Progressive politics

Of Lanky, Spectacled Firebrands

I remember those awkward moments in the company of family when I purposely evaded talk of politics, dreading the prospect of having to debate with them – back during the days when I was a sheepish but budding political animal and had no courage to confront my elders of their conservative politics.

I remember a time when I was watching television with my father, a thoroughly conservative fella who once was a military man and even got to captain. It was the late 90s, and on TV was one of those short documentaries about contemporary heroes of Edsa, the one sponsored by the likes of Ayala, promoting the virtues of non-violence and political action through prayer. What was odd was that when my father and I was watching, it featured Lean Alejandro, the fire-breathing student leader and Bayan secretary general who was assassinated by right-wing renegades in 1987. Normally, as I was in that “denial” stage in activism – meaning I had yet to come out of the political closet – I would shirk away from the TV room much like an adolescent would do everytime a kissing or bed scene is shown on the tube in the presence of parents. I knew my father, or at least I thought I knew his type: radical activists do not exactly endear themselves to military types.

I was surprised, however, when he appeared impressed with Lean. The documentary showed a clip of Lean speaking before a crowd in an anti-US Bases rally. I don’t remember what he said, but he was damn eloquent. “Intelektwal pala siya,” I remember my father said approvingly. He also said something about how activist leaders like Lean look a little bit alike. Lean looked like a young Joma Sison, a lanky, singkit guy in spectacles, breathing fire, raising hell amid a sea of agitated humanity. I made a mental list to confirm: Joma, Lean, Amante Jimenez…Hmmm.

This memory came back to me when I was trying to write something about Lean in time for his 20th year of martyrdom. Searching the web, I was not really surprised that non-activists and even people hostile to the political tradition of national democracy that Lean espoused and died for, did take note. While Lidy Nacpil, Lean’s widow, had her foundation, the Lean Alejandro Foundation, sponsor a photo exhibit of the martyr, the Inquirer, published a short essay on Lean by a contemorary of his, the US-based journalist Benjamin Pimentel. Even the ABS-CBN website had its special page devoted to Lean. I was half-expecting rock concerts, poetry jam sessions, unveiling of monuments for Lean.

Lean appears to have that uniquely broad appeal. For one thing, it is so much safer to lionize Lean the martyr (he died before the “rectification movement” of the ND movement came into full play) than, say, Jose Maria Sison, who is alive, though I suspect not very well because of his two-week confinement. Lean was in the “aboveground” struggle, and was a known associate of founding Bayan leader and former sentor Lorenzo Tañada – this makes him so much safer, I suppose, to traditional politicians and businessmen. Sison, though equally, or even more so, charismatic as Lean, and is also a reknowned poet and fancies himself (hehe) as a singer, is forever coterminus with the armed struggle in the Philippines. In spite of his humanity, the lukewarm response of the middle class to the continuing persecution of his person exposes this class’ distrust of such a radical political act as armed struggle.

This, of course, must not detract from the greatness of Lean’s legacy. He was a great man, had a great many talents, and is well-loved, and the history of the progressive movement is much more enriched because of him. What I am saying, I guess, is that martyrdom does not only a hero make.

So what does it take to be a hero? Well, Joma has a poem and song for that.


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