Three water lilies
We winced from the pain that made us put the book down. “Recollections” compiles 20 short articles on Ferdinand Arceo who was 21 when gunned down at San Joaquin beach in Iloilo. “Ferdie” who?
“Recollections vividly reconstructs in memory the image of the young Atenista who died… a hero for the masa he so loved,” says the introduction. “Bien Lumbera” is the unvarnished signature.
Bienvenido Lumbera is the writer who taught at UP, Santo Tomas, Ateneo and University of Hawaii. He is a National Artist and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism. He was detained by the martial law regime.
In July 1973, Ferdie Arceo and companion were mowed down by policemen. Arceo graduated from UP elementary school and was a senior in Ateneo when President Ferdinand Marcos clamped on martial law in 1972. “Curb freedoms to save the republic,” the man said.
That dictatorship stretched for 14 years. Scores vanished in what was trumpeted as the “New Society.” Over 35,000 were tortured, and 70,000 were arbitrarily imprisoned, historian Alfred McCoy notes in a Yale University study.
“The Philippines became a gulag of safe houses where military agents were responsible for acts of unusual brutality,” Amnesty International noted. When People Power I toppled the dictatorship, extra judicial killings crested at 3,257. Among the early victims was Ferdie Arceo.
In Ateneo, Ferdie found himself immersed in protests against a society’s structured injustices. In November 1972, he decided to go underground. He told his parents Reginald and Thelma he needed to “live with the poor so he could understand them… so that I can speak for them.” The Arceos helped him pack his bag.
Life underground is glimpsed from occasional letters that Ferdie sent. One came from when he lived in the foothills of Madia-as Mountain Ranges. “Food was getting scarce and the meals were rationed,” he wrote. The day came when there was no food left to share except rice and salt.
“Each one would get a pinch of salt. This time, there was not even enough salt to go around. So, the cook for the day sprinkled salt over the whole pot of rice.”
His letters to his siblings provide a glimpse of what drove one, raised in a comfortable middle class family, to walk barefoot. Clothes never quite dried in the damp mountain barangays.
“Remember that there are no born tutas. They are always made,” he wrote. “Be on guard that never… should you compromise your ideals and those things we hold dear in our hearts. We must give the best of our talents, time and effort – nothing less.”
“If there is anything of value my Jesuit mentors imparted to me, it is this hardheadedness guided by the principle of serving the people wholly and entirely. There are so many tasks that cry out to be done. And we can not lose a moment to idleness…”
Three accounts in “Recollection” stand out after the Arceos flew to claim their son’s body. An old man came forward carrying a small wreath of leaves plus three water lilies. They were recipients of lugaw, coffee, nails and GI sheets from Ferdie. “They didn’t even know his name.”
“We began to appreciate better what that simple wreath meant when he related an incident: He was poised to trade bolo thrusts with a furious neighbor when Ferdie pacified them. Now, this man with three water lilies weeps: “He saved my life.”
After completing funeral parlor arrangements, the Arceos searched for the house of Tatay Crispin and Nanay Charing. Ferdie’s last letter said he’d lodge with them.
“Their house was about four meters by four meters.” There was a trunk and some pillows. They slept on the dirt floor beside the stove. “Nanay Charing got up the two step ladder and reached for a basket from the rafters. She had kept these for Ferdie’s visit. “It had one crab, one green mango, two eggs from her chicken.” As Ferdie wrote: “I am treated like royalty here.”
While the Arceos were waiting for the funeral parlor, the Provincial Commander of Antique struck up a conversation. He began: “This is what I say of those children who are disobedient to their parents.” Thelma writes: “Neither my husband nor I said anything.”
“By the way, where was your son studying?” the colonel went on. Reggie: “Ateneo de Manila.” Colonel: “What course was he taking?” Reggie: “Humanities.” Colonel: “And what year was he in?” Reggie: “Fourth year.” Colonel (shrugging his shoulders ); “Well, this boy died for his principles.”
In the mid-1980s, the Arceos addressed a memorial service at the UP Film Center in Diliman. Reggie said: “Sometime in 1979, we read in the papers that this PC commander was killed somewhere in the Eastern Visayas. My wife and I said to each other: “We hope he also died for his principles.”
A monument dedicated to those slain in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship was unveiled in Iloilo in September 2004. It is a counterpart to Bantayog ng mga Bayani Museum, a landscaped memorial in Quezon City honoring those who defied the dictatorship. Ang Inang Bayan Monument has for a backdrop the Wall of Remembrance. There, names of those who resisted the dictatorship are inscribed.
Imelda Marcos scoffs at these monuments. The “New Society … ang nagligtas ng demokrasya.” Thus, Filipinos should vote for her son as president come 2016. Never mind that the US Court of Appeals (9th Circuit) slammed Ferdinand Jr. and mother with a $353.6 million contempt judgement. They tried to smuggle paintings and other artworks still subject to court litigation.
A Bongbong candidacy would not deserve three simple water lilies.