any other relationship, reached very low ebbs. Once, Tolits called me, breaking down, even saying he wanted to die.

Yet, despite all the pain, anger, and tumult they went through, theirs became a strong relationship. My wife Mae would see Tolits, not a demonstrative person, with his hands lightly resting on Carol’s shoulder.

The greatest personal lesson that we can learn from Tolits is:  To love, one must make his love unrequited and unconditional. Despite the odd ways that Tolits demonstrated his love for Carol and his daughters, he loved unconditionally, without expecting it to be requited.

Very touching was the text message that Kay, the eldest of the daughters and my inaanak, sent me regarding Tolits’s death while I was in Bangkok.  Her message was:  “We should be the ones to thank you for always being there beside Papa in both professional and private endeavors.”

My response to you, Kay, is this:  Your tatay inspired me in many ways.  I strive to live by his basic values that he likewise instilled on you and your sisters.

These values are in fact so simple and basic.  One need not join the Communist Party or Jentilesse or Tambuyog or AER to promote and put into practice these core values.

The Rotary’s four-way test capsulizes the values that Tolits stood for:

“Is it the truth?

“Is it fair to all concerned?

“Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

“Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”

He was so different from those Rotarians like the rogue Mike Arroyo. For Tolits lived out those values that Arroyo, Jocjoc Bolante and their ilk debased.

However, Tolits was still different from the good Rotarian.  He had another standard beyond the four-way test:  Be critical, and question authority.

But the most essential lesson I learned from Tolits is to love and serve unconditionally. 

May Tolits’s life of love, commitment, and integrity inspire all of us.

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