32 years after assassination: Knowing Ninoy
At the age of 6, Juan Miguel, my son, attended his first political rally.
The boy arose early and happily slipped on a shirt that matched the ones on his father and mother – in yellow like the flesh of sun-ripened mango, its front outlined with a bespectacled face in deep contemplation. He did not know what to expect but looked forward to being with his parents and a bunch of strangers to honor someone important at a famous park by the bay.
That was in Manila on August 21, 1984, one year after Philippine Senator Benigno Aquino Jr was shot while exiting from a plane upon arrival from exile and left lifeless for hours on the airport tarmac.
To this day, his assassin has not been officially identified. Back then and now, however, who ordered the execution of the most outspoken critic of the repressive Marcos regime was and is beyond doubt. The murder sparked Filipino patriotism and gifted the world with People Power, the peaceful revolution that ousted the dictatorship and restored democratic processes in the Philippines.
If the Philippines is free from tyranny today, Filipinos have Aquino to thank.
That is why 32 years later, relatives, allies and admirers of "Ninoy," as the modern Philippine hero is known throughout his beloved homeland, continue to congregate around this time to recall his sacrifice.
In San Francisco, Catholic Mass typically precedes a brief program followed by a community reception reuniting Bay Area residents Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara, her husband Ken Kashiwahara, their families and their friends. The events have taken place in recent years at the Philippine consulate general on Sutter Street.
"Every year since Ninoy died, we have gathered to commemorate his death anniversary," Aquino Kashiwahara told Rappler. "It has become friends getting together to catch up with each other and to remember Ninoy."
The martyred senator's younger sister named the earliest anniversary commemorations "Friends of Friends of Ninoy" to symbolize the breadth of appreciation for her brother's heroism.
Each annual event welcomes everyone wishing to recall the darkest days of the dictatorship, when Aquino, while in involuntary exile in the Boston area, inspired cohorts to trust that together they could vanquish the despot.
Many of those attending this week's assemblies had learned of Aquino from school or their elders, having been too young to have been conscious of political currents in their country.
"This year, we will meet on August 20th, which is August 21 in the Philippines and hear from Consul General Henry Bensurto, his reaction as a young man when he heard Ninoy was shot and the status of Philippine-China relations," Aquino Kashiwahara said.
"He is the country's point man in the ongoing maritime dispute. If Ninoy were alive today, what would he tell the diplomat?"
The highest ranking representative of the Philippine government in San Francisco, Bensurto was 18 when Aquino was killed. That brazen act and its transformation of the Filipino fuelled his own sense of ownership of his country and pride in his people.
Too young to grasp the meaning of sacrifice and patriotism in that first anniversary of the Aquino assassination in Luneta, Juan Miguel reveled in the sea of yellow – pennants and posters, banners and balloons, people of every age including children like himself festooned in the color Filipinos were asked to wear to welcome home Aquino on August 21, 1983.
The monumental Luneta gathering was one big picnic. While martial law had been officially "lifted," the same president since 1969 and his loyal underlings especially in the military still ruled the archipelago.
Anytime during that event, an incident could have dispersed the multitude, like the deadly bomb blast at an opposition rally years before that the regime had attributed to "terrorism" – its excuse to declare martial law. But fear faded behind respect for Aquino and sympathy for his family.
Oblivious to imminent danger, attendees exchanged the L-sign for "Laban" or "fight," for the future of their country.
The man who was his Lolo's friend and speaker at his Mama's graduation died so Filipinos like him could be free, Juan Miguel heard his parents explain the celebration.
Did he ask how it happened? Why it had to happen? Those details are hazy now, but the significance of the date lives with the now 37-year-old.
His tendency to empathize with the Catalan resistance in Spain or the mission of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma may have been sown by that one memorable day in the park.
Freedom, he knows, comes with a price.
A black and white photo of his first protest hangs prominently in his parents' home in Daly City, thousands of miles from Manila.
Now a licensed clinical professional, Juan Miguel will not be able to attend the Mass followed by a reception at the consulate. Home with a wife and their 15-month-old son beckons first and foremost.
He will miss Ken Kashiwahara, with whom he had struck a meaningful conversation at the ripe age of 8 in the San Francisco home of his aunt Presy Lopez Psinakis.
He will also miss his favorite lumpiang shanghai that Viviane Sanchez of Max Restaurant is contributing, "as she has done for 30-ish years," Aquino Kashiwahara touted the reception buffet.
"Johann Yuson will donate empanaditas from Patio Filipino and Goya Navarette will chip in her delicious home-cooked ham," added the award-winning film director who was the first Filipino American to direct a morning television program in Northern California. "Marisa Bensurto, the consul general's wife, is behind all the preparation for the reception."
Ken Kashiwahara, a retired ABC News chief correspondent who had accompanied his brother-in-law on the fateful flight, will emcee the program.
Years from now Juan Miguel's son will notice the picture of his father and ask who is that face on the shirts he and his parents were wearing and why his fingers were formed like the letter L.
That would be Juan Miguel's cue to share the story of Ninoy.
Little Joaquin Miguel will want to replace his shirt: same color but instead of the flag of Catalunya, the bespectacled face of the Philippine hero. – Rappler.com
Cherie M Querol Moreno is a keen observer of the evolving Filipino American community in the San Francisco Bay Area, subject of her 30 years of reporting for and editing Filipino-American publications. She founded and directs the family violence prevention nonprofit ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment and sits on the San Mateo County Commission on Aging. 'Unbound' is her long-running column which will now publish regularly on Rappler.