Learning from History

This is a Greg S. Castilla’s review of the book “Militant But Groovy: Stories of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan”. Mr. Castilla has a Ph.D. in multicultural education from the University of Washington. He is blissfully married to one of the writers who contributed to the book, Lynn Castilla. This was published in the Yellow Pad column of the BusinessWorld on June 2, 2008, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Militant But Groovy: Stories of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan
Compiled and Edited by: Soliman M. Santos Jr and Paz Verdades M. Santos
Anvil Publishing Inc.

They were young.  They were committed.  Their families were haunted by the thought of one day finding their bodies in shallow graves.  Many of them were educated at elite Philippine universities.  They were not affiliates of the Kabataang Makabayan  (Patriotic Youth). They were members of the youth activist organization in the 70s known as Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (Democratic Association of Youth).

In this fascinating, well-told stories compiled and edited by Soliman M. Santos Jr. and Paz Verdades M. Santos, nineteen former SDKs and one non-SDK but a close sympathizer paint a vivid picture of their young lives when they joined the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship in the 70s.

Compiler-Editor Soli Santos served notice that the book is “not only for nostalgia for the past (revisited) but also to present (h)in(d)sights for the present and the future generations.”  So perhaps it’s no surprise that the book starts where it should – SDK’s history – and ends with the merger question, which refers to the organizational issue of merging SDK and KM to combat “organizational sectarianism.”  For anyone with at least a curiosity of the past and the present, this well-crafted book may prove as interesting and intriguing. And if history is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill once said, these twenty SDK writers have proven him right.

At the heart of the book are the personal accounts of twenty activists. I prefer to call them revolutionaries for that’s what they were. Many of their stories are borne of their experiences.  Some are heartbreaking.  Others are moving testimonies.  The general tone is inspiring. In their stories, they relived their experiences and draw indelible portraits of what life was, living and actively opposing the Marcos dictatorship.  Although many of the writers were young college students then and probably were full of idealism, their stories will penetrate the heart and soul of anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of the daily concerns, fears, worries, and apprehensions activists back then had to face. Thematically, the book is about what happens when a person or a group of people decides to fight a ruthless government.

Butch Hilario, whose brother Tonyhill was ordered to dig his own grave before he was shot by the Philippine Constabulary in Western Visayas on February 19, 1974, described in almost mystic terms his brother’s behavior when the family had the chance to see him.  He wrote, “On rare occasions that we saw him in the family residence in Quezon City, he came only to get a fresh set of clothes, or to retrieve some of his books.  He was tightlipped about his activities, perhaps out of the belief that the less we knew, the better for all of us later, given the dangerous times.”

Alex Ontong recalls how on December 24, 1973 his mother came to see him in an underground house at two in the morning.  She brought pancit, sandwiches and ice cream for all the comrades. She also brought him Christmas presents:  new shirts and jeans. With her arms around his shoulders, she told him that his father, a policeman, could not see him because he was on duty. His mom left after a few hours as quietly as she came.

Lynn Castilla remembers how she was introduced by Adolfo Alcances to his family and asked to tutor his niece in piano. Adolfo eventually joined the New People’s Army and was killed in an encounter in Pampanga. A similar fate, Lynn recalls, happened to Lazzie Silva, an Ateneo de Manila student, who died in Zambales protecting his comrades so that they could escape.

And there’s Popoy Valencia’s observation of comrades of different sexes laying side by side on mats without anybody having to fear for their chastity;

Although the book’s concerns are as multiple as its writers, it’s the human touch, the humanness of these young revolutionaries, as exemplified by Tonyhill digging his own grave, Alex seeing his mother on Christmas eve, Lynn teaching piano to a niece of a fellow activist, Popoy implying respect for the opposite sex, and Jeepy Perez III being matched by a community leader to the girl he eventually married, that makes it spellbinding.  Whatever it is, their accounts will get the readers right into the minds of the writers and appreciate the quality of their lives, the honesty of their relationships with their families and the people they met.

There are certain things about the past that is not worth remembering. But such is not the case with these writers who, in remembering the past, bring to life that generation of activists who had given so much to their country.  It also brings into focus the harshness of the Marcos government as penned by the writers.

Butch Dalisay Jr vividly describes how he continues to imagine the bloated face and mutilated body of his tocayo Butch Landrino. Ome DLC. Candazo recollects how Sonny Mesina was shot by a UP math professor named Campos during the UP Commune. Jerry Araos admits that his jacket was always filled with pillboxes during pickets and demonstrations attests to the violence and horror that went with the mass actions. Manuel Calizo shares how his father was warned by the military to tell him not to join the NPA because he would die.

While there is bravery and heroism in Butch, Ome, Jerry and Manuel’s narratives, there are also stories of revolutionary commitment in areas that are not as radical as  carrying guns, but just as dangerous:   Gani Serrano planting cassava around an area that appears to be a prototype of a revolutionary base; Ricco Santos learning to sing revolutionary songs and performing in street theater in urban poor communities; Mon Fernan and Jonat  de la Cruz being expelled from the Ateneo de Manila for joining the SDK; Efren Abueg playing a crucial role in the formation of Filipino progressive writers; Behn Cervantes directing a production on the Diliman Commune entitled Barikada; and Jorge Sibal forming a nationalist  businessmen organization. All this points to the diversity of commitment and activities that SDK was engaged in.

Readers with a penchant for justice and the struggle for national liberation will find the insights in the book relevant in today’s Philippine society.

More than three decades after the declaration of martial law and in a style reminiscent of the Marcos era, militarism remains entrenched under the present Arroyo administration.  Extra-judicial killings of political activists remain unabated. Corruption in government is rampant. It’s bad enough that history is repeating itself. But what is worse is if Filipinos don’t learn from history.

Militant But Groovy: Stories of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan is a modest contribution built on providing every generation of Filipinos the insights to learn from history.

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