Susan Quimpo is a friendly, soft-spoken woman who laughs easily and often. She’s an art therapist and counselor. Besides her private practice, she works with civil society groups to help alleviate trauma in communities affected by typhoons and war. She provides therapy to political prisoners and victims of human rights violations. She also writes for Philippine news publications and international journals. She is the co-author of Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years (Manila: Anvil Press, 2012), recently re-released by the University of Ohio Press/Swallow Press.
I met Susan after a rally against the proposed burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes. The body had been flown over from the United States in 1993 and placed on display at the Presidential Center in his home province. The Marcos family was waiting until an administration took power which didn’t oppose his internment as a hero. With the election of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte and the subsequent approval of the Supreme Court, the time seemed right. On November 18, when Duterte was conveniently out of the country, the body was brought in by helicopter. There was a 21-gun salute, but only an hour before the ceremony did outsiders learn that this was not a rehearsal.
On Nov. 24, over lunch in Manila. I asked Susan to tell her family’s story of political activism during the period of martial law and to include an explanation of the anti-Americanism in the revolutionary movement, the burial controversy and the talks she delivers to Filipinos too young to remember martial law.
I was born in 1961, the youngest of ten children. My parents were married during World War II. They were very pro-American. They grew up in Philippines when it was still a colony of the US. The Philippines was under the US from 1898 through 1946, except during the years of the Japanese occupation during World War II. [The Americans brought in English language education and established public education. As colonizers they were far more popular than the Spaniards.]
But to go back a bit, in 1898 with the end of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was sold to the US for $20 million. The Filipinos, who’d been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1896, now discovered they had a newer, stronger enemy. In the Philippine-American War, they put up a good fight. They had gotten some concessions from the Spanish government, including money to buy arms, but these were peasants used to machetes who’d never held guns before. A historian told me that triangular thing on a rifle—the sight—which allows you to aim at your opponent, they considered it a nuisance, so they tore it off and threw it away. The Americans were amazed that the enemy kept firing above their heads. The war supposedly ended in 1903, when the revolutionary republic told people to lay down their arms, but some were still fighting until 1907.
The war was called an insurrection but was actually a national revolution against the new colonizer. The Americans won in part because the Filipino leaders were not united. The different factions were even killing one another. General Luna was assassinated by people within the revolution. In-fighting was a recurring story throughout WW II and throughout the Marcos era, spoiling the revolution against the oppressor—the Americans, Japanese or Marcos.
Anyway, my parents grew up under a time when American education was in the schools. They grew up saying “A is for apple” and “S is for snow,” even though they had never seen snow. They were both staunchly pro-American.
Your dad worked for Coca-Cola as an engineer.
Yes, his entire life. Mom came from the landed elite, although over the years they lost whatever prominence they’d had. In WW II, when my parents were in college, Dad wanted to volunteer as a guerrilla fighting against the Japanese. He went to say goodbye to his sweetheart, my mom, and when he got back to where the volunteers were being bused out of Manila, he missed the bus, which saved his life. All the students were leaving for the provinces because Manila was obviously going to be a battleground for the Japanese and the Americans. My father couldn’t get back to Iloilo, his hometown on Panay Island, so he followed my mom to Pangasinan, where they were married.
When the Japanese came, they lined up all the young men, and when they realized that my dad couldn’t speak the local Pangasinan language they suspected he was a guerrilla. He was about to be shot when my grandfather intervened. Again my dad was saved. He stayed in Pangasinan and was very valuable to the Americans, when they came, because he’d repair the jeeps and military trucks. When the Americans left, a mechanic gave him all his tools. He kept them until the day he died.
Moving into the 1960s, there was the Vietnam War and an overall sentiment against America. My brothers and sisters were in high school and university, where some of the students were mouthing anti-US imperialism slogans. In 1969, I was eight years old. There were heated debates at the dinner table, where my siblings would be spouting Marxist theories and my father would be really angry at them for shouting slogans in the streets against US imperialism.
As the youngest I had no voice. Looking back, I see I kept wondering, “What is my role in all this? All I do is I watch.” Only very recently did I think of the phrase “bearing witness.” I know it’s a biblical term, and I’m not religious, but I suddenly realized I’d watched the transformation of my siblings from good academic students to student leaders to activists to guerrillas and leaders of the revolution against Marcos. Now I am not an eight-year-old anymore, and I see it as my role to speak out for the martyrs of martial law. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
The first activist in the family was Ronald Jan, who went to Philippine Science High School, the premier science high school in the country. When he got there the school building hadn’t been built, and classes were held in an old building that had held government offices. The roof leaked and the chairs were broken. He told us that the chemistry class heated up chemicals in coke bottles because they had no test tubes. Students had to wait in line to use a Bunsen burner. When they complained to the principal, he said, “Look, I’m a government employee, and this is a public high school, I really can’t do much. Go to Malacañang [the presidential palace] and air your grievances there.”
So these kids between the ages of 13 to 17 went to the Presidential Palace. At the gates students from all the other schools were there also. It was the First Quarter Storm—the first quarter or the first three months of 1970, when Manila was hit by a storm of protest rallies. Three, four, five times a week, students were at Malacañang or at the US embassy or at the Congress Building shouting slogans.
Why demonstrations at the American embassy?
It was Marcos’s second term and the height of the Vietnam War. Anti-American sentiment was worldwide. Besides, Marcos was saying things like Filipino troops should be sent to fight in Vietnam under the American flag [as South Korea did]. Filipino students looked at the controversy over the draft in US universities and young Americans’ returning from Vietnam in coffins. They didn’t want that.
Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base [not far from Manila] were the largest American bases outside the US. There was a lot of abuse—prostitution, drunk American soldiers. Outside the bases, a lot of poor people, scavengers, were picking up garbage, and there were stories of American sentinels using them for target practice. The New York Times ran a story on this. If I remember right, over three years there were at least 32 deaths. The shooters would say, “Oh, we thought it was a wild boar.” It enraged people. [The US military also left a massive amount of chemical waste which has still not been cleaned up.]
People were angry with Marcos for pandering to the Americans. As a child I saw pictures of Marcos with Lyndon Johnson and their wives, all decked out. Imelda invited American dignitaries to lavish parties while the economy was failing. College students had no jobs when they graduated.
I remember Jane Fonda showed up at an antiwar rally. This was just after the release of Barbarella, where she was a sexy science fiction character, and there she was in a baggy white shirt waving her fist in the air. It got the students all fired up to be with an American movie star who was also an anti-imperialist.
In 1970 one of the worst typhoons, Typhoon Yoling, hit the Philippines. For the first time, Nueva Ecija, the rice region, was underwater. For weeks only the tops of the coconut trees were above water. As a result, there was a lack of rice and the economy dipped. There was an oil shortage, and the price of gasoline went up. But still Marcos and Imelda were holding parties on their yacht; Imelda wore a diamond tiara like royalty at State functions. The typhoon had led to economic ruin, and during the typhoon the government did not help. It was the priests, the nuns, the civic organizations that brought relief to the victims.
So there was a lot of uncertainty inside and outside the country because of the situation in Vietnam. I remember as a kid seeing pictures of Woodstock in Life Magazine and thinking, “Wow, this is wild. Why are people wrapped in mud and dancing? Why’s a half-naked woman dancing in the mud?”
You were not doing drugs at the time, obviously.
[laughs] But I think there was worldwide anxiety anger against anything from the previous decade. I didn’t understand. I was just taking it in. We lived close to the presidential palace, and there were rallies three, five times a week. At least five thousand people marched past each time. Nowadays I tell friends, “As a kid I didn’t watch church parades, I didn’t watch the saints go by, I watched the police beating up demonstrators.”
At that point Mom was still alive, and our home was at the end of a row of modest apartments, which today would resemble townhouses. The row of eight apartments had a metal gate facing the street. We’d see a group of students march to Malacañang, and the mothers in our apartment row would watch for the students running back with the police after them. They’d open the gate for the students and close it so the police couldn’t get in. They’d give the students water or bread or let them use the telephone to call their parents. Despite the fact that my mother was very pro-American, she behaved like a mother. She was worried about the kids.
Ronald Jan, the brother in Philippine Science High School, was demonstrating in the streets. The activists went into all the schools. My siblings were part of it, consciously or not. It was the thing to do. Inside school campuses, at teach-ins students sat in circles on the grass while student leaders lectured on Marxism and imperialism and service to the people.
At the time my father was earning a thousand pesos a month. [During the First Quarter Storm, the value of the peso slipped from P4 to P6 to the dollar, so 1,000 pesos would have been roughly $200]. That was for food, rent, utilities, clothing and tuition for a family of twelve. That was really nothing, even then. We had rice, and we had eggs because an aunt who had a poultry farm brought us the damaged eggs, the ones with two yolks or something. But much of the budget was earmarked for tuition because my father always believed education would be our deliverance. He was hurt when his children became activists because their grades suffered. It came to the point when he told Jan, “If you attend that rally tomorrow, you’re out of the house.” And he was. Then martial law came.
A week before the declaration of martial law in September 1972, Marcos threw all the legal opposition in jail—Ninoy Aquino, the senators, the Congressmen, the trade unionists, the vocal faculty members of the University of the Philippines. The only ones left to challenge the dictatorship were high school and college students. At least three of my siblings were very much involved in Kabataang Makabayan, a militant youth organization that went underground. I don’t think they’d have become as radical in the underground movement or even in the Communist Party if Marcos hadn’t been so vindictive in going after student leaders.
At the gate of each high school and university was a huge billboard with pictures of all the student leaders, the president of a theater group or the botany club or a writer for the school paper or the head of the student council. If you were the president of anything, you were on that billboard, and the minute you stepped on campus the military picked you up. You were lucky if you were only questioned. A lot of people were tortured. Basically, the idea was that the intelligent students would lead the would-be opposition. That’s why Marcos was so bent on getting them.
Nobody was prepared for martial law to rule the entire country for fourteen years. Everybody had thought that we’d only have a suspension of habeas corpus or that martial law would be declared only in Mindanao. A few months after the declaration, the populations in high schools and universities had dipped because the students were hiding—or going abroad if they had money. Students were scrambling to get to the provinces. The extreme left had painted romantic images of a people’s army. These young people being hunted by the police thought their only option was to join this army. But it wasn’t even an army. According to Time Magazine, there were only 600 guerrillas with arms from WW II which were so covered with rust they wouldn’t fire. A lot of the students who made it to the mountains to form the New People’s Army were killed. They were all young, some of them teenagers, nobody over thirty. They didn’t know how to use guns, which—if they had them—would jam. They’d be ready to fire on the police and the military then retreat because they were out of ammunition. Some of those who died were friends and classmates of my siblings.
Between 1973 through 1978, our family went through arrest after arrest, raid after raid, torture after torture. Once they got you, they’d torture you so you’d point to other students, and then they get them too. The police and the military were seen as pretty much the same thing — Marcos’ soldiers of terror. The military eventually took four brothers and a sister and threw them in the Marcos prisons; four of them were heavily tortured.
A week after martial law was declared, our house was raided. The police were just looking for guns and subversive materials in the homes around Malacañang, not making arrests. But when they came to our apartment, we knew it wasn’t safe for my siblings to come home. They started staying wherever they could spend the night. My brother Ryan, the one who has polio, was 15. He said that he and student leaders from other schools would spend the entire day in Luneta Park eating fried bananas or crackers, and at nightfall, because of the curfew, they’d go into funeral homes and pretend to be relatives of the deceased. They’d eat the food provided at the wake until someone asked them about their relationship to the deceased. My siblings weren’t home much. Now and then they’d call, but we were worried that the phone was tapped. We spoke in codes. So I grew up always conscious of being watched, aware that my siblings could be arrested, I wasn’t supposed to know where they were. It was a very paranoid childhood.
I was just thinking that here was a therapist in the making.
Exactly. Early training. Then they were captured. I’d read in the newspaper and hear on television, Marcos telling the press there were no political prisoners, and he’d laugh it off. And yet every weekend for four years I visited siblings in one or two or three camps. I was really confused. “What am I doing? Are they criminals? I know they did nothing except go against Marcos. So why are they in jail?”
They took people without warrants of arrests; they just barge into your homes, taking people and confiscating property. The military would throw you in jail and there you stayed indefinitely, without charges being filed against you. No court trials, no sentencing procedures. Then I’d hear my dad speak to my sisters who were not arrested, and they’d whisper about the others’ being tortured. “Why were they being tortured? What did they do wrong? What’s wrong with shouting slogans at a rally?”
The pain didn’t stop when they were released. Ronald Jan would have nightmares. He’d be shouting, kicking, screaming and falling out of bed. At the time I didn’t know about post- traumatic stress, but now I do. When my sister was released we were very worried about her. All my siblings played the guitar and sang very sad songs. Once she was singing a song with words like “and this is the end.” My other sister Caren and I exchanged glances as if to say, “Oh, my God, what’s she going to do?”
Well, they were able to pick up their lives somehow. Ronald Jan returned to university and completed his studies. One day, in late 1977, he left to go to school and remarked that we should leave him some dinner that evening. He never returned. To this day, he is a desaparasido [disappeared]. We believe he was picked up by the military and executed extrajudicially. A week before his disappearance our home was raided again, so we knew that we were under military surveillance.
Another brother, Jun, was a college freshmen when he joined a Catholic volunteer organization that assisted an urban poor community set up a livelihood program. When the government moved in bulldozers to demolish shanties, Jun joined the residents in a protest rally. I think 200 people were picked up by the police at the rally and 199 people were released that same evening. The only one detained Jun because they found his school ID with his name on it. The police said, “Oh, another Quimpo. Your family is like a factory for activists.” So he was beaten up for ten days just because his surname was Quimpo. When he got out he was so angry he joined the guerillas. A few years later he was found in an open rice field in the province of Nueva Ecija, with seven bullet wounds in his body.
The sister who was detained and tortured, when released, moved to Australia, got married, had a family and stayed there. Two brothers whom the police were instructed to “neutralize” (kill on sight) sought political asylum in Europe. One of them eventually became a professor in Japan; the other raised a family in France, and after his kids grew up he moved back.
People went on with their lives, but I think the hurt was never processed. Our family doesn’t talk much about it. In fact, Ronald Jan went missing in October 1977. I came back from the States in 1995. Over dinner at my sister’s house, I said, “You know, there’s a wall of remembrance called Bantayog ng mga Bayani or Monument to the Heroes. We should get (Ronald) Jan’s name on it.” She answered, “Oh, this fish is really good. Have more rice.” If you mentioned his name, my siblings would change the topic. So I knew my family wasn’t dealing with it at all.
But because I “bore witness,” all these stories were in my head. In fact, when I was ten I told myself, “I’d have to write this down.” Much later, when I was in graduate school in the US, I was taking a class called Southeast Asian History from a fantastic professor of social history. He said, “You know, it’s a lot more interesting to look at a country from the perspective of ordinary people, not the leaders.” At that point I started writing.