“I am not stopping, because what we want is the ever-widening rank of the organized.”
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Inocenta Penkian-Wenceslao, more popularly called “Nay Bising,” is a fixture in protests of the urban poor and women. She may not be able to march and chant as well as she wants to, but she could discuss political and economic issues clearly. At 77, she is still an organizer of Gabriela Women’s Party-list in Quezon City, and remains as tireless and as passionate as the day she first became an activist.
“I am not stopping, because what we want is the ever-widening ranks of the organized,” Wenceslao said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Wenceslao’s strength comes from the victories she has seen as she linked arms with other urban poor, as well as from her own share of pains and sacrifices, one of which was the enforced disappearance of her son Teodoro, or “Tata.”
The hard life of a peasant
Wenceslao has been organizing urban poor communities in Quezon City for more than a decade, but her story as an activist began a thousand kilometers away down south, in Davao City, 37 years ago. She said it was not hard to understand the need to struggle, having gone through various hardships throughout her life.
She came from a poor peasant family in Leyte, one of a brood of 11. Wenceslao was only 13 when their mother died, and their father could hardly eke out a living in their one-hectare farm owned by their grandfather.
“We only get to eat rice come harvest time. A month after harvest, there would only be camote, cassava and corn,” she said.
When her four older brothers went to work for the logging company Pacific Lumber in Mindanao, she went with them, along with her sisters, to do the marketing, cooking, and laundry. Later, their grandmother took them in, and she lived with her in Monkayo in Compostela Valley province, where she and her sisters went back to working in the farm.
Life was hard, and her grandmother could only afford to feed them. When she turned 19, Wenceslao went to work as a domestic helper in town. After more than a year, Wenceslao thought she should go to a sewing school in Agusan del Sur, to learn a new skill that could earn her some income when she gets married. Her older brother Emeterio Penkian, however, refused to let her, and instead told her to just marry someone.
Having grown tired of doing housework for others, Wenceslao said she started to think of marriage as an option.
It turned out that her brother’s co-worker, Andres Wenceslao, was smitten with her after meeting her in one of her visits to Emeterio. Soon enough, Andres asked to marry her, and she agreed. When their first child was born, the couple moved to Punta Dumalag where Andres’s family lived.
“There were only 10 houses then. They were all fisherfolk, and all Andres’s relatives,” Wenceslao said. It was in Punta Dumalag where six of her seven children were born and raised. Her husband, who became Andres Senior when their youngest child was named Andres Junior, worked as a welder and mechanic.
The community was also near the port where logging concessionaries roll off logs on the water, to be picked up by ships to transport abroad. People swam alongside logs to gather loosened bark, which they sold or used as stove fuel. Many were injured or even killed, as they got hit or got caught between logs.
As the residents increased, they also fortified the coastline, and hauled rocks to construct riff-raff to prevent the sea from eroding the land. In the 70s, several private individuals tried to claim ownership to the area, but failed to budge the community. The sixth and last was the Consunjis, owner of the DMCI Holdings Inc., which also had a logging concession in Mindanao.
A promise too good to be true
In 1979, a developer came and said the area was a danger zone, and that the 140-household community need to be relocated, their houses demolished.
“Many of us were fisherfolk. Where would they transfer us – to the mountains?” she said.
The developer offered a relocation site on the other side of the coast. Wenceslao said they showed residents pictures of bungalow houses. They were promised free construction materials, from the wood to the nails, with free food to be provided by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for the duration of the construction.
“People were enticed,” she said. Out of 140 families, 14 took the offer. “But they found life even harder in the relocation site,” said Wenceslao.
There was no house standing, and not enough materials to build one. For a week, the DSWD provided food, consisting of noodles and mung beans. The 14 families went back to Punta Dumalag after a month.
“They told people the truth about the promised housing. It strengthened the people’s resolve to fight for the land,” she said.
Building a solid community
That was when organizing started, people gathered in meetings, and decided to resist the demolition. Wenceslao said she easily understood the need to struggle for the people’s rights, coming from a poor peasant family. In the community’s struggle, she found a way to develop herself and work with others.
The residents went to various government agencies to find out the real owners of the 3.5-hectare land. It turned out that the community stood on public land, being within the foreshore line. The Bureau of Lands issued a certificate saying so.
“Mas lalo kaming tumibay sa paninindigan,” (We became firmer in our stand) she said.
As they adamantly stood their ground, the Consunjis filed charges of illegal entry against the residents.
“We went to the court hearings in two jeep loads,” she said. Their lawyer was Jesus Dureza, who became Davao City congressman and later appointed to a Cabinet position in another administration.
“Eventually, they failed to eject us,” said Wenceslao.
The community also received support from NGOs who helped them set up a cooperative, and gave them fishing tools and starting funds for income-generation, such as soap-making.
Fighting off the Alsa Masa
As the community stood solid and refused to budge, the harassment started.
Soldiers came with the dreaded anti-communist vigilante group, Alsa Masa and began patrolling the community, randomly firing shots. Fighting back, the residents put up a perimeter fence to keep intruders from coming in.
At one time, 22 Alsa Masa men marched to the community, with red bands on their heads, and bolos in their hands.
“Come out of there,” the vigilantes called outside the fence.
“You come in,” the people shouted back.
“They wanted to scare us into leaving, but the people were not intimidated because we have gotten used to harassment,” Wenceslao said. All the people would come out of their houses and gather to face intruders whenever they come, she said.
Leaders and organizers became victims of “salvaging” – the euphemism for abduction, torture, murder and dumping off of the body – by
suspected state forces. But no one was taken from their community, because of the people’s vigilance. “Women would clamber up the military vehicles and grab back the victim,” she said.
Wenceslao said that because of the threat to their homes, all her seven children became activists, as well as all her husband’s relatives in Punta Dumalag. Her son Tata joined a cultural youth group and was among those who kept guard in the community. In 1981, at age 18, he decided to become a peasant organizer in the countryside, and was assigned to North Cotabato.
But Tata was soon arrested and detained along with other organizers. It was Tata’s uncle who came looking for him, and, along with an international fact-finding mission, found him at the Central Command headquarters in North Cotabato, Wenceslao recalled.
“He had scales on his skin,” she recalled Tata’s poor condition in detention. But she was relieved that he was safe from “salvaging.” He was released after some four months in detention. Little did they know that he was not going to be safe for long.
‘Salvagings,’ and police raids under the Cory Aquino regime
At the height of the first Aquino administration’s Total War, the militarization in Davao communities took a turn for the worse. In 1987, police raided their cooperative and confiscated all the properties of the organization, even the equipment they used for their income-generating projects. “They took everything, even the refrigerator, fishing gear, blackboard, stove, oil for making soap,” she said.
“The raids were going on day and night. It was no longer safe…people from the communities, those who knew us, were the ones tipping us off. They were also scared of the military,” she said.
“It was during Cory’s time that we went here (Manila), because of the worsening militarization in Davao,” she said. “We had to find safety, because the fight is far from over,” she said.
Wenceslao recalled some of those killed were Nanding Torralba, a youth organizer, and Babes Baguion, an organizer of the urban poor women’s group SAMAKANA-Davao. “There was even a local organizer who was shot dead in his own house,” she said.
The first and saddest Christmas in Manila
In 1987, Wenceslao came with the first batch of leaders and their families who sought sanctuary in Manila. She was soon joined by her husband and children. They talked to NGOs and support groups who helped them find homes and work. They also joined the campaign to stop militarization in the countryside.
“It was hard to find a place to live in because there were many of us,” she said. They decided to send Tata and a nephew to Camotes Island in Cebu province in the Visayas, where her husband’s relatives live. Tata and his cousin Hugo left Manila for Camotes island in November 1987.
The next month, on Dec. 13, Tata was sleeping in the marketplace near his aunt’s house when he was abducted by some 12 members of the Military Intelligence Group (MIG). He was forced into a pumpboat, and was never seen again. His cousin, Hugo, was also abducted and later found dead.
Wenceslao learned about what happened from her brother-in-law who went to Manila shortly after the abduction. The news came before Christmas, and the whole family was crestfallen. It turned out not everyone escaped the crackdown. The tragedy came even as they were still struggling to make ends meet, coping with life in Manila. Tata was only 24.
“It was a sad Christmas…it was difficult for us,” she said.
Wenceslao said they took a long time to accept that Tata was never coming back. “But we eventually did. It’s all part of the struggle,” she said.
From Davao to Quezon City
In Manila, Wenceslao went to work for a human rights NGO, and later, a women’s NGO.
In 2003, at age 64, Wenceslao went back to community organizing, and has since been one of the leaders of GWP in Quezon City.
“I am happy, as an organizer, raising the people’s spirits to fight an oppressive social system,” she said.
She said organizing these days are hindered by “pacifiers,” which include government programs that dangle dole-outs in exchange for curtailing certain political rights. She said some women who are beneficiaries of the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) are scared to join rallies for fear of losing their benefits. They are unable to join meetings because they are tied up in seminars, or guarding their children in school, as among the conditions for 4Ps beneficiaries.
Her group, GWP raised the issues with government agencies, such as the recent dialogue they had with the DSWD, the government agency implementing the 4Ps.
In spite of the challenges, Wenceslao said she finds fulfillment in organizing, as women find ways to face problems together and help each other out.
Wenceslao’s husband Andres passed away in 2009. She has a high blood pressure and arthritis, but her condition does not hinder her.
“I don’t get tired…At my age, if I stay at home, I will just get weaker and sad. But when I go to the community and talk to people, it’s like extending my years,” said Wenceslao, adding that she feels the need to continue the struggle, as she sees even more people suffering from poverty.
“I said, ‘As long as I can still see, hear, think and speak clearly, and can still walk, this is my weapon to work in the community,” she said.
“If you’re not really sincere about what you tell the people, you will surely get tired,” she added that one’s sincerity to serve the impoverished majority broadens one’s life and purpose.