There’s an iconic photograph of the Philippine People Power Revolution of February 1986 that ousted Ferdinand Marcos: several men perch atop light poles, while beneath them a sea of people swells on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), a Coca-Cola sign — that symbol of American enterprise — in the distance. Over three days, more than two million citizens mobilized in spontaneous opposition to the US-supported dictator. Declining the advice of one of his generals to fire upon the people, Marcos fled the country. The Philippine experience is hailed as a bloodless revolution. But that’s only if you don’t count the thousands who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the years leading up to that decisive gathering at EDSA, their sacrifice memorialized now in Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a monument and museum in Quezon City.
But was it a revolution? Or was it just two decades of resistance that satisfyingly chased Marcos from power but failed to bring about systemic change? Only six years passed before the Marcos family — minus Ferdinand, who was interred in a Hawaiian cemetery — returned to Philippine politics and government. Wife Imelda was elected congresswoman four times beginning in 1995. Son Bongbong was elected congressman in 1992 and later served as governor of his father’s birthplace, Ilocos Norte. He won a senate seat in 2010, and in 2016, he was nearly successful in a bid for vice-president. Were the years dedicated to mass organizing, propaganda dissemination, and guerilla actions worth the pain, deprivation, and loss that so many in the movement suffered? It's a question that the Quimpo siblings ask themselves in Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years, a book largely the effort of Susan Quimpo and Nathan Quimpo.
During the twenty-year Marcos regime that ended in 1986, the Quimpo siblings — five brothers and five sisters — came of age, their formative years marked by rallies, secret meetings, detentions, assumed names, life underground, and a familiarity with torture and death. The siblings’ opposition to Ferdinand Marcos took various paths. Sometimes those paths overlapped in unexpected ways, such as when Ryan, in the provinces on assignment for the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines), waited for a cadre who turned out to be his brother Jun. Or when Nathan, after being tortured while in detention, happened upon a newspaper article about the release of some other political prisoners, among them his sister Lillian. The Quimpos were ubiquitous. When Jun was arrested at a rally, the police gloated, “Aha, another Quimpo!”
Susan, the last born, was for many years too young to do anything but observe her siblings’ comings and goings, their secretive behavior, and long absences. She accompanied her father on visits to one or another brother held in detention. In an interview with Turning East blogger Carol Dussere that is very much worth reading, Susan says,
. . . 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.
While Susan was writing her account, Nathan was writing his own, neither of them making satisfactory progress toward publication. They decided to merge their efforts and invited their surviving siblings to review the manuscript. Susan and Nathan receive author credit, though the other siblings (except the two who couldn’t) contributed significantly to the text, including whole chapters in their own words. Several chapters have multiple authors, and despite the large cast of characters, it’s not difficult to differentiate among them and follow the individual stories.
While each of the siblings is driven by a commitment to justice, their arrival at how to fight for it, and with which group to align themselves, is what differentiates them. What unites them is the choice to sacrifice their personal futures for a larger good, which given the Marcos dictatorship seemed like not a choice at all. As Susan laments upon the passing of her father in 1977 when the siblings are deeply entrenched in the fight,
When does the ultimate sacrifice of one’s family and one’s personal dreams for the sake of the revolution and country cease? When may self and family hold precedence over one’s love for country?
Susan says that the story of her family is the story of many families. But for those of us who are the same age as the Quimpos, regardless of how removed we were physically from the events at the time, it’s hard not to ask, “What would I have done?”
The Quimpo siblings were educated in the best schools, schools that were often beyond the means of their parents: an engineer father who spent his entire career at Coca-Cola and a mother from the landed class whose family assets greatly diminished over time. Ishmael and Esperanza Quimpo’s pro-American views were cemented with the American liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. They raised bright, high-achieving, scholarship-winning offspring. The children were bespectacled and slightly built. They sang and played the guitar. And in high school and college, they were speaking out against US imperialism at the dinner table. They were adolescents and young adults at a time of political and social unrest, and it was inevitable that a movement that relied upon the country’s youth to fill its ranks would sweep up the Quimpo siblings, much to their parents’ dismay.
Nathan sums up his father’s disappointment:
. . . he and mom worked hard through most of their lives to send their children to the best schools wanting to get us all through college, hoping that we would all become successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, and bankers one day. And now he was seeing us hiding, on the run, or behind barbed wire, either fugitives or prisoners.
In his high school valedictory speech in March 1970, Nathan ended with these words: "We cannot just stand aside and watch the storm . . . Let us be part of the change." He delivered his speech just after the First Quarter Storm of 1970, three months of demonstrations against the government initiated mostly by student leaders.
Oldest brother Norman, who was named after an American soldier friend of his parents, was more deliberative, “But while many people, particularly students, were ready to pull out all the stops in their activism, like dropping out of school to become full-time organizers, my personality, my background, and head-of-family status held me back. I was a cautious and nervous person. I was used to routine and did not easily adapt to new situations. I was excited by the prospect of change but also fearful that the status quo in Philippine society that I associated with my happy childhood would be upset.” Despite his restraint, Norman did get involved and was jailed briefly, interrupting his academic career as a mathematics professor.
Norman saw in their younger brother Jan the epitome of young, compassionate Filipinos eager for change. Jan was radicalized in high school and left college after a semester to go “full-time” as a revolutionary. “I didn’t realize I was seeing the transformation of Manila youth of the 1970s embodied in my brother,” Norman writes.
Ryan, whose polio-affected legs required braces, was conspicuous to the police and military and he eventually left the country to gain support for the anti-Marcos movement abroad. He contrasts the levels of engagement of some of his siblings in the effort at home: "My sisters Caren and Lillian were on the side of the 'moderates,' which placed its hopes on a new constitution which would avoid revolution and bloodshed as a path for change." Lillian would later become radicalized, go underground, and join the CPP.
Youngest brother Jun, a good athlete and popular at parties, joined the high school chapter of KM, Kabataang Makabayan, the student group that for many was a stepping stone to the CPP. His older siblings considered his involvement a mere flirtation, but Jun sought out the movement in college. He dropped out after his third semester to work among the urban poor Imelda Marcos was trying to drive from Manila in preparation for the 1976 International Monetary Fund–World Bank Conference.
Susan, who as a child had often been shielded from news of the torture of her siblings, immediately made it known when she entered college that she was ready to join the movement. “What took you so long?” she said when a recruiter finally approached her.
Susan had been schooled by her older siblings in the history of colonization and exploitation of the Philippines in heated dinnertime conversations. In one of the early chapters of the book, she enumerates the justification for anti-American and, by association, anti-Marcos sentiment. She points out that had American forces not withdrawn from the islands in 1942, opting to focus on the European front and abandoning them to the Japanese, the country would not have suffered the three years of horrors that culminated in the ruin of Manila. When the United States liberated the country from the Japanese in 1945 and granted its independence, the terms of that independence were exploitative and extortionist. The United States made compensation for wartime suffering contingent on unrestricted imports of tariff-free American goods, access to Philippine natural resources for American businesses, the right to own and operate public utilities, and the installation of US military bases to protect American interests.
Nathan describes the anti-American sentiments that festered and found expression in the 1960s with the Filipinization movement. Students demanded that they be taught by Filipinos rather than white foreign Jesuits, that their courses be taught in Filipino, and that they be taught the history of their own country. However, Nathan found the proponents of Filipinization to be moderates when it came to protesting the Marcos government, and he joined the radical KM, which advocated for revolution as the only way to address deeply rooted injustices. There were myriad, often competing, anti-Marcos factions, and Nathan and Ryan provide a political framework of the various groups.
In his work abroad, Ryan connected with the anti-Marcos KDP, which had active chapters in the United States and Canada. The KDP was particularly strong in Seattle, surviving the shock of the Marcos-ordered assassinations of labor organizers Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in 1981, but eventually disbanding in 1986 with the Marcos overthrow. In a newly released collection of essays, A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), former members — including Cindy Domingo, Seattle activist and sister of Silme — recall their struggle for justice both in the Philippines and at home in the United States.
In the final chapter of Subversive Lives, the Quimpos reflect on their fight and its aftermath. The siblings — the ones that migrated to Australia; the ones that now teach at universities; the one who returned to the Philippines after decades in Europe once his children were grown; the one who studied and lived in the United States, but eventually decided the immigrant’s life was not for her and also returned to the Philippines; the ones who never left — wonder at their lives and their losses and the choices they were forced to make. Several ruminate and reflect on their personal path to the CPP, their hesitations and doubts, their commitment to the cause, what they were willing to sacrifice, and what they thought they could endure when it came to torture or the threat of death.
Generously interspersed in the pages are family photos that show the siblings when they were young, and when they were in high school and college, first receiving awards, then at rallies or on the front page of the newspaper, and later at the funeral of a sibling. There’s a photo of the reunion of the eight surviving Quimpos as adults and a photo of Jan and Jun’s names inscribed on the Bantayog ng mga Bayani wall.
Like the Bantayog wall, Subversive Lives reminds us that the power of mass movements relies on the courage of individuals. The Quimpos’ story raises the question: What would I do in the face of a corrupt and unjust government that favored the wealthy and discarded the poor, that disregarded the rule of law, that rigged elections, that favored corporations at the expense of the people?
Where does one draw the line?