Arnold “AJ” Jaramillo was the iconic “astig” father: he was a New People’s Army leader.
By DEE AYROSO
“Astig pala Papa mo!”
Pocholo Jaramillo, 18, recalled that his friends all thought his father was “astig” – the Filipino slang for someone “cool” or “tough,” or in this case, both.
Pocholo’s father was Arnold “AJ” Jaramillo, also known as “Ka Mando,” a leader of the New People’s Army (NPA), and the biggest secret that Pocholo and his sister Alexandra had kept for 14 years.
But not anymore. AJ’s name was all over the news after he was killed in September during the military operations in Lacub, Abra by the 41st Infantry Battalion. He was 47.
“They said I should have introduced them to my Papa,” Pocholo said of his friends, who regretted not having learned of his secret earlier.
Alexandra, 22, said when her friends learned that her father was an NPA, they showed not only acceptance, but respect and admiration.
The irony for most families of revolutionaries is that it is only when they passed away that they can shout to the world how proud they are to have a revolutionary kin.
But having kept it as a secret doesn’t diminish the honor the family feels, and having divulged it somehow lessens the pain of their loss.
AJ’s wife Cynthia, 50, said they were surprised by the outpouring of sympathy, not only from friends and family, but even from those who didn’t know her husband, and had only recently learned that he was an NPA. The parents of Pocholo’s friends said they have much respect for AJ, and the cause he carried.
Among those who flocked to AJ’s funeral were UP-Baguio alumni from different batches, ranging from the 70s to the recent years. Many of them had known AJ, who was a prominent student leader and organizer from the 80s, and was involved not only in students’ rights and welfare campaigns but against the Marcos dictatorship, and the exploitative and repressive system that continued after its downfall.
One of AJ’s former colleague with whom he had a sour parting of ways came all the way from the US, just to go to AJ’s funeral. “He said he couldn’t let AJ go without saying goodbye,” said Cynthia.
For her family’s side and from AJ’s, Cynthia said she received overwhelming support. “I can’t describe how it feels,” she said, that even in death, AJ had a positive impact on their families.
Keeping it in
Cynthia recalled that her family went through a difficult time when AJ decided to become an NPA fighter in 2000.
Their children, Alexandra, then age eight and Pocholo, four, went to the extreme in keeping their father’s work a secret.
“They became reclusive,” Cynthia said.
Alexandra said she didn’t want to be close to anybody, lest she divulged about her father, and compromise his and the whole family’s security.
It was the same for Pocholo, who recalled how he always changed the topic when friends asked him about AJ. Once, when asked where his father was, he answered: “Andito sa puso ko (Here, in my heart).”
In spite of the distance between them, AJ found ways to bring them close together, through constant letters and poems, which in recent years took the digital form, and sent as encrypted files in flash drives, or CDs sent through secret couriers, or as text messages through cell phone.
Still, the constant surveillance, stalking and even wire-tapping by suspected military agents on the family, had put a strain on the children.
Aware of their children’s situation, AJ and Cynthia took pains to help Alexandra and Pocholo deal with developing relationships while remaining security-conscious. They had just started to strike a balance of things when tragedy struck.
A father to oppressed children
Pocholo recalled that as children, AJ didn’t read them fairy tales. Instead, it was the illustrated Philippine Society and Revolution, and Ceres S.C. Alabado’s Kangkong 1896 for their bed time stories. He remembered watching animated stories with political context, like “Little Red Star.” Their family outings were at museums and historical sites.
AJ was, after all, building a revolutionary family, and he wanted his children to be politically aware.
From the guerrilla zone, AJ wrote poems for his children, and tried to make them understand that he is “fighting for a better society for your generation,” that he thinks of them in every peasant child he sees.
Pocholo recalled that his mother tried her best to explain about AJ’s work and why he was away. Too young to grasp the lengthy explanation but old enough to feel the message, Pocholo told Cynthia: “Okay, I get it: he loves us and misses us very much.”
Cynthia said AJ showed loved not only to his own children but to the children in the guerrilla zones. She said he would take his children’s old clothes to give away to those in the communities. “And when the children in the village wear the hand-me-downs, AJ said it was like having his own children around.”
AJ’s NPA unit started a literacy and numeracy program in the communities in Abra, as well as for other NPA members. Cynthia said AJ patiently downloaded education materials and films that would help in teaching, particularly math and science. The NPA unit also helped in the people’s socio-economic projects.
Both to Pocholo and Alexandra, the definition of the word “selfless” is AJ.
“He endured all the sacrifices,” Alexandra said.
“Not everyone can do what he did,” said Pocholo.
Cynthia said AJ prevailed over the difficulties in the field, both physical as well as the emotional hardship of being away from his family. “He never thought of giving up. He said he would rather die than surrender.”
Cynthia, Alexandra and Pocholo now face the task of seeking justice for AJ. Along with the families of the Lacub martyrs, they believe that the military committed grave violations of international humanitarian law in their September operations.
“We could accept his death if it was a legitimate encounter,” Cynthia said. “But we learned that it was an overkill, and their remains were even desecrated. It’s unacceptable.”
She said seeking justice for the Lacub martyrs would be “paying tribute to AJ.”
AJ’s poem “Fireflies in the Forest” was written in 2002, but in September, it seemed to echo words of goodbye when, with his children in his thoughts, his “light dims on a sleepless night”:
“Now I know why I can’t sleep, my thoughts of you are so ever deep.
Like fireflies in the forest, you are still small and weak,
but you are so beautiful, and I love you best.
Darkness fills the forest, but of all the lights, the best are the faintest flickers of light.
Darkness fills the forest, but of all the lights, the best are the faintest fireflies around.”
For Alexandra, AJ will never fade: “I know that even if my father is gone, the lessons he taught us remains, and the cause he lived for will never die.”