A Revolution’s Worth

Of all the books that I have managed to read, none is as deeply personal or as emotionally poignant as Subversive Lives 1. Written as a collective memoir of the Quimpo family, the book narrates their shared ordeal under the Marcos dictatorship, and the hardship that each of the siblings had to endure in the course of their resistance to Martial Law.

By reading through each and every page, one can easily surmise the enormous challenge that the book’s editor (i.e., Susan, the youngest of the brood) had to confront as she tried to weave together all the written recollections of her brothers and sisters into a fairly coherent narrative. Yet, despite the difficulties, the Quimpos were able to produce an excellent piece of non-fiction that successfully captures the tumultuous atmosphere of the Marcos period, while retaining the distinctive voices of each of the nine authors through their individual stories and personal anecdotes.

Such autobiographical style allows the reader to form a mental picture of the series of emotional storms that had repeatedly overtaken this family of “subversives”—from Norman’s Christian dilemma as he agonized over the question of joining the communist-led resistance; to Ryan’s narrow escape from death as the soldier who was about to shoot him was suddenly distracted by an exploding pillbox; to Lilian’s sense of dread and shame as she was repeatedly humiliated by her military interrogators.

But while each individual story contains more-than-enough emotional power to draw in its readers, what interested me the most (I must confess) was the personal account of my former graduate teacher Nathan Gilbert Quimpo. A radical scholar with a doctoral degree in international relations, I first met Prof. Nathan in June 1998, as he was about to embark on his (two-year) teaching stint at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Yet, even before our earliest actual encounter, I was already fairly acquainted with his political ideas, thanks to the series of articles which he wrote in the early 1990s which questioned the protracted people’s war (PPW) strategy of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). These writings would prove influential in my subsequent political development, for it allowed me to make sense of the acrimonious debate that was then raging on within the national democratic movement.

However, since most of these papers were written at a time when Prof. Nathan was still deeply involved in the underground, it took me quite a while before I finally realized that the revolutionary writer named Marty Villalobos and my future graduate professor were actually one and the same.

Be that as it may, I found these articles both engaging and enlightening, so much so that I soon had this impression of Marty Villalobos as a crafty guerilla leader who would routinely assault military convoys and upon his return to their base camp would sit down in front of his desk to write his theoretical papers. I even thought that Villalobos (with his acute analysis of the armed uprisings in Latin America) was probably the Filipino version of legendary figure Che Guevara.

Hence, my complete befuddlement when I finally discovered that Prof. Nathan was far from the imposing, battle-hardened guerilla I first thought him out to be. Instead, I was confronted by a geeky, mild-mannered intellectual who greeted his class with a half-timid and half-awkward smile. In fact, apart from his moustache, there was nothing in Prof. Nathan’s physical appearance that remotely resembles the Argentinian revolutionary.

My initial surprise, however, quickly disappeared as his kindness and very approachable manner soon won me over. (Of course, the high marks that he gave me also helped a great deal.)

Eventually, I was able to piece together the details of his life through the stories that he occasionally shared with his class; as well as through the brief conversations that I had with him every time that we would meet during those far-in-between NGO gatherings.

However, I still failed to realize the full extent of the torture that he had suffered until I read his “blow by blow” account in Chapter 23. Beginning with his arrival in Cebu City during the early part of September 1976, Prof. Nathan carefully narrates how he was integrated into the CPP’s Propaganda-Cultural Bureau, how he tried to establish underground collectives among the various student campuses, and how he was eventually arrested by agents of the Military Security Unit (MSU) while he was leading a meeting at Colegio de San Jose-Recoletos.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, Prof. Nathan was then brought to Camp Lapu-Lapu where he was literally pounded upon by his captors.

“They pummeled my body with blows, hit and slapped me hard on the face, delivered karate chops on my shoulders, and kicked my legs,” he recalls.

With his very straightforward narrative, I could almost clearly see Prof. Nathan—naked, bruised and bound to a chair—as he was being maltreated by his interrogators. But his honest account had filled me with so much anger and grief that at one point, the pages of the book that I was holding had become partially moist due to the tears that were flowing uncontrollably from my eyes.

Thankfully, the beatings eventually ceased; and after ten and a half months of imprisonment, Prof. Nathan was finally released in August 1977. Shortly thereafter, the party had him deployed to Mindanao where he was assigned to do united front work. This, however, would prove to be his last major assignment here in the Philippines. For with a quarter of a million peso-price on his head, Prof. Nathan was later forced to flee abroad and seek asylum in Europe.

Sadly, all his personal sacrifices were not enough to prevent his eventual expulsion from the CPP after a long and stormy ideological dispute with the party’s founding Chairman Jose Maria Sison. At around that same time, Prof. Nathan’s siblings were also beginning to lose faith in the revolution, prompting the remaining Quimpos to drop out of the movement altogether.

Since they had dedicated much of their adult lives for a revolution which (in Susan’s own words) had “stripped my family of any semblance of normalcy,” the book fittingly ends with a chapter that raises the question: Was it worth it?

The Quimpos offer no simple single answer, which is to be expected from a revolution that, though nobly intentioned, has also been tainted by its own internal flaws. It is this ambiguity that Ryan had seized upon in the book’s concluding section.

Believing that, “fighting a tyrannical regime was far from being a sin (and that) it was the only correct thing to do,” Ryan remains proud of his subversive past, though he believes that the revolution have had the misfortune of having a leader with so many personal faults.

It is an assessment that is apparently shared by his older brother Norman who remains concerned that “the NatDem Revolution could fall into the hands of less balanced, more ruthless men”(“Filipino Stalins and Pol Pots” as he calls them), while continuing to offer prayers for those who choose to remain in the underground.

Most of their sisters, on the other hand, are less appreciative of the revolution’s loftier goals, pondering instead on questions that are much closer to home—such as Jun’s death at the hands of a fellow kasama, Ronald Jan’s sudden disappearance, and the countless indignities that their family had suffered at the hands of the military.

Meanwhile, Prof. Nathan, who has since shifted to an academic career, has now taken a different path by molding “a new generation of more upright and progressive political actors who could bring about substantive political and social change” in the Philippines.

The most inspiring response, however, came from their sister Susan who shared an incident which occurred more than a decade ago along Mendiola Bridge. She was with a group of around 150 people who had gathered to honor the victims of Martial Law, when a man (who she had never met before) suddenly pointed to the candle that she holding and exclaimed, “Ito, anak! (Here it is, son!) Ishmael (Jun) Quimpo.” Susan then discovered that the man had worked with Jun in the slums of Tatalon (a village in Quezon City) and that he had named his son after his brother. 

This, to my mind, best captures the revolution’s true worth—that while it may have fallen short of actually seizing power, it has nonetheless produced hundreds of dedicated young activists who had fought courageously to bring down the dictatorship. And now, despite their radically altered circumstances, they still go on with their work—whether as teachers, artists or medical practitioners—so that today’s young Filipinos can also embrace the dreams and values that they have once stood for.

I can only hope that I can live up to the expectations of my former graduate professor and those of his generation who (as Susan so aptly puts it), have “served the people and served them well.”

Susan Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo (eds.). 2012. Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years. Anvil Publishing, Inc. Mandaluyong City​