Lean Alejandro's tsinelas revolution

Every afternoon, when the population inside the University of the Philippines-Diliman campus thinned out, he’d take out the ageing Volkswagen of the scholar-activist Ed Tadem and let me drive this around the academic oval.

Lean did this despite his busy schedule as the vice chair of the UP Student Council and his other political responsibilities outside of the Diliman Republic. His reason for patiently spending time with my horrible driving (and with no license or student permit to boot!) was – of course – political. He wanted to add me to what he called his pool of get-away drivers who would come in handy in case:

(a) he was being chased by military intelligence across the streets of Metro-Manila; and,

(b) he had to escape fast out of an underground house that was being raided by the police.

Driving lessons on the 'Thunder Duck'

There were only two of us in that pool: his girlfriend-comrade Lidy Nacpil and I. Ed did not qualify as Lean thought he had a major time handicap: he can't be disturbed when he was having his afternoon siesta

So for 3 weeks and well into the summer break of 1980, we took Ed’s “Thunder Duck” around campus. Lean taught me how to switch from primera (first gear) to tercera (third gear) in seconds; how to steer a slow clunky car through that traffic maze called EDSA at the height of rush hour, then cut in front of moving cars to get into a small side street to escape the military. He taught me the importance of always maintaining lateral vision, to be conscious of cars on either sides, or the spaces between cars that one could exploit to one’s advantage.

The only thing he never imparted to me was how to parallel park, but he surmised that someone in a hurry to elude the military couldn’t waste time doing this maneuver. I would suffer for this later on when I failed my first driving exam in upstate New York.

Apart from that, he tried to explain to us – his dormitory roommates – the politics of sinigang, positing with confidence that he knew the cuisine’s history and why Pinoys loved it. He said it had something to do with the sinigang being “a complete meal.” The veggies and the meat were there, mixed well with spices and the tamarind fruit via a slow boiling of these ingredients, and ramping up the taste further with patis ng (fish sauce of) Malabon. 

Tsinelas charm

Then there were his tsinelas (rubber slippers). Most activists distinguished themselves from the “student masses” by wearing sandals, preferably those bought from Our Tribe, a local company that was very popular among the vanguards of the student movement. One wore his sandals (it was always a male activist thing) and showed those dirty toes as if to say they those feet “are made for walking” with the great unwashed.

Lean broke the norm by wearing rubber slippers, and this naturally bothered his comrades. The tsinelas, they insisted, were in-house footwear; or when taken outside,  for use only within a limited area – the garden, the nearest sari-sari store. But you never wear them to school, especially if you are a student leader! 

He proved them all wrong. Instead of being turned off by his feet, students marveled at how he kept them clean. Some of his fans even suggested that he must have the manikurista’s (manicurist's) eyes: for how else to explain the fine grooves of those toe nails? 

It was also when he strutted around AS in his tsinelas to give political lectures or speak at symposia that I realized that long, fair-skinned feet were attractive to women while short, stubby ones repelled them.

Soon, he and his tsinelas were drawing even those who came out of Manila’s and Cebu’s exclusive girls’ schools to the activist cause. I remember an encounter with these smart colegialas, many of whom became exceptional activists later on. One of them approached him and asked, “Lean (in charming Maryknollism), do you have this book by Lenin titled What to Do?” He gently corrected her – it was What is to be Done? – suggested where to get a copy, and then whispered to me, “Jo, we must be winning [the revolution], just look at all these pretty bourgeoisie joining us!” We had a good laugh that night while eating sinigang.

His comrades tried to imitate him but they never looked good in their tsinelas, uncomfortable with their postures and ways of walking. They also had stubby, hairy toes. Next time I saw them they were back to their Our Tribe sandals. The poor sods!

Funny man

The last thing Lean taught me was appreciating British cigarettes. Well, it was not him who really converted me to Rothman’s and Benson’s and Hedges (these you can buy then at the Quiapo underpass or along Tomas Morato street). Then AS dean Dodong Nemenzo was the first to popularize them. But it was Lean who helped me nurture that taste, coming back from Malabon with stacks of the cigs, thanks to his OFW father who kept sending them from Saudi Arabia. 

For this (as well as his taste for Johnny Walker Black Whiskey – another Nemenzo favorite), Lean was criticized for being unproletarian. He accepted these reproaches quietly, and when his detractors were out of hearing range, gave me this long-winded excuse – one can be an aspiring socialist, while also retaining the bourgeois refinements of taste. “After all Jo, look at Karl Marx’s lifestyle! True, he did attack capital, but he was also drawn to the cultural refinements it spawned” – words to that effect.

One evening, at our room in Narra Residence Hall, I asked him what he wanted to do had he not joined the revolution. His answer was short and to the point: play chess, perfect his ping pong strokes, finish his Chemistry degree, and work quietly in the UP archives.

He was a funny man of the world, this dear friend of mine. And I miss him dearly.  – Rappler.com

(It will be 28 years this September 19 since the student leader Lean Alejandro was gunned down by assassins. His family, friends, and comrades are hosting the Great Lean Run to raise funds for the Lean Alejandro Foundation. Join us at the UP oval, or on cyberspace!)