It’s time to be our own heroes

Sunday Life

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated August 09, 2009 12:00 AM
Cory Aquino after Ninoy’s death at Times Street, 1983.

The first time I saw Cory Aquino was on TV. She had just arrived from the United States and looked every bit like the grieving widow. On TV, she expressed her grief over her husband’s death, put the responsibility of Ninoy’s assassination on the Marcos regime and demanded the release of all political prisoners.

The last point particularly impressed me since my mother and stepfather were political prisoners in Bicutan at that time. I just had a feeling then that there was more to the soft monotone and the non-political body language that spelled “housewife” more than “politician.”

I saw her once in Bicutan when I was visiting my parents. She came bearing rubber slippers for the detainees and to talk with and console them. At the time, the detainees were composed of two factions, the social democrats and the national democrats who were constantly trying to discredit each other. Cory reached out to both, perhaps realizing that they were all in jail because they loved their country, and she could certainly identify with that.

Cory was a calming presence. She could sit with hardcore communists and hardnosed politicians and melt their intransigence by simply knowing how to listen to them. She was almost non-threatening with her soft voice and kind demeanor, which were assets during those highly polarized times. And yet behind it was a woman of steel who must have decided earlier on, during Ninoy’s incarceration, that the way to peace was not more of the macho posturing that invariably brought violence but through a commitment to listen in a healing way.

The death of Ninoy had a profound effect on me. It forced me to confront my artistic identity and authenticity. Sure, I knew the craft of a songwriter-performer, but was I a true artist who dared express myself freely? If so, why was I reluctant to express my outrage at what was happening? From small tentative steps APO taken after Ninoy’s death, we became emboldened artists who took up the cause of ending the dictatorship and promoting democracy in the way we knew best — though songs and humor. One might say, we walked on the edge and even jumped a few times. Lucky for us, the net always appeared.

I remember listening to a lot of speeches, reading a lot of opposition materials, attending countless rallies and even as I did a lot of the latter, I must admit I often wrestled with my own fears of the martial law forces. But I did it anyway because each time I saw Cory Aquino stand on a makeshift podium and confront the regime head on, it inspired me to do my share in the struggle for democracy.

There was something riveting about an unlikely candidate, a widowed housewife standing up to a dictator who held all the cards. Her courage was simply contagious. It was like seeing the story of David versus Goliath playing out in real life.

Cory’s term as president was tumultuous, largely because of the disloyalty and lust for power shown by elements of the armed forces and her former defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile. It was beset with endless coups and natural calamities.

I bristled at the fact that the soldiers always got away scot-free only to stage the next destabilization effort, even if they failed miserably each time. And yet, I wonder now if a less forgiving, more “macho” leader would have succeeded in preserving the democracy that we fought hard for in EDSA. We could have easily gone back to another dictatorship, given the temptation to use a strong hand to deal with the many crises. Perhaps we did need the kind, maternal symbol that was Cory Aquino to help heal the rifts among her fighting children.

In truth, there were very few moments that I was in Cory’s presence where we actually talked. I blush when I remember how speechless I always became in her presence. But each time we did meet, she made sure I felt her appreciation for my participation in the cause.

In the last few years of her life, there were times when Cory’s magic seemed like a spent force. The rallies she called people to attend were miniscule compared to the magnificence of the People Power shows of force of earlier days. People seemed to have lost interest in her singular message of preserving the legacy of Ninoy and his belief that the Filipino is worth dying for. But she plodded on. It did not seem to matter to her how many showed up. It was always about the message.

And yet, the news of her death, though expected, came as a shock. It was like a pall of gloom had suddenly descended on us all. We realized that we were orphaned. We had lost an icon, a mother, a leader, a friend, a decent human being. She was a benign shining spirit whom we presumed would always be there. Especially in these days of quiet desperation, her maternal mien was a comfort zone. At the wake, not a few people asked in all sincerity, “Who will be the symbol of democracy now that she is gone?” Indeed.

Cory’s death has surfaced a lot of feelings aside from grief. Some of it is probably plain nostalgia for those who walked with her in the journey to EDSA, but I suspect there is a lot more to it. People know integrity when they see it and respond accordingly.

It was heartwarming to see throngs of people in avenues break into wild applause as her casket passed by. It was an affirmation of the good she had done, a recognition of her decency and integrity as a person and her untiring efforts in expressing tangibly her love for our country.

To me, the people’s spontaneous reaction is proof that we are rediscovering what it’s like not to be cynical. The tears shed, the huge crowds, the compassion and intense interest manifested everywhere has rekindled for some the candle of idealism which everyone thought had long melted away.

Even aging EDSA warriors like myself were starting to believe that the ideals of EDSA belonged to a bright but short era that had already passed. But what is shaping up seems to suggest that reports about the death of EDSA 1’s meaning may have been premature and exaggerated.

Even if I have a good feeling about it, I prefer to be cautious and say that it remains to be seen if indeed the spirit of EDSA has been rekindled. The coming days will tell us for sure. But speaking for myself, Cory’s death has reawakened my idealism. I want to help get this country back on the road to fulfilling its manifest destiny of greatness.

Joseph Campbell once said that doors closed to others will open to you when you respond to the call of your life’s mission. Cory was “just a housewife,” as Marcos once sneered. And he was right. But what he did not count on was this housewife’s admirable courage that brought him to his knees. The stars aligned for her because she did not flinch once she decided to take up the challenges of her time.

When I visited President Cory’s remains in La Salle Greenhills, I saw old friends and fellow street warriors weeping. Since I was one of the first in line, I had the privilege of blessing her remains with holy water. As I bade farewell to my leader, my muse and my inspiration, I tried to hold back my tears but I was unsuccessful.

Death can make a person larger than when he/she was alive. The symbolic is always more potent than the literal. It’s probably because symbols have a built-in open-endedness that grows more and more as people engage them and imbue them with powers greater than what they had in life.

And so Cory and Ninoy’s heroic tale will be counted among the noble stories that will continue to inspire us as a people for generations to come.

Ninoy’s funeral was the way it was largely because of the way he died. Cory’s was the way it was because of how she lived.

Today we are again at a crossroads as a people. We either awaken and resume our march to the Promised Land or continue adrift wandering aimlessly in the desert. EDSA 1’s work remains unfinished business. Just as Ninoy passed the torch to the reluctant Cory, she has now passed the torch to us. Like Cory, we only need to say “yes” to rise to the occasion and rekindle the candle of idealism that was lit in ESDA 1.

It’s time to be our own heroes.