During the dark days of Martial Law and up to the present, the mountains and rivers of the Cordilleras have been a flowing source of inspiration and hope, because of heroes who dedicated their lives to defend the right to life, land and self-determination.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA — It was during Martial Law in the 70s when the Marcos dictatorship came out with an ambitious megadam project that would block the flow of the Chico River and drown indigenous communities in the Cordillera. The resulting explosion of resistance from the Igorots sent that ambitious project to history’s trash bin. It also opened the floodgates for the best sons and daughters of the Cordillera to rise up against Marcos, their lives shining brightest as they fought the darkness of the dictatorship.
As we commemorate the imposition of Martial Law this month, it is timely to read the book Cordillera Heroes, which compiled 23 of these great lives of activists. Most of the subjects were indigenous peoples who started during the Martial Law era, while the rest were “Martial Law babies” – the generation who grew up during the Marcos era.
They had different backgrounds – a farmer, pangat (peace pact holder), mombaki (indigenous priest and healer), teacher, lawyer, paralegal, miner, unionist, NGO worker, student leader, campus journalist, artist – but their lives flowed into each other, like tributaries of the Chico river, as they became part of what became the mass movement in Cordillera.
It was this movement that defended the ancestral domains and the rich natural resources of the region against destructive projects, resisted state repression and fought for the right to self-determination.
There was Ama (father) Macliing Dulag, who united the indigenous communities against the Chico dam project, so successfully, that the military had to stop him, through assassination, on April 24, 1980. His tandem with Pedro Dungoc Sr., a Kalinga teacher, proved crucial as they wrote letters and petitions and brought their fight to Tagalog-speaking Manila. After Ama Macliing was assassinated, Dungoc and other elders, such as Ama Lumbaya, took up arms and joined the New People’s Army (NPA).
The mountains are a natural refuge for rebels, but what made the armed struggle prosper in the Cordilleras is the tribal cooperation, the indigenous collective courage of the people to fight for their land, their way of life.
Even before the elders joined the NPA, their adult children already did. But with the example of the elders, many others also recognized the need, and prestige, of the armed option.
In the coming decades, it was the turn of the Martial law babies – among them, Artus Talastas, Albert Teneza, Reyna Villacarlos, Lilette Fatima Raquel, Loreta Batay-an Yocogan, and William Bugatti – to become youth activists. The first four eventually joined the NPA and perished in the struggle, while Yocogan and Bugatti became development workers. Yocogan died of cancer. Bugatti was shot dead in March this year by a suspected military death squad, one of the 204 victims of extrajudicial killings under the Aquino regime.
Another pioneer, Ama Daniel Ngayaan was among the elders who continued openly organizing the tribes, eventually becoming one of the founders of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) in 1984. In 1987, he was abducted by the bandit Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), which was then spreading terror in the region, along with the military. His body was never found.
Rafael “Markus” Bangit started as a young activist during Martial Law, and developed into a tribal elder “with national democratic consciousness.” He became a pangat as he “showed unmatched skill in settling inter-tribal disputes.” Bangit was killed in 2006, one of 1,206 victims of extrajudicial killings under the regime of Gloria Arroyo.
Of course, there were also the brilliant minds whose battles were fought within courtrooms, pushing the parameters to make the laws work in favor of the people: human rights lawyers William Claver, Federico Bunao and Arthur Galace. Claver was also the founding chair of the CPA.
Some of the tributes were lovingly written by their kin and close friends. Some came from the second generation – their “children and comrades.”
Tebtebba’s Florence Daguitan wrote about how Eddie Daguitan of the Montañosa Research and Development Center was boundless, as he worked “not based on his job description and position, but based on his capacity, giving it his all.”
Albie Terradano was still quite young when his paralegal and human rights worker father Albert was killed in 2005. Albie wrote how his father would always be there in time for dinner or to help with their homework, at the same time, remained dedicated to his work.
Katribu partylist nominee Beverly Longid wrote about her mother Susan Litdog-Longid, progressive educator and development worker, who raised her children conscious of their indigenous roots, and made sure they spend their vacations in Mt. Province, so they could learn “to speak ‘Igorot’, learn the ‘ugali’” and get to know their kin.
Piya Malayao, spokesperson of the Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas, wrote about her mother,“institutional technocrat and activist” Jean Macliing. Piya took an excerpt from her mother’s letter written to her husband (Piya’s father) on their wedding anniversary, expressing pride and happiness about their grown, activist children: “We are no longer just their parents – it’s a joy we are also their comrades!”
Matthew Guineden’s grandchildren “know they have a hero for a grandfather,” shared his daughter Cristy Guineden-Ngolab. Manong Matt was first organized as a miner in Benguet Corporation, and himself became an organizer of unions and urban poor communities. He was the founding chair of the urban poor group Ornus, and was also a chair of the CPA.
Benedict Tangid, shared how his father Sixto, a mombaki “raised a revolutionary family.” Sixto joined the NPA at age 45, and later, so did his son.
Indeed, age is never a hindrance for further growth, as war veteran and retiree Lakay Pascual Pocding proved, evolving “from village elder to indigenous peoples’ rights leader” when his village of Dalupirip in Itogon, Benguet was threatened by the San Roque dam project in 1996.
A Benguet Corp. miner, Lorico Espejo Jr or “Ikkong” was a “neighbourhood toughie” whose bullying ways matured in trade union organizing and became “a good and effective abogadilyo.”
Manuel Loste, came from Borongan, Samar but also grew roots in Cordillera where he became a “father” to “thousands of activists.” An educator by profession, he was a founding member of the Kaguma, the revolutionary teachers group that was formed in the 1970s, and was the Makabayan-Cordillera chair when he passed away in 2013.
The 23 lives in the book were either cut short by illness or by bullets. But the important thing is that “they all served the people to their very last breath,” as the poem goes.
The book’s main writers and editors were Jill Cariño and Palanca-awardee Luchie Maranan.
“Their stories are continuing narratives of a people’s movement that has not diminished in strength nor capacity to persist despite changes in regimes,” wrote Cariño and Maranan.
“Their life stories are portraits of the Filipino people who refuse to be cowed by repression. Their deeds are seeds that continue to grow and are nurtured by the continuing struggle of a new generation of activists who will pursue the just options for genuine social change.”
It’s not easy to read through this book, as one’s eyes tend to get misty. Even if you’ve never met any of them in person, or even if you’ve never met an activist, they would all seem so familiar, their selflessness and courage so universally stirring.
“Their stories inspire us to carry on the struggle and live out the legacy of our Cordillera heroes and martyrs,” said the book’s editors.
And these are just 23 of the countless, faceless heroes of the people’s movement, which is not just in the Cordilleras but all over the country. To read about the people in this book is to be reminded that there is still hope for a better world. But if you’ve actually met one of them, you know that it already is.
“Cordillera Heroes” was published by the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), and was launched at the University of the Philippines in Baguio on August 18.
Copies are for sale at the office of the Cordillera People’s Alliance at No. 55 Ferguson Road, Barangay Andres Bonifacio, Baguio City, at the Kalipunan ng Katutubong Mamamayan ng Pilipinas (KAMP) at Room 304, NCCP building, 879 EDSA, West Triangle, Quezon City, and at the AIPP Resource Center, Indigenous Asia House, Chiang Mai, Thailand.