She was arrested several times and was heavily tortured. But what pains her the most is the fact that the struggle of the urban poor for decent housing is still as true today as it was during martial law.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – When Trinidad Herrera recounted her experiences during the martial law years, it seemed like it was only yesterday. She remembered important dates during their struggle as if 40 years had not yet passed. She described being tortured by soldiers, the pain showing in her face and voice. But for Trining, as she is called by her family and friends, the most painful reminder of the martial law years is how nothing seemed to have changed even now that “democracy” have been restored.
“In order to fight for our rights, everyone should be determined. I could have not done it alone. Everyone is needed to do their part,” 71-year-old Herrera said.
Herrera is a known urban poor leader from Tondo, Manila during the administration of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She estimated that there were about 10,000 families in their community who were about to lose their homes to give way to the government’s so-called development projects.
Their struggle, Herrera said, is very similar to how today’s urban poor are being driven away to give way to these government projects. Families are urged, if not forced, to relocate to nearby provinces. But Tondo residents were determined to fight for their right to housing. Herrera said they vowed to protect their homes from impending demolitions – not just through legal means but also through their unified action.
“Nothing good would happen to the people no matter who would sit in power. People will die,” Herrera said.
Tondo’s first woman leader
Herrera left her province in Leyte to live with her relatives in Tondo, Manila when she was only 15 years old to continue her studies. After she graduated from high school, she took up B.S. Psychology at the Far Eastern University, which is near to both Mendiola and Plaza Miranda where all the anti-Marcos rallies were being held.
Once in a while, she said, she was invited by fellow students to join these protest actions. When she finally agreed, “the rally turned violent. Students were throwing pill boxes. I told them I wanted to go home because I was not used to it.”
Herrera laughed at her recollections, wondering how she ended up not just as an activist but also one of the first women leaders in Tondo when she was elected as community secretary in 1969. When asked how having a woman leader influence the course of their struggle, she said in jest, “Of course, I am not prone to earthly temptations!”
“There was one instance when the (male) leaders were dined, wine-d and women-ed by the Elizaldes,” referring to the rich family close to the Marcoses, “in their yacht. Since then, families lost their trust on these leaders,” she said.
Herrera said residents started to organize themselves again when a foreigner priest Dennis Murphy arrived in their community. “He held mass in our area. He told us that they were forming an organization for urban poor communities,” she added.
Torture victim Trining Herrera recounts how she was tortured by soldiers during martial law (Photo by Janess Ann J. Ellao / bulatlat.com)
Then, a community organizer from Chicago Herb White also arrived in Tondo, asking how he could be of service to the poor. “He asked me what we wanted to do. I told him that we wanted to form a local organization that would be led by the people,” Herrera said.
“There was no hope for us poor people under this kind of system. If we would not do anything for our sake and welfare, who would? Nothing good would happen to us if we would not organize ourselves,” Herrera said.
Since then, Herrera said she worked closely with members of religious organizations in campaigning for their right to housing. On October 20, 1970, representatives, mostly youth and women, from 13 local organizations from Tondo attended their first meeting and the Zone One Tondo Temporary Organization was formed,” she said. Herrera was elected president.
“I believe women could also lead the people,” she said.
Seven months later, residents of Tondo held their first national convention. There were about 15 delegates from each local organization. Their members were about 5,000 families. Herrera said it was during this time when they omitted the word “Temporary” and the Zone One Tondo Organization or Zoto was formally formed.
Struggle in Zoto
To make sure that the Marcos administration would hear their concerns, Herrera said, they marched in thousands to hold protest actions. They also went from one government office to another to either ask for help to put a stop to the impending demolition of their homes or to know more about what the government planned to do.
Herrera said they went to the office of former congressman of Manila Paco Reyes to ask for help. “You are just a drop in the bucket,” she quoted Reyes as saying.
“I told him that he would no longer win. And it was true. He lost in the next election,” Herrera said with pride.
But Herrera said days of visiting these government agencies were also fruitful. “This is how we knew of how the German government planned to fund Marcos’s international port in Tondo, which is among the projects that would drive away the families.”
“We held a protest action in front of the German embassy. After that, there were reports that they would give $1 million for the housing projects for those who needed to be relocated and would build eight clinics in our community,” she said.
They also had the opportunity to interview a certain Mr. Whitehead, an official of the World Bank, at the Manila Hotel.
“We heard news that he was staying at the Manila Hotel. We went there and pretended that we knew him. The hotel attendant phoned Mr. Whitehead in his room and told him that there were people looking for him. He went down to see us,” Herrera said.
Herrera said they informed Mr. Whitehead of the predicament they were in because of these “development” projects that would, in the end, displace them. “He promised that he would do his best to withhold the funding for the projects until our concerns were addressed.”
When Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, Herrera said, she was in the United States to attend a speaking engagement. She was invited by church groups to share the experiences of the residents and members of Zoto in their struggle for their right to housing. As soon as she heard the news, Herrera said, she wanted to go home immediately.
“But they told me to stay there for a few more days. I was told that I should not rush home because Marcos might order my arrest,” Herrera said.
When Herrera returned to the country, she said, she knew their struggle to remain in Tondo would be harder. But she had full trust that a people united could defeat any attempts to demolish their homes.
For one, Imelda Marcos planned a beautification project along the stretch of Pasig river. Herrera said it included driving away families who were living along it. “She wanted to make Pasig river more beautiful. But what would happen to people living there? Is she going to paint the people white as well?” Herrera said.
With this, Zoto helped the residents in their fight. But leaders, including Herrera, were arrested on Feb. 14, 1973 when they tried to protect the community from demolition. “We were brought to one of the basements in Malacañang. They did not do anything to us. We were released that night,” Herrera said.
On Nov. 17, 1973, six leaders, again including Herrera, were also arrested when roughly 2,000 residents from Tondo marched to Mendiola. “We were supposed to submit our recommendations to Marcos on how to develop the offshore areas in Tondo. He was the one who challenged us to submit one,” she said.
Aside from arresting and detaining leaders during these big rallies, Herrera said, leaders were also under “preventive detention” whenever there are big government events or occasions.
“But they were just detaining the leaders and not the people. So even if we were detained, the police were all wondering why the people were still protesting on the streets,” Herrera said.
Communities under Zoto were frequently raided by members of the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command or Metrocom. On Sept. 22, 1973, Metrocom raided Zoto’s office.
“They also checked on men who had tattoos. But they seemed to forget that they were in Tondo. Even women had tattoos,” she said in jest.
During the martial law years, Herrera said, the people’s participation in protest actions against Marcos in calling for social justice was very much alive.
“Whenever you tell them, let’s march to Malacañang, they would go with you without any second thoughts. It was that simple,” she said, adding that, “sometimes I asked them if they were going to come and they would reply, ‘We were thinking of inviting you.’”
Herrera’s active participation in the urban poor struggle and her effectiveness as a leader made her a pain in the neck of the Marcos administration. In 1975, she was invited to attend a gathering in Vancouver, Canada. “But instead of getting an exit permit, an arrest and seizure order was issued to get me,” she said.
“I was fed up with always being arrested. So this time I eluded the arrest. I went around Metro Manila. That was when I realized how fortunate I was having so many friends who were willing to accommodate me. I did that for two years,” Herrera said.
During those two years, Herrera visited other urban poor communities and workers’ strikes. She spoke with them and shared Zoto’s experience. Also during that time, Herrera became more aware of the hardships that other communities were experiencing. She estimated that there were about five or six urban poor communities that were actively fighting threats of demolition in their areas.
On April 23, 1977, intelligence officers caught Herrera while she was on her way to Xavierville in Quezon City. “They grabbed me. I kept on shouting, asking for help. Later on I learned that someone recognized me and intelligence agents went around looking for people who knew me,” she said.
Though she had been arrested several times already, Herrera felt that this arrest was to be different. She was brought to the police station along United Nations Avenue in Manila.
“When we arrived (in the police station), there were already nuns looking for me. The police said my friends were very fast in locating me. The nuns spent the night at the police station to look after me,” Herrera said.
The next day, Herrera was brought to Camp Crame in Quezon City. “I was brought to a small room. It was very cold. I was freezing,” she said.
Though Herrera was only in her 30s at that time, she recalled how she was tortured as if it was only yesterday.
“They tied an electric wire to my thumbs. The wire was connected to a military field phone so each time they cranked it, it sent electric shocks. They interrogated me and every time I did not answer, they electrocuted me,” Herrera tearfully recalled.
“My thumb bled,” she said, “but they did not stop. I was already shouting and still they did not stop.”
“When they stopped, I thought it was already over. But they tied the wires to my nipples. I thought I would explode,” she said.
Soldiers tried to force Herrera to sign a blank paper. “I refused. I insisted on seeing my lawyer,” she added.
Herrera was then brought to another detention facility in Bicutan where she met other political prisoners. But Herrera said she was “not normal” at that time. “I shouted in my sleep,” she added.
Women detainees helped her in her recovery. They fed her and even gave her a bath. They realized that Herrera was already getting better when she finally noticed that her slippers were not of the same size. Herrera was eventually released.
“I just gave it all up to God. If it was already my end, then I would not have died in vain because I was serving the Filipino people,” Herrera said.
Victory for Zoto
On a happier note, Herrera said, the unity of residents and members of Zoto have led to their victory. Those who were displaced were not forced to move to far-flung relocation areas. They were, just as they wanted, relocated to Malabon. Those who were left behind were given a land title of their own.
“Yes, I was tortured and I thought I was going to die but our unity led to our victory,” she said.
Marcos signed their relocation to Malabon in 1979. Three years later, Herrera and residents from Slip-0 and other communities in Tondo moved to the said relocation area. She estimated that there were about 2,000 families who were relocated. Herrera served as the village leader for three terms or nearly two decades in their new community.
“Zoto was a good experience for the people. They learned how to speak out for their rights. If we did not speak out, those in government would continue to abuse their power,” she said.
But what disappoints her is that 40 years since martial law was declared and more than two decades after the so-called restoration of democracy, the struggle of the urban poor in the country remains the same.
Today under ‘democracy’
Under President Benigno S. Aquino III, urban poor groups said, remnants of the martial law and its violations of their right to housing are still very evident. In fact, a community was demolished a day before the commemoration of 40 years of the declaration of martial law
In a statement, Kadamay-NCR said around 100 homes was scheduled to be demolished on Thursday, Sept. 20 at Lawton Street Consular Gate 2 at the Mckinley Hills in Taguig City. Four residents were arrested and detained.
“Active and retired military personnel are living here in the Diplomatic and Consular Area. They served the country and this is how the BCDA (Bases Conversion Development Authority) and the local government is treating them,” Kadamay-NCR said.
“President Aquino is no less different from Marcos who had perpetrated countless violations of human rights against the Filipino people,” Estrelieta Bagasbas, a leader and resident from North Triangle, Quezon City, said.
Protesters threw red paint bombs near the gate of Aquino’s house “to symbolize the Marcosian extra-judicial killings under Aquino,” referring to 10 urban poor leaders who were killed in their fight against demolition.
“Aquino is even worse than Marcos judging at how he treats the urban poor. While we hold this protest, the police and demolition team are executing a violent demolition of an urban poor community in Taguig City,” Bagasbas added, “It is really a hellish situation under Aquino for the urban poor.”
Even with the supposed restoration of democracy, Kadamay said, social justice is hard to come by to urban poor families. The group cited about 16,000 families who were victims of violent demolitions under Aquino alone. Aside from the 10 cases of urban poor leaders killed, there were also cases of illegal detention and arrests among the ranks of residents and their leaders who were defending their homes.
“I would say that how the urban poor is being treated today is way more violent than what we had to go through,” Herrera said, “(Aquino) said we are his boss. Then, he should be true to his words. I do not want another martial law.