CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – The scenes in Cagayan de Oro and elsewhere in Northern Mindanao early this week were reminiscent of the days of uncertainty and courage leading to the 1986 People Power Revolution.
If there was something Vice President Leni Robredo accomplished when she barnstormed Northern Mindanao for two days since Tuesday, February 22, it was to rekindle the EDSA spirit of activism and volunteerism not seen in the region in years, said Rey Yanes Balandra, a councilor of Barangay Macasandig.
“Everywhere, I saw families printing their own Leni-Kiko tarps, and bringing their pink balloons, and streamers using their own money,” Balandra said.
He said a friend, an entrepreneur, gave out free cups of hot Miarayon Arabica coffee to those who attended the rally in Divisoria on Tuesday night, February 22.
It was the biggest political rally in Cagayan de Oro so far since the start of the campaign period for politicians seeking national government positions, with a crowd reaching more than 10,000, according to the police.
Hours before the rally, people in pink – the color associated with the Robredo presidential campaign – lined up on Don Apolinar Velez Street up to the historic Plaza Divisoria, chanting and waving at motorists while waiting for the vice president to come.
Their numbers grew by sunset, and their noise and merrymaking reached fever pitch early in the evening as soon as the vehicle bringing Robredo to the rally site was in sight.
“I had goosebumps seeing all these. It was like EDSA all over again when we marched against the Marcos dictatorship,” Balandra said.
The anti-Marcos movement in Cagayan de Oro in the ’80s was led by the late Senate president Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who was the city mayor at that time.
Pimentel rose to national prominence as a key opposition leader after he was arrested at least four times, from the ’70s to the ’80s, as a result of trumped-up charges.
In 1981, city-wide protests were sparked by the decision of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to oust the then-mayor Pimentel for “turncoatism.” What followed was a series of civil disobedience rallies within five years until the Edsa uprising.
Balandra said he saw some businessmen and other volunteers distributing hot cups of rice porridge to people who attended the rally.
Reminder and groundswell
Former journalist BenCyrus Ellorin, now a volunteer at Leni Tanging Pagasa 2022, said the Robredo campaign was sparking a “people’s power against falsities, fake news, and historical revisionism, and against attempts to bring back a family that brought the country down its knees. The power of the people should never be underestimated.”
It was a reference to the Marcos family whose scion Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has emerged as the presidential frontrunner more than three decades after the popular people’s revolt forced them to go into exile in Hawaii.
Ellorin said the Robredo campaign also reminded people in Cagayan de Oro and elsewhere in Northern Mindanao about the brutality of Marcos’ martial law.
Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno said he was seeing a groundswell of public support for Robredo in Cagayan de Oro and Misamis Oriental, bastions of the anti-Marcos movement in Mindanao in the ’80s.
In Gingoog City, a young man stepped forward during a gathering and introduced himself as a grandchild of victims of the Marcos dictatorship.
“My grandfather, grandmother, and uncle were massacred during Martial Law. I am the grandson of Renato Bucag Sr. and Helen Bucag, and nephew of Renato Bucag Jr.,” he said.
Bucag Sr. was a councilor and chairman of the then anti-Marcos PDP-Laban in Gingoog City who was brutally killed by suspected soldiers and a militia group of Tadtad cult members on May 1, 1984.
Bucag, his wife, and his son were stabbed and hacked all over, and the way they were killed horrified people in this part of the country then.
Bucag’s name has been enshrined in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, and his family received compensation from the sequestered Marcos wealth as victims of human rights violation.
Ellorin said personal narratives such as this serve as reminders of the excesses committed as a result of the impunity that those in power enjoyed during the years of the Marcos dictatorship.
“Yes, never again. We remember,” said Ellorin.
Ellorin said the outcomes of the Robredo sorties in the region and the display of volunteerism exceeded expectations.
For two days, Robredo’s group barnstormed Northern Mindanao cities and provinces, a region where she won the vice presidential race against Marcos Jr. in 2016.
Her first stop was in Iligan City on Tuesday morning where, despite the absence of big-name local politicians, some 3,000 people gathered to hear her speak at the Rizal Park.
There, a group of physicians distributed Leni-Kiko Pangilinan ballers during the rally.
Her campaign in the region received a boost after Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Jose Cabantan openly declared his support for her presidential bid, a move seen as unusual for Catholic leaders.
Priests in pink masks
In Bukidnon province, Malaybalay Bishop Noel Pedrogosa and his clergy all wore pink face masks as they met Robredo on Wednesday, February 23.
The priests even allowed Robredo’s group to use a diocesan property for its rally after they failed to secure a permit to stage one at the capitol grounds.
Bishop Pedregosa prayed and blessed Robredo before she proceeded with the second day of the Northern Mindanao leg of her presidential campaign in the cities of Malaybalay and Valencia, and the towns of Sumilao and Maramag.
The Robredo group’s request to hold a rally at the capitol grounds in Malaybalay was denied because the area was being used as a COVID-19 vaccination site, prompting the Catholic diocese to offer its formation center in Barangay Impalambong, Malaybalay as an alternate venue for the rally.
Mavic Hilario, Robredo People’s Council coordinator in Bukidnon, told Rappler that preparing for Robredo’s rally was made easier because of the volunteers and supporters who shared what they could, whether in cash, in-kind, skills, and talents.
“When we couldn’t make it at the capitol, the Malaybalay Diocese offered its formation center. Some of us focused on providing for the needs of those who wanted to see VP Leni. We just worked together, and we did it,” Hilario said.
Purple Haze Ching, a Robredo youth volunteer in Malaybalay City, told Rappler that the task was exhilarating.
“But when I saw VP Leni, I sensed hope… I felt her humility and authenticity. We saw her relationship with the farmers. She isn’t above us, and her campaign is truly a people’s movement,” said Ching.
Before the Malaybalay rally, Robredo visited her old friends in the Higaonon Farmers’ Cooperative and Panaw Multi-purpose Cooperative in Sumilao town.
The members of the cooperative used to be known as the Mapalad Farmers of Sumilao, Bukidnon, a group that caught national attention when they made a political statement by staging their 1,700-kilometer “Walk for Land, Walk for Justice” from Sumilao, Bukidnon to Metro Manila.
They also staged a 28-day hunger strike to dramatize their demand to get back 144 hectares of their ancestral land in Bukidnon.
In 2008, food giant San Miguel Corporation was compelled to give the Sumilao Higaonon farmers their 144 hectares.
Robredo, a human rights lawyer then, and her late husband Jesse helped the Mapalad farmers and even marched with them.
Panaw chair Elgine Orquillas, who was only 21 years old when she joined the historic march in 2007, said the Sumilao farmers were fully behind Robredo’s presidential bid because her record shows that she would prioritize the needs of farmers and protect them as the government works to ensure food security.
Robredo said she “takes great pride in witnessing how the farmers cooperatives have grown over the years.” – Rappler.com
Froilan Gallardo and Grace Cantal-Albasin are Mindanao-based journalists and awardees of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship