Love in the time of martial law: The escape
(Last of two parts)
Sonny Alvarez, as Eddie Pescador, thus began the saga of his Hong Kong sojourn. Getting connected was an improvised dramatic scenario that is stranger than fiction.
Since he left on Nov. 17, 1972, I was not able to communicate with Sonny until a week afterwards. It was sheer torture, worrying and wondering how he was.
I would go to Father Reuter’s office at Xavier House, after his staff had gone at 7 p.m.
I would make an overseas call, person to person, for Father Joseph. When he gets to the phone, he would say he was still out and would be back in an hour. I would then make a direct call. We would get our messages across to each other, within the context of an ostensibly Church-related conversation.
‘Shedding like a dog’
At times, I would fall asleep on the couch in the sala and leave early in the morning, until Father Reuter warned me: “Cecile, my duck, my child, you are shedding like a dog. The staff has noticed hair on the sofa and the floor. You will have to shift schedule, better forewarned than caught.”
Anybody who knew Father Reuter could appreciate his melodramatic statements. My long hair was falling because of nervous tension. It was normal, I was told.
Because Sonny was doing opposition work, duplicating and disseminating materials, he linked up with retired Justice Jesus Barrera. I was assigned to send verboten documents. I would wrap them well in an envelope with a parish return address, and locate a passenger at the airport who would consent to carry it after I explained the urgency of the letter package. I would then call Hong Kong to give the flight and the bearer’s name, which Sonny would meet at the Hong Kong airport. One courier was actor Michael Douglas, who happened to be in the Philippines. He was so accommodating. I could not believe it. I told Mr. Douglas the addressee would meet him. When I called to notify Sonny at the Lawson residence, he could not believe it. But yes, it was mission accomplished. This went on for months until March.
One day, in the last week of February 1973, my mother became quite hysterical with fear for my safety because she was subjected to an interrogation about Sonny and me. I then decided to explore the idea of leaving, and accepted the Unesco-ITI invitation to become a consultant on ethnic minorities, to give my family a respite from the horrible situation of trying to outwit the intelligence mechanism of martial law. I also decided it was best in order to keep Peta secure in its theater work without being jeopardized by my presence.
In March, at the Ramon Magsaysay Awards ceremony (I was the public service awardee for the arts in 1972), I pulled (movie director) Lino Brocka aside. I told him it might take a minimum of six months to finish the ITI consultancy which would expand our networking globally. I explained that I had to take a leave of absence to protect Peta. I asked him to take over as Peta executive director. Initially, Lino demurred, pleading film commitments. But he eventually agreed that during this period of uncertainty with martial law, he would accede. I thanked him and assured him the Peta Ensemble would enrich the quality of the films he will be working on. I also arranged to leave the RM prize money to pay for Peta’s debts and serve as seed money for the training and production needs of the organization.
Elusive travel permit
However, I was not allowed to leave. I had been identified as the fiancée of Heherson Alvarez by the regime. The Indian ambassador, interceding for my presence as a guest speaker at a national cultural event in New Delhi, was given a negative answer at the Department of Foreign Affairs. His request was denied with a confidential excuse that Ms. Guidote was being kept in the country because “wittingly or unwittingly, she will lead us to Alvarez.”
Ka Doroy Valencia, our Peta executive producer at the Fort Santiago Theatre in the Ruins, also appealing on my behalf, was told by the assistant executive secretary in Malacañang that I was not allowed to leave. Ka Doroy informed me that I was also on a hold-departure list because I was marked as supporting Ninoy Aquino’s protest against the Cultural Center as a “pantheon” to Imelda.
Apparently, Malacañang was displeased by our stand objecting to the use of the $67 million from the US War Damage Educational Fund for the construction of a cultural center by the bay. We had recommended that the
$67 million be equitably shared by all the provinces, $1 million for each to design and construct their own community center of culture that animates arts education and diversity of expression to help forge a national identity.
Thus, the agonizing journey to secure a travel permit for myself. This, in spite of the strong endorsement of the RM Foundation through executive director Belen Abreu, Sen. Manuel Manahan, the RM Foundation chair, and another trustee, Eligio Tavanlar, who was serving as an agrarian reform consultant of Marcos.
It was a nightmarish experience to be warned by Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile that they had “accounted for all the delegates accept Alvarez and [Bonifacio] Gillego. You better tell Alvarez to surrender or he’ll be shot on sight.”
Momentarily stunned, I was able to mask my shock by countering that if I was married to Alvarez, I may have some influence. But my wedding plans were discombobulated by martial law, I told him. I shifted the discussion by presenting the ITI invitation and explaining that it would bring honor to the country.
But it was all in vain. I was enraged by the rejection which I considered a violation of my human right to travel. I remembered my mother who always comforted me as a child, as I was always looking for my father. My mom would say, “Don’t cry, your dad died so you would be born free.”
Doroy Valencia intervention
I was determined to defy the dictatorship’s hold-departure list. Working with props, in particular, approximating the travel permit in the passport and a valid United States visa, coupled with the front-page Daily Express article on the RM Awardees, and carrying a copy of an RM-inspired memo to President Marcos, I was determined to act my way out of the airport. If I failed, I would surely have been jailed, but my litany of memorares must have saved me. I was seeking the Holy Spirit’s blessing for the courage of commitment. I was emboldened to persevere and overcome the rigid obstacles and restrictions I encountered. I was desperate but unwilling to accept defeat.
And then, like a deus ex machina, an immigration supervisor, Mr. De Mesa, appeared to resolve a hopeless situation and pave the way for my flight to freedom. He was my hero. But I was really upset to learn later that he was punished by the regime with suspension and three months in jail, until Doroy Valencia intervened. In his column, “Over a Cup of Coffee,” Valencia wrote, “No one can stop a very determined lady.”
Off-Off Broadway refuge
The La MaMa Theater on East 4th Street served as a refugee center for Sonny and I. Sonny worked weekdays in an office at the Washington DC Press Club as secretary general of the Movement for a Free Philippines.
Eventually, after the brutal assassination in the tarmac, Sonny founded the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM). It was to harness the martyrdom for further conscientization, to cut US military aid after exposing the plunder and the fake medals, that generated congressional and media support to condemn the violation of human rights and pressure Marcos to call a snap election.
Ellen hosted the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies (Twitas) that I organized with Philippine Educational Theatre Arts League (Petal) as a component to be a creative home for Filipino-American artists. We linked up to undertake cultural events for the United Nations conferences. It was also a staging place to undertake theatrically inspired rallies in front of the Philippine Consulate on Fifth Avenue, on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, at the UN Plaza, and even in front of the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC.
This is where our two children, Hexilon and Herxilia, were born. The word “exile” is carved in their names. We wanted to instill in our children from birth the consciousness that they were Filipinos and that after the struggle for liberty, we would return to our beloved homeland. In 1986, after the Edsa People Power Revolution, ecstatic with joy, our family returned to our restored democracy.
Now, Hexilon is a councilor in Santiago, chairing the committee on environment and climate change. Married to lawyer Paolo Protacio, Xilca runs social enterprises that create jobs at Gawad Kalinga, with Bayani Brew, goat cheese and Sulu Coffee of the Brave.
I often tease Sonny that I was afflicted with cancer because of the tremendous stress of standing behind and beside him in the struggle to restore democracy. In truth, in spite of the sacrifice and sadness demanded during the period of martial law, our love was further deepened amidst the roller-coaster thrill of defending the legacy of freedom. I would not even think of exchanging my life as a wife and mother of the children of Heherson Alvarez who has been my virtual soul mate and my guru in advancing the cause of human rights and environmental protection.
(Editor’s Note: The author is the youngest Filipino artist to be conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for founding Peta and for organizing the Third World committee on cultural identity and development of the International Theatre Institute where she serves as president of the Philippine center and director of the Earthsavers Ensemble/Academy. The latter has been honored twice by Unesco as Artist for Peace and recognized as the 6th in the world Unesco Dream Center for its effective use of arts and media for social change. The Balintataw television drama series which Alvarez created has been awarded multiple times by the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) and the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA). Guidote-Alvarez is a Benigno Aquino Jr. Awardee for nationalism and is an outstanding woman leader (TOWNS) and a UN Human Rights Day awardee for cultural innovation by the Fund for Free Expression.)
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