A Child’s Recollection of Christmas with Ninoy

The year was 1979. It was the year after Benigno Aquino, Jr or Ninoy decided to run from his prison cell in protest against the repressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos. It was during the Interim Batasan Pambansa (or parliamentary) elections of April 7, 1978 where the party Lakas ng Bayan (translated: People Power) or LABAN was formed (mostly out of necessity as the Liberal Party led by Jovito Salonga and Gerry Roxas, Mar’s father had decided to boycott the election and forbid Ninoy from registering under the LP banner). They were up against the newly minted Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (translated: New Society Movement) or KBL led by then first lady Imelda Marcos.

I was nine: a martial law baby, the term used to describe children who grew up during this period. Despite the muzzled state controlled media, I remember becoming attuned to politics at an early age. So much so that I had by then already written a children’s story entitled The Happy Prince that was an allegory of life under Martial Law and the struggle for freedom (the only way such messages of protest could be conveyed back in those days). Earlier that year, I recall that my sisters and I had written letters to Malacanang pleading with Pres Marcos to grant Ninoy’s request to be placed under house arrest. He had spent the last seven years in a military prison which included periods in solitary confinement.

A little disclosure is warranted here. My politicization early in life was due mainly to my father Noli who as a former delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention where he authored progressive provisions on land reform and the Ombudsman decided to turn his back on his wedding sponsor or ninang Imelda Marcos and join Ninoy’s LABAN ticket in the National Capital Region along with the  likes of Tito Guingona, Nene Pimentel, Ramon Mitra, Neptali Gonzales, Ernie Maceda, Soc Rodrigo, Anding Roces, Charito Planas, Nap Rama and Juan T David among others (they were 21 in all).

One day my father took me on a trip to Times Street which I knew was the residence of the former senator. I had attended Kris’s his youngest daughter’s birthday party there once and had engaged in one of the parlor games which involved fishing prizes out of a kiddie pool. Former president Corazon Aquino who was then just a plain housewife was there and kindly instructed a houseboy to help the kids who were unable to hook one themselves since it was taking too much time and delaying the serving of food. I was one of those kids.

When they served refreshments, I sat with my mom and sisters separately while Kris entertained her friends at the main table (she probably wondered what we were all doing there). Evidently the kids of opposition leaders were invited. Kris had after all actively campaigned for the ticket that year and perhaps this was their way of saying thanks (or perhaps it was the other way around…I don’t know; I was just a kid!).

Anyway, it became apparent whom we were visiting at Times St this time around. As we entered the front porch, guards were stationed to screen us. I recall my father and I signing in on a logbook (they wanted to know who was coming to see Marcos’s chief critic, and I wondered what they planned to do with this information). Dad had never told me that our prayers had been answered. So when we came through the door and went into the dining area (the same one where Kris had her guests sit) I was delighted to see Ninoy there entertaining his visitors.

All I remember from this visit was how jovial Ninoy was. Not a tinge of bitterness or anger was evident in him. None at all. He was engaging and quite animated. I remember my father whispering in my ear at one point that Ninoy was talking with a daughter of a former president. Being a child I was a bit awestruck since the only president I had known up to that point was Marcos.

Kris interrupted the proceedings. She came and announced that she was going out. Ninoy asked her where she was going. She said in this confident voice of hers that she was going to the store Sanrio to get a Hello Kitty (it was the latest craze back then). Ninoy smiled. He said to Kris in jest, I have been in prison for the last seven and a half years and now that I am back home, you are going to Sanrio? It was a father’s way of showing affection to his daughter. There was no holding Kris back though. She said the driver was already waiting for her, so she bid Ninoy and all the rest of us goodbye.

Right before we left, almost as an afterthought, my father decided to snap a photo of me and Ninoy. Initially, I was only supposed to stand beside him, but he decided to hoist me on to his lap. The photo inset is the shot my dad took. The Christmas tree partially seen in the photo indicated it was December (or early January but most likely December). It is hard to believe it has been thirty years since it was taken.

As I think back on that day, I wonder about what might have been passing through Ninoy’s mind as we took the picture. As a politician, I am sure he was used to posing with babies and kids for photos. However, at that point, Ninoy had no reason to campaign for anything. Perhaps, he was thinking that someday the torch that he lit might be passed on to individuals like me. There was after all no certainty that the dictatorship would end and end peacefully back in those days.

Maybe, I don’t know. All I know is thirty years hence in 2011, the Philippines stands at the threshold of potentially overcoming the last vestiges of dictatorship and economic backwardness that ensued at its demise. The new decade may be the one in which our country finally reaches its real potential. At which point, we can all say that the sacrifice and suffering of millions in that struggle all those years ago would have been worth it and that the legacy of people power lives on. And so, regardless of our politics, we should all work hard to ensure that this impossible dream of Ninoy is finally realized.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.