Burying Ka Bel

It was a grim sight, accentuated by sporadic rains that virtually told of deep sadness. It was four in the morning, and the activists were busy garnishing red and white flowers around the truck. Just a couple of hours before, they had concluded a long tribute for the man, and now they were to march him in mourning to Mendiola. They wore red, of course – a tribute to the fallen hero of the working masses, whose death was as sudden as it was prefigured. Just last December, the activists had buried Monico Atienza, professor and writer, revolutionary and victim of past state brutality. Last March saw the passing away of another hero in Nemesio Prudente, former PUP president and resistance figure during the Marcos dictatorship. Just a few weeks before that day, activists buried Bayani Abadilla, nationalist writer and journalist. Now Crispin Beltran, leading figure of militant labor for as long as anybody can remember. And now they would bury him, his death from an untimely fall as he was said to be fixing his beaten down roof in his home in Bulacan capturing the imagination of the public gone jaded with politicians and the elite’s arrogant displays of wealth and privilege. Wartime partisan, union organizer, anti-dictatorship fighter, militant legislator, he was a hero in more ways than one can imagine. His death is, indeed, a burden that the activists carried heavily.

That morning, the streets leading to Mendiola bled unlike any other time with red-shirted mourners carpetting the moist concrete. It was a long march from the church to Mendiola, made longer perhaps by the burden that they carried with them. The truck, out front carrying the fallen Ka Bel, marshalled on both sides by workers in black ribbons, rode slowly. And though it was a Saturday and it was early, people stood in the pavement watching the mourners, some carrying with them their kids, pointing for the latter to that coffin draped with red flags. “The fight lives on,” declared the marchers, their voices coarse yet determined. It was mourning, but rather than wear black they wore red – the hero, after all, was as dead as he was alive among the marchers. The fight, indeed, lives on.

In Mendiola, there were scant cops guarding the palace gates, as if their superiors decided it was against good taste to disperse the mourners despite not having permits. The labor leaders, led by Elmer Labog, good friend to Ka Bel and successor to the leadership in the Kilusang Mayo Uno, brought with them the bouquet that had come from the palace with a message of condolence (it was said to have been anonymously placed in the church even before the corpse arrived) – a tactless gesture, for when he was alive it was in fact the palace who did everything it can to shackle him, shame him, and sap him of his strength. They, of course, did not succeed. And now in his death when he had ceased to pose a threat to them, they proclaim to have respected him and recognized him as a man of integrity. To the mourners, marching the coffin to Mendiola was a gesture back to the empowered, a reply that says they do not accept the condolence.

Late in the morning, the coffin was brought to Batasan Pambansa, the building that Ka Bel belonged to before his death, for a memorial befitting, so they say, a legislator. The policemen with their ancient rifles lined up along the path where the hero’s comrades were carrying the coffin. They dutifully marched along the sides without a hint of irony, the pallbearers bearing the heavy weight with one hand and pumping their fists in the air with another. Inside, the coffin was placed right in the middle of the session hall where Ka Bel had crossed hairs with the powerful. It was a gesture, they say, that no dead congressman had been previously honored with. But when the Catholic mass commenced, the bystanders soon realized how hollow the gesture was. Ka Bel was being honored by his colleagues, but a great majority of them were nowhere to be found, their empty seats in the hall bespeaking their true opinions of the man. Those who were there tried their best to show bereaved faces, but their gazes soon pointed to the high ceiling or their fingernails once Satur Ocampo began with his impassioned eulogy.

He was a simple man, said Satur, but he was proud and principled, and dressed simply but elegantly. He, after all, walked these halls and similar ones abroad with the knowledge that he was representing his class – he had to dress well. But he washed his own clothes and sewed its tattered hems very much like he repaired his own roof. He was a working man, as he was of them and for them. By the end of the speech, Satur’s voice had gone thick and hoarse. He was close to tears. It was, some observed, his finest speech yet.

Very soon it was time to send the hero off. Marching from the Batasan to Fairview – from there they would ride buses all the way to Santa Maria, Bulacan where a wealthy ally had provided a plot of land for Ka Bel to be buried – the mourners resumed with their call to continue Ka Bel’s fight. Along the streets (it was afternoon by that time) the people once again lined up for a glimpse of the man. They knew him and had waited for the march to pass by. In a tiny alley in Commonwealth near the street where the march passed, a group of people stood and stared at the painting of Ka Bel mounted in the truck. The knew him, they said, because he was from that place. Ka Bel had a shantied house in Commonwealth. They knew him as Ka Bel, one of those middle-aged men people turned to and asked for advice on community matters. They admired him, but they did not know he was famous. Least of all, they did not know he was a congressman.

After a brief program in Fairview, some of the mourners rode their buses and quietly bid Ka Bel farewell, to his final abode in Bulacan. They buried him as Ka Bel’s children wept and the mourners sang the workers’ theme. They will fight on, they said, their teary eyes burning with steely resolve.


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