Pale Ink And Memory

by Juan L. Mercado


We mark the  40th anniversary of martial law imposition this month. It  brought forth a torrent of  commentary and fora.

At University of the Philippines in Diliman, for example, the College of Social Sciences  held “Kuwentuhan” sessions. These are “intended to bridge a growing generation gap between those who experienced the worst of dictatorship, and, since then, two generations of Filipinos who have little memory, ” explained  Prof. Michael Tan.

College Editors Guild launched a book “Not On Our Watch”.  It documents traumatic incidents members experience in what was supposed to be the “New Society”.

While surfing we stumbled across  a blog, written earlier by  then Inquirer columnist  (now Information Undersecretary) Manolo Quezon III. In it, Quezon III refers to a martial law article we wrote. Here it is:

“The palest ink is better than the best memory”, the Chinese say.  Do people of truncated memories recall that skid into dictatorship? More important, do we care?

You’d have to be over 40 years old to remember a time when Ferdinand Marcos wasn’t the president yet.  My daughter Malou is  a lawyer and martial law exile, she settled in California, with her physician-husband and two kids.  She remembers Fr. James Reuter. The Jesuit waited until her St. Paul third grade class was dismissed. Not everyone in prison is bad, he reassured her. There were 22 of us journalists detained in Proclamation 1081 first wave of arrests. Your father and other newsmen are not criminals.

What do Imee and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. remember?    ”The brain has corridors surpassing material place”,  Emily Dickinson wrote. Or are they too busy ferreting wealth stashed in Ortigas lots or companies fronted by erstwhile cronies like Lucio Tan?

The Marcoses don’t blush  anymore. “All I need is the right kind of shoes”, 83-year old Imelda Marcos quipped after her medical check up. Their calibrated assessment concludes amnesia now blankets martial law. Garapalan na lang.

Eight out 10 students, surveys tell us, barely recall Senator Benigno Aquino or why he was gunned down. Indeed, we have little collective memories of the past, Bienvenido Nebres, SJ of Ateneo told the Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship conference. We tend to live in a perpetual present. Thus, we can not see well into the future.

And we of the grey hair, bifocals and arthritic knees, what do we remember? Singing Bayan Ko or cracking a joke about the New Society invited a beating or detention, oftentimes both. We also re-learned what Japanese kempetai brutality taught earlier: that political jokes are serious business.

We hurt so much then, so we laughed. Remember the joke about emaciated and fat dogs, lining up for US visas? Martial law is obviously good for you, the scrawny mutt told the obese mongrel. So why do you want a visa?”, he asked. The reply:” I want to bark.”

Telling jokes against Big Brother, George Orwell noted, were tiny revolutions. Wit and humor have always been rapiers against dictators. They were then thrust into Bagong Lipunan camp-followers: Fabian Ver, Estelito Mendoza, Juan Ponce Enrile, Eduardo Cojuangco, even a minor functionary in San Juan named Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada.

Few slashed with more effectiveness than Jaime Cardinal Sin. On return from the Vatican conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, Sin told Marcos elections commissioner: If you were in charge of the conclave, Leonie, I’d be Pope today.

Jokes lashed martial laws institutional scorch-earth policy. The opposition won 61 per cent of the vote, announces Marcos election agency. “Landslide,” yell the crowds. No, no, no. You don’t understand,” Comelec adds.  KBL got also got 96 percent.

Vladimir Nobokov once said that “a good laugh is the best pesticide.”  Were martial law jokes recorded?  And what happened to protest songs? Did they disappear when the most obvious forms of dictatorship crumbled, as in Eastern Europe?

Re-read Bearing Witness to Martial Law Through Songs. UP professor Teresita Gimenez Maceda presented this perceptive paper to the Ateneo University symposium on “Memory, Truth-Telling and the Pursuit of Justice.”

Song is a powerful tool for remembering, she said. And hardly anyone escaped the brutality of martial law? Collectively, the songs were a forum for dissent,”our alternative press” to censored newspapers.

She includes only songs, “I personally witnessed performed by communist guerrillas or political detainees. Among these were: Heber Bartolome, Jess Santiago and Joey Ayala; narrative poets who recorded in music, a peoples passage from fear and impotence, to anguish, then rage.”

Bartolome’s “Oy Utol, Butot Balat Ka Nay Natutulog Pa” (Hey Brod! You’re All Skin and Bones and Still You Sleep) jolts the listener recognize  the “ugly truth” of dictators.  Jess Santiago’s “Huling Balita” sang of arbitrary arrests and the growing number of desparecidos.  In “Santa Filomena,” Joey Ayala uses the image of a lone swallow, blanketed with silence of a razed barrio. The power of song to trigger memories of atrocities lies in the very absence of direct reference to acts of violence.

Inquirer’s Randy David cautions:  “As long as more than half of our people are forced to accept a future without hope, there will always be a constituency for political extremism”. No constitution can stop a power grab. But a new political practice can make it needless.

What are your plans?, Free Press editor Teodoro Locsin Sr. asked as we walked out of Camp Crame  detention camp in the first release of journalists.  I’ll get out of the country  if I can to give the kids a chance, I replied. Ummmm, murmured this towering editor whose writings proved that the palest ink is better than the best memory.


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