Susan

Sta. Ana is the Coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This tribute was published in the July 20, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

Well said are the tributes for the late Susan Fernandez-Magno.

All the qualities ascribed to Susan made her a superwoman. She was a dedicated mom, musician, feminist, educator, activist, sociologist, brains and beauty, crush ng bayan, and everyone’s friend.

Many know Susan as the “nightingale of the Philippine protest movement.”  Yet we cannot pigeonhole her as a protest singer.  Even before she became an activist, she was already singing.  Music was her calling; it was in her blood.

Indeed she was much sought to sing protest songs for old and young activists. But she, too, was popular for her jazz and bossa nova, her kundimans, and her covers of the songs of the generation who wore miniskirts and bell-bottoms.

Susan’s music and activism were nonetheless inseparable, making her exceptional— naiiba. Her activism was likewise unique.  She wasn’t identified with any factions of a hopelessly divided Left.  Her persona and music appealed to all progressive stripes.  She had an assortment of friends who in her absence would have been fighting or backstabbing one another.

Susan’s activism belonged to the national-democratic tradition.  Despite the antagonistic split in the movement, she was not drawn into the intense, debilitating debates and struggles.  She was above the ideological and organizational fray. Susan was first and foremost a humanitarian, a kind-hearted woman who valued pluralism, tolerance and lasting friendships.

The negotiating panel of the National Democratic Front (NDF) wrote an affectionate tribute for Susan. Not only did the NDF say that Susan “was a consistent activist for national freedom and democracy since her college days.”  The NDF likewise cited Susan for being a feminist and strong woman—helping bring the women’s cause to the fore of the anti-dictatorship struggle and raising her children as a single parent.

One night, while remembering Susan and mourning over her loss, my wife Mae searched for and found a photo album with pictures of Susan performing at a Bayan Muna fund-raising event in 2004. Susan and Mae together with accompanying guitarist Junji Quimbo—no card-carrying members of Bayan Muna, by the way —gave a zestful impromptu performance.  They sang Beatles and bossa nova songs, apart from the customary protest anthems.

Susan wasn’t there to sing but to show solidarity with her friends—Bayan Muna’s Satur Ocampo, her kumpare and Gabriela’s Liza Largosa, her college cohort.  And the reason we were at the fund-raising dinner was the same as Susan’s—we were close to Bayan Muna personalities.  Satur is the husband of my cousin Bobbie.  And Fides Lim, Satur’s chief of staff then, has been a friend since our teens.

Susan, of course, was not exclusivist, gracing events of other political groups, singing for free. She rarely refused to sing for friends or for causes.

Her reach went beyond the circle of activists and NGO workers.  Sometimes braving rain and traffic and navigating narrow streets, she went to special occasions, even in hard-to-find places, to sing for friends and friends of friends.

My mom invited her to sing kundimans to commemorate the first death anniversary of our dad.  The audience was different, with the politicized being a tiny minority.  Still, Susan was warmly received. They loved her singing. Her voice was pure and pleasant but not over-sweetened; her interpretation was limpid and expressive but not sentimental.

No singer from her generation and the younger generation has equaled Susan’s efforts to champion the kundiman’s revival.  Her frustration, a missing element in a life full of accomplishments, was not being able to commercially record and reinterpret the kundimans for a 21st century audience.  Time was not on her side to trace the composers or the composers’ families to seek their permission for recording.

Susan, too, was a champion of Pete Lacaba’s salinawit, a Filipino translation of the lyrics of Western standards. Salinawit is an expression of our being globalist and Filipino at the same time.

Susan was well-liked by our family.  Armando and Paula Malay, my uncle and aunt, were among Susan’s closest friends.  The friendship began in the early years of martial law, when Susan was a student leader at the University of the Philippines (UP) and Armando was the dean of student affairs. Because of their common causes, democracy and women’s rights, Paula became Susan’s peer despite their wide age gap.

Susan likewise became the ninang of Silahis, Satur and Bobbie’s daughter, in a baptismal rite held at the Bicutan prison.  Susan frequently visited political detainees, sometimes in the company of her St. Scholastica students.

A small world indeed as we were surprised to learn that my mom and her sisters were acquainted with Susan’s dad as far back as their college days. My mom recounted to Susan that her dad, who belonged to the UP Law class of 1952, once visited their family to convince her about-to-graduate sister Nene (the late Paula Ereñeta) to teach at the Fernandez-owned college in Bicol.

I came to know Susan when she was a student leader at UP.  It is not often mentioned that Susan was a leader, a rallying figure.

She was elected representative of the Student Conference in 1975, the body that replaced the banned Student Council.  What was remarkable was that she won the election in UP Manila, where reactionary elements nestled.

She likewise became the president of the prestigious UP Economics Society (Ecosoc). But to the bafflement of her friends and classmates, she shifted course, from economics to sociology.  Sherry Palencia-Verzola, who succeeded Susan as Ecosoc president, said that Susan “would have been a lively addition to the roster of economists had she not followed her heart.”

Even in death, she was a leader. Her wake reunited people with a shared past.

It was only at Susan’s at wake that I again met Diwa Guinigundo, now the deputy governor of  Bangko Sentral, after 30 years or so.  We know what each other has been doing since we have debated about monetary and exchange-rate policies, coursed through the print media. But this time, we are on common ground. My group is supportive of Bangko Sentral’s easing of monetary policy and glad that its leadership, including Diwa, has reminded the administration to earnestly pursue the fiscal stimulus and not to subordinate it to political purposes.

The pro-administration Velasco brothers, Rene and Ono, were also at the wake to pay their respects to Susan.  I had a friendly chat with them.  Unavoidably, we exchanged jokes. Rene, an Alpha Sigman, found it irresistible to tease Alex, Susan’s husband—that he was thrice a quitter of Alpha Sigma.  An irksome joke perhaps, but something that old friends can appreciate and laugh at.

Many of Susan’s friends hate Alex’s politics, but we have to agree to what Alex said about Susan.  The words were short and simple, which could have been lost in Alex’s elaborate obit: “She loved people.”

And that’s the way we will remember Susan in the same way that people—activists or not, unconventional or not, young or old—loved Susan.

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