Friday, January 18, 2013

Remember Luneta Hill

My 14-year old son just finished reading A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez yesterday, and it was the main topic of conversation during the drive from their school to our house. He had so many questions, and was particularly disturbed by the scene where the striking banana plantation workers, protesting unfair and inhumane working conditions, were all killed.

In that scene, one Jose Arcadio Segundo survived, and returned home to Macondo to tell the story.

The scene was based on a true story. In 1928, the Colombian government sent the army to Santa Marta to quell the ongoing strike against the American-owned United Fruit Company. The United States was said to have threatened to invade the South American country if the government did not protect the interests of the capitalist. The workers weren’t asking for heaven and earth, their demands were simple: written contracts for each of the workers, 8-hour working days, 6-day work weeks. After closing off access to the streets and surrounding the striking workers with machine guns, at the end of the day, fathers, mothers and children lay dead on the streets.

The government placed the death toll at a maximum of 47, another official even went as far as saying that there were only 9. But survivors of the massacre say there were at least 2,000 who were killed. They did not refer to them as workers, they were subversives, troublemakers.

In the Marquez novel, Jose Arcadio Segundo lived the rest of his life as a pariah, his voice and with it his story was discredited and drowned out by the lies of the powers-that-be. The story that the authorities forced on the people was that it never happened. And it rained in Macondo for five straight years erasing any memory of the dark, chilling episode.

A year ago, thousands marched down Session Road to express their opposition to the removal of 182 trees on Luneta Hill for a parking building. There must have been at least 5,000 people that day, but the powerful capitalists placed the number at merely hundreds, at most a thousand.

That’s what the headlines of the powerful and credible media said, so it must be true.

In court, during the hearing of the case that was filed against the proponents of the massacre of trees, their expensive lawyers in their expensive business suits and toting expensive leather bags with wheels, denied that there’s opposition to their expansion project from the community. They successfully prevented the presentation of proof belying their claim – videos and photos of the numerous rallies held against SM in Baguio and in different parts of the country. In the verdict handed down by the court dismissing the case, there was hardly any mention of the opposition, the tens of thousands of petition signatures, the numerous protest actions held, etc.

That’s what the honorable court said, so it must be so.

Today, the protesters are referred to by self-proclaimed pundits not as concerned citizens - they are called subversives, troublemakers, hippies and good-for-nothing gigolos.

But the Jose Arcadio Segundos of Baguio still stand, and they were there when 49 of the 182 trees were violently removed and condemned to die a slow painful death. They were there when SM tried to cover the truth with entertaining high-definition audio-visual presentations on LCD screens. They were there when the government said that the removal of those trees will not cause irreparable damage on the environment. And if it does, they were there too when the local government said that it cannot do anything about it. They were there every time the police lined up to protect the interests of the greedy capitalist with anti-riot shields, truncheons and guns from fathers, mothers, children who want nothing more than for the lives of the trees to be spared.

And we will continue to be there to tell the story of the massacre on Luneta Hill.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Salamat. At minsan pa, salamat

It's been a particularly exhausting year, not that the previous ones have been much easier - the life of an artist is never easy. Most artists anyway. For the last two and a half decades, theater ate me up spending most months filled with late night rehearsals and early morning setups. But not last year. See, 2012 stood out above the rest for it has been a year of awakening for me and my family, and there are people to thank for that.

One Michael Bengwayan, whom I have never met nor even heard of before, brought to my attention the one thing that elbowed theater out for a good part of the year for the first time since I can remember. From him, I learned of SM City Baguio's plan to remove 182 trees on one side of a hill for a parking facility. This sparked an emotional response so strong it kept on burning a full year since and would set the stage for a life on the streets in a battle against men and women in business suits. There was no need to go into the details of the issue: the biggest commercial mall in Baguio owned by the richest family in the country wants to become even bigger at the expense of the environment and the welfare of a whole community. So on January 20, 2012, we shouted at the rally led by Bengwayan, "it's not what you'll build, it's what you'll kill!"

Thank you, Michael Bengwayan, for creating that spark.

The weeks that followed saw the whole family, and here by family I mean both immediate and extended for with members of the art group I founded, Open Space, have become an inseparable part of my life, setting up platforms, lights and sound equipment in various open spaces in Baguio to sing out the sentiments of a city. We would be seen carrying speakers and light stands and laying down cables at the Pine Trees of the World Park, at the Igorot Garden and Malcolm Square, all of us - men, women, children.

We were there the night we heard the felling of the first 49 trees, the painful sound of branches and tree trunks cracking. We cried together, held each other's hands, and strengthened each other's resolve not to let our guard down for we knew that what's at stake here isn't only the life of 182 of God creations, but the future of this beautiful city.

Thank you, co-actors, co-musicians, co-directors, co-writers, co-storytellers, kindred souls in Open Space, for sharing the passion to tell stories that must be told and to be more than just spectators in the brutal rape of this city.

My already extended family was extended much further, our circle of friends got much bigger. We sat with them at cafes, cramped apartments, park benches to exchange ideas about how to stop the monster that is corporate greed from forever defacing the beautiful face of our beloved city. There were the lawyers Christopher Donaal and Cheryl Yangot along with their equally dedicated colleagues; the indefatigable energies of the likes of Gideon Omero, Glo Abaeo, Marie Balangue, Andrea Cosalan and Sonn Fernandez and others more; the promises that the likes of one Calypso, this long-haired Richard, the gentle Anjoy, the fiery Ivy, and the passionate Jarlaw, among others; the guiding wisdom of and encouraging examples set by  the likes of Rico and Sumitra Gutierrez, Guia Limpin, Mike Arvisu, Vangie Ram, Willy Alangui, Abbie Angonos, Ellen Lao, Nelson Alabanza, together with all the others who have come to be collectively known as Save 182.

Thank you, my family in Save 182, for making me a part of a noble struggle to defend all that is good about Baguio from the evils of corporate greed and a rotten political system.

And finally yet most importantly, I thank my wife whom I am very fortunate and very happy to live this life with, my children who I know now will be way better persons than I ever have been or ever wish to be, along with the rest whose same blood flows in my and my children's veins - all of whom define me as a human being.

As I venture to live my 40th year, I am grateful for all the new things I learned last year, the new connections made, the new way ways I now see the world around me, and I sincerely hope to make all you have given to and done for me worth your while.

So to all of you... salamat. At minsan pa, salamat.