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Defying Marcos, Filipino Americans emerged as a force against tyranny

/ 10:06 PM September 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO – The impact of martial law was felt beyond the Philippines. It was felt even here in America.

For in the United States, the rise of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos also marked the emergence of Filipino Americans as a force against tyranny.

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Shortly after the regime unleashed its reign of terror on Sept. 21, 1972, a US-based movement began gearing up for the long fight.

It was led by expats and by the American-born children of Filipino immigrants, many of them farm workers, known as the “manongs.” It was a time when young people in the US and throughout the world were speaking out against injustice of all forms.

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Students were protesting the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Young Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino descent were demanding more rights on campuses and in society at large.

In the wake of these battles, young FilAms were drawn to disturbing events in their parents’ homeland.

Melinda Paras, an anti-Vietnam War protester from Wisconsin, traveled to the Philippines in the late ‘60s  to find out more about her father’s native country. When martial law was declared, she quickly joined the resistance.

She was later captured in Manila and detained. As the granddaughter of a former Philippine supreme court chief justice, and a US citizen, she was spared the harsh forms of torture the military used against dissidents jailed under martial law.

“If I had been arrested in Zambales, I’m not sure I would have lived,” she told me in a 2009 interview. “Back then, if you are arrested in the province, they don’t care who you are related to, and they don’t care if you’re an American.”

Paras was eventually deported. Back in the US, she rejoined the movement against the dictatorship.

By then, it was growing.

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Within the movement’s ranks were young FilAms many of whom could not speak Tagalog or other Philippine languages, who had never visited the country, but who became full-time activists committed to ending the Marcos tyranny.

Expatriates also became part of the movement. Edwin Batongbacal moved to the US in 1980 and became a member of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino, or KDP, one of the best known opposition groups, a broad network of activists in major US cities from San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, to New York and Washington D.C.

“Martial Law was significant because it was the first time the community united around a higher aspiration for the country,” Edwin recalled recently.

One of the democracy movement’s main goals was to make the US government stop sending military aid to a regime that was quickly becoming notorious for brutality and gross violations of human rights.

American support for Marcos was underscored in 1981 when then Vice President George H.W. Bush visited Manila and praised Marcos’s “adherence to democratic principles.”  The following year, President Ronald Reagan welcomed Marcos during the dictator’s US state visit, declaring at a White House ceremony, “Yours Mr. President is a respected voice for reason and moderation.”

Such endorsement apparently made Marcos and his allies feel invincible, believing that they could get away with anything.

One June 1, 1981, assassins gunned down labor leaders and anti-Marcos activists Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in Seattle.

(After the dictatorship’s downfall, a US federal court found the Marcoses liable for the murders. In her decision, US District Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote, as quoted in the Seattle Times: “The court concludes that the plaintiffs have provided clear, cogent and convincing evidence that the Marcoses created and controlled an intelligence operation which plotted the murders of Domingo and Viernes.”)

Despite the acts of intimidation and the violence, the FilAms kept on fighting.

In 1986, when the dictatorship was finally defeated, FilAms throughout the US joined the celebration. In fact, in San Francisco, activists threw an impromptu party on Union Square, playing a popular Kool and the Gang tune. The song was called “Celebration.” They played it over and over again.

On Friday, the 40th anniversary of Martial Law, Filipino Americans will gather again in San Francisco, to remember the Marcos years. The two-day event called “Make Your Own Revolution” and sponsored by Kularts, will feature dances, poetry and dramatic readings to  recall the Filipino “people’s strength in resistance to Martial Law.”

Alleluia Panis, one of the event’s organizers, says the goal is to “remember the strength, the values” that helped Filipinos “come out of the darkness of martial law.”

Those who did not survive the darkness have also been honored in the US and the Philippines.

Last year, Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes became the first Filipino Americans to have their names included on the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani’s “Wall of Remembrance” honoring those who fought the regime.

Other former activists of the Filipino American movement have moved on to other meaningful roles.

Many formed and led groups for civil rights and immigration rights. Melinda Paras went on to lead the influential National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

In Seattle, KDP veteran Velma Veloria was elected to Washington State legislature where she served for 12 years.

In San Francisco, former activist Bill Tamayo is now a leading attorney of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Many of those who were part of that struggle remember those years a time of collective courage in the Filipino American community.

“Suddenly, apathy and sense of powerlessness were lifted, and Filipinos actively opposed the regime,” Edwin Batongbacal told me.

“There was all this positive energy, and Filipinos were articulating their higher aspirations for their homeland. … It was moving to see Filipinos desiring a better Philippines rid of the dictator.”

(For more information on the Kularts event, check out the “Making Your Own Revolution” Web site.)

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel.

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