By JUSTIN UMALI
I first saw you at the Chinese Embassy. We had been marching for three days with barely any rest, but there you were, microphone in hand and fire in your heart, announcing to the world that the farmers of Southern Tagalog would never back down from any fight. I laughed at your uncommon energy back then; everybody else was tired from the heat, but I listened to every word you had to say.
I first talked to you in front of the Philippine Coconut Authority in Quezon City. Farmers from all over the region came out in droves to protest the Rice Tariffication Law. I asked you about the conditions of rice farmers in Laguna and you, without looking at any notes, explained in detail each cost and each hardship they faced every planting season. “They are reaping debt instead of palay,” you told me.
You invited me to tag along with your dialogue at the Department of Agriculture. I sat and watched how you demanded the DA to look into falling prices in Pangil, Laguna. Whatever patience you had with me was replaced with a sort of righteous fury as you asserted that farmers needed subsidies and not loans.
We were in Mindoro volunteering for a peace and mercy mission when I saw you discussing with a local about imperialism and how foreign domination affected farmers nationwide. I smiled when I saw how lively you were and how agitated you became, and how the person you were talking to looked overwhelmed by what you were saying. But I knew that that was who you were; always so eager to educate the masses.
I sat with you in regional meetings where we listened to your stories and experiences. More often than not we’d get side-tracked, but there was rarely a dull moment when you were around. I laughed at your bad jokes, and I sat in amazement at the clarity of your thought and the sharpness of your analysis.
We first worked together trying to reorganize the farmers in Hacienda Yulo.
Armed goons employed by Ayala Land and the Yulo family tried to demolish their community and build a subdivision over a hundred years of agricultural development. You were undergoing dialysis at the time, but you promised, with all the bravado you could muster, that the day will come where you will set foot in a Hacienda Yulo owned by the farmers who tilled the land and worked the soil.
The last time I saw you was in a meeting for Hacienda Yulo. You were gaunt and tired from dialysis, and you arrived late in the afternoon when most of us had started in the morning. You could barely keep awake, and yet every time we suggested that you rest, you insisted that you stay in the meeting. “We have to finish this meeting,” you would always assert.
I have, and will always have, nothing short of admiration for you. Nobody can match how you gave yourself to the masses – and your willingness to sacrifice everything. You were resolute, sometimes to the point of being stubborn.
You embodied what it meant to be an organizer and a servant of the people. You gave decades of your life in the service of others, even if it came at the expense of your family. I know you carried that weight with you your entire life, and you always thought that they deserved better. If you were here today, I want to tell you that it’s ok, that they understand and that they love you all the same.
I was there when we buried you next to your father in barangay San Antonio, Kalayaan, Laguna. I saw how the masses you loved with all your heart came out and embraced you in your final moments. We were bordering the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and it was true that your loss felt just as heavy.
I could only hope to see you again, Ka Eddie Billones. I could only hope to show you what we’ve accomplished and the victory of our struggles. Most of all, I could only hope to introduce you to the thousands of people whose lives you touched, and whose spirits were ignited by your own.