Rol Peña: Geologist, poet, revolutionary gone in a blink
Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.
–W. B. Yeats, “A Deep-Sworn Vow”
Scientist. Nationalist. Revolutionary. Mentor. Friend to many from the Left, Right and Center. Author of the groundbreaking “Lexicon of Philippine Stratigraphy.” Poet, essayist, translator. Renaissance man. Even unsung national hero and candidate for national scientist.
The accolades for the late geologist Rolando Espinosa Peña keep on rolling (he would hate the pun on his nickname “Rol,” or he might quietly smile his toothy smile). His colleagues in the geological sciences are talking about putting up a museum in his honor for his contributions to the country, which include the strengthening of the Philippine claim to Benham Rise, and the protection and conservation of the Masungi Reserve in Baras, Rizal.
Unknown to many, Peña had also written a controversial thesis before he went underground in 1971, after the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.
The thesis fairly accurately traced the direction of the Big One, the earthquake predicted to happen in our lifetime, along the West Marikina Fault System.
His research could not be published. It is said that when they heard of the study, subdivision owners protested and applied pressure on authorities to ignore it because it would imperil millions of pesos in potential business in the 1960s, when the exclusive villages in Quezon City and Pasig were starting to sprout.
Peña survived martial law, the ill-fated arms smuggling ships MV Karagatan and MV Andrea (the last he captained when the official captain became seriously seasick), political exile in China, and the breakup of the Maoist communists into Reject (RJ) and Reaffirm (RA) factions.
But he did not survive an appointment with death in the early evening of Nov. 30. He was crossing Quezon Avenue in Quezon City not too far from where he lived when a speeding motorcycle hit him. He was declared dead on arrival at Capitol Medical Center at 7:45 p.m.
The consensus among his friends was he did not deserve that kind of death. Many rued how Peña, two days shy of his 77th birthday when he died, could have lived to a riper old age, combed more white hair, and continued to pursue his passions which he masked with droll humor and deadpan scientist’s demeanor.
Feminist and academic Sylvia E. Claudio, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Social Work and Community Development, wrote in her public Facebook message: “Rol’s political history is tied up with the big contemporary events that have shaped this country. But much of that history is for others to tell. I met him when he seemed to have lived to be old enough for quieter times. If someone else had not told me, I would never have guessed that this humble and gentle man had so much he could have bragged about.”
She continued: “He dropped by my office when we were about to be awarded Benham Rise, and he explained to me how he, and a bunch of other UP scientists, had worked on our claim. It was the first time I had heard of Benham Rise, and Rol told me of its wealth and its vastness. I was so proud of him and grateful for the work of the scientists who had claimed so much for future Filipinos.”
Peña wasn’t one to toot his horn despite his achievements. He was editor of important underground periodicals and books, yet he remained anonymous, tending to blend with the background.
At one point, when the revolutionaries Satur Ocampo and Carolina “Bobbie” Malay were caught by authorities and imprisoned, Peña took over the leadership of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Still, he did not expect special treatment. He walked or took public transport to his appointments, a ratty tennis hat covering his head up to his eyebrows.
His contemporary, Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi, a visual artist now based in Limeuil, France, recalled in an FB comment how her father, a retired general of the Philippine Constabulary, “always welcomed him despite knowing he was underground.”
“I remember Papa putting his arm around Rol’s shoulder saying, ‘Rol, I know you don’t have blood on your hands, but if you ever decide to surrender, I will accompany you,’” she recalled. “Little did Papa know how easily Rol blends into the landscape. That’s why he was never caught! When I was ‘invited’ to Camp Aguinaldo, they asked me to look at photos and identify Rol. Naku, they had no photo of Rol at all.”
The sculptor Jerry Araos facilitated Peña’s return to civilian life in mid-1992, at about the time of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ split into RJs and RAs. He invited some military officers to a lunch at a Japanese restaurant with Peña present.
Araos was able to bargain with the officers to cut Peña’s debriefing/questioning period in a military camp to a few hours, after which he was brought to a point where he could get a ride to wherever he called home.
“Home” remained an elusive place for Peña. He once told me that for many Yuletide seasons while he fought the good fight against the Marcos dictatorship, he spent Christmas with friends. For a time, he would meet his only child, Sybil Jade, now a Paris-based physician working for Doctors Without Borders, in safehouses.
Malay once described his habits of freedom as those of an alley cat: He would sleep wherever he found himself at an uneasy hour of the night. His places of rest included the home of the film director Ishmael Bernal, since deceased, because there he had access to good books.
In the last few years, Peña had saved enough to buy a small condo not too far from Quezon Avenue. His unit was on the same floor as the swimming pool, and he’d invite stage actress Banaue Miclat-Janssen and her son Raj for a swim “maski na araw-araw pa (even every day).”
It is these small thoughtful acts that Peña’s kin and friends are missing. During my last conversation with him on June 23, he apologized for not getting around to giving me his spare copy of a Haruki Murakami novel, “Sputnik Sweetheart,” as he had promised the last Christmas.
Peña was known among his former colleagues at the National Institute for Geological Sciences as having a way with women, who were drawn to his learnedness, gentleness, soft-spoken ways and intense gaze.
BusinessWorld columnist Filomeno Sta. Ana wrote: “Rol was a ladies’ man in a positive sense. Because of his many nice attributes…, women were attracted to him. In this respect, he and his fellow Area Wanner (for Area One at UP Diliman) Bong Daza were similar, though Bong was linked to glamor and fanfare. Rol and Bong were good friends though one was anti-Marcos and the other was pro-Marcos. This illustrates our plural identities, suggesting that our political differences do not affect our friendships.”
Poet Aida F. Santos summed up many people’s feelings about Peña’s untimely end in the poem “Geology” which she uploaded on FB: “It’s not even the death that shocked us/ It is the humiliation/ From a cement road that claimed your/ Ever so reedlike body./ You who trekked roadless mountains,/ Rugged terrain of forests,/ Swam deep seas…/ You whose bravery was legendary/ No match for the metals of a monster/ motorcycle…/ Farewell is not easy…”
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