Shortly before Ninoy Aquino returned to the Philippines in 1983, after three years of post-surgery convalescence and exile in the United States, the Marcos newspapers began republishing old stories about the leader of the opposition. I remember reading one such article in the Philippine Daily Express (I believe it was a New York Times feature, written after Aquino became the only Liberal to win a Senate seat during the Nacionalista landslide of 1967). The story painted a portrait of Aquino as (in today’s terms) a traditional politician—a brash young man on the make, the scion of moneyed families, the charismatic symbol of a mod decade’s a-go-go culture. (You could say, if you want to, that he was the Chiz Escudero or Allan Peter Cayetano of his time.)
The idea behind republication, I am certain, was to cut Aquino down to size.
What became obvious to me and to many others, after Ninoy was assassinated and Filipinos who grew up during the martial law era scrambled to discover a clearer picture of the new martyr, was that the man who died on the tarmac 26 years ago this Friday was very different from the helicopter-riding whiz kid whose political ambition had known no bounds.
After his assassination, cassette tapes of his various speeches delivered while in exile circulated; in any protest rally, you could almost be certain that an enterprising hawker would be playing the tapes in a boom box, surrounded by an impromptu crowd eager to listen to his inimitable, rapid-fire extemporizing.
In that sense, he had not changed; he remained the spellbinder even in exile.
But in essentials, he was a completely different man. And it was this new Ninoy that millions of people who mourned his death responded to.
The first Aquino. “The Last Journey of Ninoy,” the 52-minute docu-drama directed by Jun Reyes which will be shown in movie theaters this Friday and aired on both ABS-CBN and the ABS-CBN News Channel on Sunday, is a stirring act of recollection. It is must-viewing, because it allows us to recover the true Ninoy: he was the man imprisoned for seven years and exiled for three; he was the politician who refused to do the politically expedient (after months in solitary confinement in a remote facility, he was almost ready to call Marcos—his fraternity brother—and call it quits, but his will held, his spirit, though severely tested, remained unbroken); he was the exile who could have stayed away, but didn’t.
He wrote an arrival statement which went unread, of course. (In its readiness to embrace death—at one point, Ninoy writes: “It is now time for the regime to decide. Order my IMMEDIATE EXECUTION OR SET ME FREE”—I am reminded of Rizal’s own arrival statement, written from Hong Kong in June 1892. In Rizal’s case, however, it took four years before the Spanish regime made up its mind.) In his statement, Ninoy states the obvious: “I could have opted to seek political asylum in America, but I feel it is my duty, as it is the duty of every Filipino, to suffer with his people especially in time of crisis.” (This, I suppose, helps explain the difference between exiles from the middle forces and exiles in the Netherlands.)
Ninoy offers an explanation for his seemingly foolhardy return, but it is a rationale which explains the turn his life had taken. “According to Gandhi, the WILLING sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.”
The reluctant symbol. Cory Aquino, the self-effacing politician’s wife, became a national figure only—but immediately—after the assassination. Perhaps we can consider her speech during Ninoy’s funeral Mass on Aug. 31, 1983, as the moment she assumed her new role as the true leader of the opposition.
She said: “We arrived in Manila on Wednesday, Aug. 24. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a huge crowd at our home in Times Street [in Quezon City] waiting patiently in line to view Ninoy’s body. I was overwhelmed by this extraordinary display of love and devotion.”
She did not know then, of course, that just mere minutes after her speech, the “display of love and devotion” would reach epic, historic proportions. Those of us who saw off Cory during her own funeral procession saw hundreds of thousands line the streets; it was an amazing sight. But during Ninoy’s funeral, partly because there was no other way to show outrage over the assassination or gratitude for his martyrdom, millions lined the streets—and (the truly extraordinary thing) hundreds of thousands joined the funeral march.
“If my children and I appear to be brave during this, the most difficult period yet of our lives, it is because we know this is what Ninoy would have expected of us. It is also because of our faith in God, and the belief that he is now helping us in this, our greatest need.”
This idea of subordinating personal need (giving in to one’s fears, in those uncertain days) to something greater than one’s self (“what Ninoy would have expected of us”) is the true legacy of the Aquinos. The language they use is inescapably Christian—because that is how they themselves saw it, and (my point) how the people perceived it. “In some mysterious way Ninoy’s death had been a sharing in the Paschal Mystery, which is the central mystery of the Gospel,” prominent theologian Antonio Lambino said in 1986. I believe he was merely articulating the people’s view.
In the hands of their children, especially in the quiet command of the radiant Ballsy Aquino Cruz and the self-sacrificing solicitousness of their dutiful son, the legacy seems secure.
It is becoming clear, on the other hand, that Kris has her own role to serve.