Thursday, August 7, 2014

Philippines, Marcos Dictatorship: Guest Blogger Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough's "Salvaged Love"

Carol Ojeda with son, circa 1980s

Our Guest Blogger, Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough, shares with us her personal history during the turbulent Marcos years in the Philippines.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Carol moved to the US in 1975 with her six-month old son to escape the Marcos dictatorship. Her son's father was killed in 1976, summarily executed by the military in a process called "salvaging." His body was never found.

As a single mother, Carol worked full-time to support her family while she continued her activism as a member of the Anti-Martial Law Alliance and the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) in Los Angeles, California.

Today, Carol is a part-time faculty in the Asian America Studies Program at California State University in Fullerton. She teaches classes about Asian American Women, Filipino American Experience, Creative Expressions and Asian American Families. She continues to be active in community work and is an appointed member of the Los Angeles County Commission on Public Social Services; Filipino American Library (FAL) Board of Directors; and the Pasadena City College President's Asian American Advisory Board to support the school's commitment to the life-long learning goals of Asian and  Pacific Islander students and community members.
Salvaged Love
by Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough

published in the anthology, Asian American: The Movement and the Moment (2001) edited by Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu, reprinted with permission by the author, Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough. Copyright 2014 by Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough, all rights reserved.

My life’s journey is like a road that forked in numerous ways.  Political upheaval in the Philippines in 1972, barely three months into my college freshman year, opened up what would be the first of many life choices I would make.  That was the year when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines.  All of a sudden my world at the university quickly transformed from an environment of academic freedom to a virtual prison, with buildings surrounded by barbed wire fences and military personnel posted at all entrances.   The repression within school and outside in the society around me brought the first unplanned life change that I would make.  I had to choose between continuing my studies in such a stifling atmosphere or drop out and become a full-time activist against the dictatorship.  I chose the latter path because I believed, perhaps naively, that school could wait and that I could always return as soon as Marcos was deposed and democracy restored.  I was seventeen and naively thought that wouldn’t take more than six months, tops.  So by 1973, I dropped out of school and joined a small collective of community activists, former college students who had similarly put a hold on their education. 
       Our political work involved organizing the squatters in Quezon City.  The pejorative “squatter”   describes the large number of urban poor who were forced into building shelters illegally on private owned land.  Squatters lived under constant threat of eviction, often through violent confrontations with the private armies of landowners or the military.  With the imposition of ML and the loss of the democratic process, activists could not organize in the open; so we did our organizing work underground.  We met with small groups of squatters and discussed basic problems they faced on a day-to-day basis, problems like access to water, or decent housing.  This served as a prelude to more abstract discussions about the link between ML and foreign domination of the country’s economy, and therefore the need to overthrow both in order to have a truly just and democratic society.
There, I met and fell in love with Lando.  He was a student activist who actually lived in a neighboring squatters area. He was tall, lean, with dark wavy hair, and eyes that could convince you to do things your own mother said not to do.  He was the first in his family to go to college but he too dropped out of school to become a full-time activist.  At first he took delight in making fun of my sheltered “burgis” class background and challenged me to become more “proletarian.”  To prove that I was one of the masses, I left the comforts of home and moved in with a group of activists living in a shanty by the Marikina River. 

      It wasn’t long before Lando and I became a couple.  We shared brief moments together and forgot that we were engaged in life or death activities.  But in a strict Catholic country where artificial contraception was forbidden, it also wasn’t that much longer when we found out that I was pregnant. 

     I once more faced a dilemma – how could I possibly take care of a baby and continue my activism, let alone get a college degree?  My choices were obvious: get an illegal abortion or keep the baby.  I chose the latter, and with that choice I made the decision to accept the responsibility that comes with having a child.  It meant stepping back and scaling down on my organizing activities –  after all, it was becoming more and more difficult to outrun the military with a bulging belly.  My parents were devastated when they heard about my pregnancy but were very supportive.  My life as a “revolutionary” shifted to domesticity as I prepared for the birth of my son.

          In the meantime, the political situation became even more repressive.  Citizens were resigned to the midnight curfew, military presence everywhere, and the general loss of civil and democratic rights.  By now the military had also started visiting my parents’ home frequently, asking for me or other names of activists known to them.   My parents had just immigrated to the US and news of these military visits caused them untold worries for my safety and my son’s well-being.  

Faced with increasing threat of arrest, I made yet another life-altering decision:  to leave the Philippines and move to the United States.  I again rationalized that I could spend a few months or maybe a couple of years in the US and when the situation became less “hot” I would return to the Philippines.  I also wanted my son to be with my family.  So in February 1975, my son and I boarded a plane for Los Angeles.

            It was not long before I met and became active with the local anti-Martial Law activists in Los Angeles.  I attended many of the meetings of the Anti-Martial Law Alliance (AMLA), sometimes bringing my son with me.  My involvement with a US-based activist group was premised on the notion that it would only be temporary and that one day I would go back to the real struggle – in the Philippines.  I also dreamed of reuniting with Lando….

        And then the letter came.  First it was cryptic – Kasama (comrade, friend), it started – “We don’t want to alarm you and we don’t know anything for sure.  But Lando boarded a train for Bicol last October and we saw him off in Tutuban.  The train arrived in Bicol but Lando and two women who were travelling with him were not on board.  We are working with members of the clergy who have better access to information.  Don’t worry.”  The letter was dated January (1977), three months after Lando disappeared.   

       Another letter soon followed, describing what little information our comrades and Lando’s relatives pieced together.  He and the two women were last seen in the Quezon province, but no one made it to Bicol.  There were many speculations as to what might have occurred, but my comrades chose to spare me from devastating news.  

        Finally a letter arrived which confirmed what I secretly feared but wouldn’t allow myself to think.  Lando and one of the women, Flora Coronacion, were victims of a practice that would later be known as salvaging – the disappearance and subsequent summary execution of suspected “subversives.”  The other woman who was with them at the time of disappearance, Adora Faye de Vera, was the only survivor.  She was my classmate at UP, and ten years later, in 1986, she would recount their ordeal to me, describing Lando’s fate with his military torturers.  She stated that after being detained and tortured for months, the military removed Lando and Flora Coronacion from their location and taken them “somewhere else.”  Later on she recounted that the military told her that the other two “did not escape, but you will never see them again.”  Additionally she was warned that should she speak about what happened, she will meet the same fate as the other two.

      At the time, however, all I wanted to do was to return to the Philippines and participate in the search; but I was advised against it by my new “collective” in Los Angeles, because of the obvious security reasons.

       My sense of loss was compounded by the guilt I felt for having chosen to leave the Philippines when Lando and other activists could not.  Had I stayed, would he have gone on that trip?  My friends wrote that he missed us so much and to cope with our separation, he took on more and more work just to keep himself occupied.  If we hadn’t separated, maybe he would still be alive.  Or maybe I would have fallen victim to this military practice as well.  There are times when I replay this scene in my mind and there’s little comfort in knowing that things turned out the way they did because of the choices we made.  But we move on.
Who was Rolando Federis ?
[The following is a reprint from the Bantayog ng mga Bayani file used in considering the inclusion of Rolando Federis in the Wall of Heroes and Martyrs of the Marcos Dictatorship.  Sources include the following:
  • Written account of  Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough
  • Interview with Federis sisters Vilma Mira and Delia Pineda, and brother-in-law Pidoy Pineda
  • “The chosen road,” by Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough, from The Movement and the Moment, pp. 65-73
  • “Open testimony of Adora Faye de Vera,” typewritten, 4 pages
  •  “Remembering the activist,” Ang Katipunan, May 1985, p. 13
  • In Memory of Rolando Federis, by Hector Logrono, friend
  • My Recollections of Rolando Federis, by Remedios Mercado Endozo]
Rolando Federis came from a poor family. His father Dionisio once owned a tailoring shop in Camarines Norte. His wife contracted cancer and died early, leaving him to raise his extended family himself. Dionisio left for Manila, where he hoped to find better employment. He found work as a master cutter in a tailoring shop in Cubao, rented a small place in Project 4, Quezon City, and brought his children one by one from Bicol to live with him. (He later remarried.)

Life during Rolando’s childhood was usually difficult and the going always hard. Nevertheless, Rolando (or “Lando” as he was called) managed to get to college, the first in his family to do so.

At PSBA, he started to become politically involved. He joined discussion groups where he sought to understand the roots of his family’s poverty, the same relentless poverty that seemed to burden thousands of other Filipino families, from which there seemed no escape, even as evidently a few privileged families did not face the same fate. Even as Rolando studied what activists called the “three–isms,” he started organizing the youth in his community to join the youth movement. He joined the Kabataang Makabayan (KM).
Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos
When Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, Rolando went underground. He joined a collective of activists in his community, secretly organizing to build resistance against martial law. He focused his organizing efforts on three communities of informal settlers, often faced with eviction threats as the martial law regime pushed for “beautification” of Metro Manila. Rolando  sought to help enlighten the community on their basic rights, including the right to decent housing. When civilian armed groups were sent by the regime to harass and evict these “squatters,” Rolando also sought to organize the residents for resistance.

Needless to say, Rolando lived dangerously, putting himself always at risk of being abducted or arrested. But because he was an “insider,” or one among the people, he had the advantage of being known to the people he worked with, and he enjoyed their trust and cooperation. He even gained the respect of the community thugs and those who made a living by fencing or petty thievery. His friends included ones with fearsome aliases like “Boy Pilay,” and once, a gang leader tried to donate to the movement some bicycles he had earlier stolen!

Yet, Lando never pandered to these friends, and always tried to explain to them in ways they appreciated that stealing was not the answer to poverty.

In 1973, Lando married another activist, Carol Ojeda, and eventually had a son by her. Carol Ojeda came from a much more prosperous background but she was full of admiration for the tall and charming activist, who challenged her to “transcend” her privileged background and helped her deal with the realities of working with the poor.

Later, Carol became the target of military harassment, and she decided to leave for the States with their son, hoping to return when the situation improved. The couple exchanged letters.

The year before he disappeared, Lando took an assignment as courier, bringing letters and ferrying people and packages to and from the city to the countryside. In one of these trips, in October 1976, he was with two women activists he was to accompany to Bicol.

One of these women, Adora Faye de Vera, a student from the University of the Philippines, would later reveal that the three of them were seized by plainclothes operatives at Lucena City en route to their destination, dragged into an ambulance, and taken to an apartment, and later to other places, in that city. The three were subjected to torture continuously for more than two weeks, the women raped and abused repeatedly. The last time Adora saw Lando and Flora alive, Adora stated, the two were being “transferred” elsewhere.

Adora identified the officers, from the colonels down to the enlisted men, who were personally involved in their abuse and torture. Still, the government never revealed the whereabouts of the two missing activists. It is believed the area where they had likely been buried has since been cleared and made into a paved roadway. The bodies of the two have never been found.
Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough Statement for
Bantayog ng mga Bayani

Rolando Federis, or Lando as he was called, came from an urban poor family in Project 4, Quezon City.  His political involvement started as a student in college where he participated in discussion groups (DGs) and joined demonstrations calling for an end to foreign control of the Philippine economy and the establishment of national democracy.  Unlike many student activists who talked of the contradictions in society in the abstract, Rolando’s life experience enabled him to understand the concepts of the “evils of Philippine society” – imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism – more profoundly and deepened his resolve and commitment to effect change in society.

Rolando became a community organizer after martial law was declared in 1972, dropping out of college as many other student activists who believed that fighting the Marcos dictatorship was a higher calling than pursuing an academic degree.   Lando became a full-time community organizer in our neighborhood of Project 4, Quezon City.  In the beginning he was part of the Project 4/Murphy (Cubao) collective of activists.  He worked to organize the squatters in three different areas within the Project 4/ Murphy neighborhoods.  Squatters were often faced with the threat of eviction and Rolando’s task was to educate the residents of these areas on their rights to shelter (housing) and other basic human rights, and to organize and mobilize them against paramilitary (private armies) or the military forces who were periodically sent to harass and evict these squatters. 

Organizing in the pre-martial law years was not an easy task but at least the activists were guaranteed a democratic space to conduct their organizing work.  The declaration of martial law and suspension of civil liberties made organizing work that much more difficult and dangerous.  Activists could not just enter an area and get on their soap box; they run the risk of being reported to the authorities and be subject to arrest. 

But Rolando’s experience of having grown up in a squatter’s area gave him an insider’s advantage.  This, coupled with his natural leadership skills, allowed him to enter these neighborhoods without fear of being betrayed.  Rolando used his contacts within the different squatters’ areas to get to know other residents.  He established his identity as one of them and to gain acceptance, he also hung out with the local lumpen elements or kanto boys.  Some of these kanto boys were the unofficial authorities in the squatters’ areas and would not hesitate to harm anyone who crossed them or got in their way.  

Rolando spent many days and nights drinking and holding DGs with these men; he often joked that he sacrificed his liver just so he can reach these men who have lost faith in the system and turned into petty thieves or gangsters.  He believed in organizing even these seemingly hard-core and anti-social elements, while others in his collective remained skeptical and stayed away from engaging these men for fear of being betrayed to the military.

Lando was moved to a higher organizational level around 1973 and became responsible for overseeing organizing work in a larger geographical area.  But he continued to visit and provide consistent presence in the Project 4/Murphy area.  His new tasks involved providing guidance to other community activists.  He challenged those activists who came from more affluent background to live in the areas where they were assigned to organize.

In recruiting and training cadres, Rolando looked beyond the obvious and did not let a person’s limitation get in the way.  He carefully nurtured and provided guidance to all activists; although I could see that he was partial to people who shared his class background.  He was very close to people with names like Boy Marikina or Boy Pilay.   He even changed the name a tailor who was recruited by Lando to join the movement.  This tailor became known to us as Bayani (hero) because Rolando thought that was an appropriate name for what this man was about to contribute to the movement.

During meetings of the collective of activists, Rolando used humor and teasing to engage people in the discussion.  He loved to tease the petiburgis activists whenever we complained of the hardship of living in the underground.  Although it came in the form of joking and teasing, I felt that Rolando was asking us to acknowledge or confront the privileges of our class background while being very supportive of the (class) position we have taken as community activists.  Between 1975-1976 he worked as a courier between the urban movement and the armed resistance in the countryside.

The report of an Amnesty International Mission to the Republic of the Philippines (November 28, 1981) contains the statement of Adora Faye de Vera (pages 106-109) and details their capture, torture and the summary execution of Rolando Federis and Flora Coronacion.  Additionally, a report published in the Political Detainees in the Philippines, Book II, published by the Association of Major Religious Superios in the Philippines (Manila, March 31, 1977) likewise contain details of the arrest, torture and killing of Rolando Federis and Flora Coronacion.

When I was finally able to return to the Philippines in 1986 (right after Marcos was deposed), I sought, and found, Adora Faye de Vera who recounted the ordeal and torture they went through.  Adora Faye mentioned in our discussion that after the two were killed, the soldiers who carried out the order seemed very listless and nervous.   Adora Faye told me that at night, when everyone was asleep, she would rattle her chains and hear the soldiers wake up and talking in hushed tones.  She felt that in some way, the soldiers were made aware that the “ghosts of Rolando and Flora” were haunting them for their actions.  Adora wanted justice for her comrades and received some satisfaction through the haunting of the soldiers.

Based on our discussion of the events, Adora Faye and I concluded that Rolando Federis and Flora Coronacion were probably the first victims of the practice of salvaging or summary execution of suspected rebels or subversives.  Adora Faye commented that the soldiers’ fear of the ghosts of Rolando and Flora after the killings showed that they have never done this before.  But that after this event, the practice of salvaging became more common and reports of other summary executions made the news.

The bodies of Rolando Federis and Flora Coronacion were never found. Adora Faye believed that the area where they were taken, and where the two were killed and buried, has since been cleared and turned into a paved roadway.  She believes that there is probably no possibility of locating where the bodies are buried.

On February 15, 2011, I received a letter from Attorney Robert Swift and a check for $1,000 as settlement and monetary compensation for the death of Rolando Federis.  Even in death, the Marcos family and estate has succeeded in insulting survivors and families of those tortured and killed during this dark period of our history by fixing the value of a Filipino’s life at PhP 40,000 or $1,000. 

Rolando Federis and other ordinary Filipinos stood up for democracy and paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.  By honoring Rolando Federis, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani honor the countless and often nameless Filipino heroes who did not go quietly into that good night and instead raged against the dying of the light – the death of our democratic rights under the Marcos regime.

On November 30, 2011, I returned to the Philippines to attend the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Annual Honoring of Martyrs and Heroes ceremony where Rolando Federis' name would be included in the Bantayog Wall of Martyrs and Heroes. Rolando's heroism and sacrifice is now memorialized for other Filipinos to emulate.

   Pictures are courtesy of Carol Ojeda Kimbrough:
§                   Pictures of the Bantayog ceremony, including Carol (right) and Lando's sister Delia Pineda;
§                  Letter from Atty Robert Swift and checks from the Marcos Estate
        Links related to this article are below.
§              Victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations during ML can apply for monetary compensation with the Human Rights Victims Claims Board – deadline is Nov. 10, 2014       

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