One UP student's journey
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost, 1915
The University of the Philippines Centennial Year is spurring a lot of reminiscences as well as serious reflection on the role the premier state university has played and will continue to play in addressing intractable national problems and the huge challenges that go with them. Having been remiss in partaking of the formal festivities since the start of the year, I wish to add my own personal reflections and do my share in placing on record that facet of UP that is indelibly etched in its past and will inevitably help shape its future – radical student activism.
Even in the late sixties, it was still unusual for a graduate of a relatively exclusive, all-girl Catholic school, still run by German nuns, to go on to UP for a college degree. The common perception was that one could lose one’s soul to the devil at UP, not just by imbibing the liberal thinking that opened the door to agnosticism, or worse atheism, but also to the insidious infiltration of one’s young mind by “communist” ideas.
But having come from a middle-class family of UP alumni, my situation was the exact opposite. It was expected that the entire brood of six would somehow enter UP’s grand portals and finish with a degree properly tucked under the arm, if possible with honors. We were completely unaffected by the conservative scare about UP.
Thus did I step into the Diliman campus bringing with me my orientation towards academic excellence, a strong background in Catholic social action and a marked streak of rebelliousness. (The latter had caused my transfer to the “B” section during my last year in high school as punishment for being outspoken, my election by accident to the presidency of the student council and culminated in a spur-of-the-moment walkout during a meeting with the disciplinarian school principal.)
By then I was also a budding feminist, having imbibed such ideas from the literature of the Women’s Liberation Movement that my role model eldest sister assiduously mailed to us from the US. As a young adolescent, I already instinctively resisted any manifestations of male domination or hints of a patronizing attitude from new-found male friends and acquaintances. Refreshingly, UP had comparatively less of that by the time I enrolled even though the macho fraternities were still going strong and continued to swagger and give female freshmen the eye from their ubiquitous tambayan.
I truly reveled in the liberal atmosphere of the iconoclastic institution of higher learning that UP had become. I enjoyed the general education courses in my first two years that helped mold me into a well-rounded, thinking young person with a sense of being Filipino. The faculty members were a mixed bunch but generally competent, if not all excellent; thought-provoking, if not always inspiring. One’s idiosyncratic teachers (we students called them “terrors”) provided indispensable lessons in surviving the unexpected in one’s colorful student life.
From such a background, one might expect that I would be a natural recruit for the radical student organizations that mushroomed and grew by leaps and bounds in those turbulent seventies. Instead I entered the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) and not its counterpoint, the Student Cultural Association of UP (SCAUP) founded by one Jose Maria Sison. Delaney Hall and the UP Chapel became my comfort zone as I negotiated the daunting new social terrain fresh from the relative insulation of my collegiala years.
I became a “moderate” as they called it in the political parlance of the time. I spoke at teach-ins in the dormitories railing against social injustice and police brutality against demonstrators but I equally denounced the “violence” and the “extremism” of the leftist student organizations. I didn’t join the militants’ rallies but the ones led by the Atenean student leader, Edgar Jopson of the National Union of Students of the Philippines. We always left before the police moved in to violently disperse the radical students with truncheons and bullets. Then, I understood very little of their ideology nor was I intrinsically opposed to their politics; I was just turned off by their sloganeering and seeming unruliness.
My being a student leader in high school made it easier for me to get involved in extracurriculars particularly student politics and I became elected as a councilor in the college council in my second year. But my priorities then were academics first and foremost. Even as students were boycotting their classes to protest the unwarranted oil price increases at the time (by one to two-centavo increments!) I was holed up in the Arts and Sciences student council room studying for my next exam.
Only the persistent ribbing from an activist friend about my abdicating my responsibility to lead co-students in protesting provoked me to leave my books behind. In the nick of time, I witnessed the shooting by a crazy, enraged Math professor, of a protesting high school student, Pastor Mesina, who was part of a contingent of students massed up at UP’s main avenue leading up to the Oblation.
In this dramatic, heart-stopping manner did I eventually get drawn into the historic train of events that led to the setting up of student barricades at the major entrances to the campus to stall the entry of police and military troops ordered by President Marcos to impose “law and order”. I became part, albeit still peripherally, of the symbolic liberated zone of the “Diliman Commune” that was declared by students, teachers and other members of the UP community in February 1971.
That was my baptism of fire into radical student activism. I was confronted with the reality of state fascism unleashed barefaced against defenseless citizens and in flagrant violation of academic freedom. This was how I came to concretely understand the qualitative difference between state violence utilized by the ruling classes to preserve the status quo and the defensive violence resorted to by the oppressed and exploited to challenge the existing order and assert their rights.
And it all happened right in the heart of UP in my second year as an AB Psychology student. (Next week: Campus Politics and Medical School)