Three months after the assassination of the Kapampangan opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., I found myself inside a small newspaper office along Serrano Laktaw Street in Quezon City. It was early evening when my La Salle blockmate, Albert Abaquin and I got off the jeepney that took us from Taft Avenue to the street corner along E. Rodriguez just before the Quezon Institute.
Albert offered to accompany me as he knew the daughter of the newspaper publisher who I was supposed to see. She was his classmate in high school. She was not there but someone led us inside the office that was on the ground floor of a two-story bungalow.
It was not long before I was seated in front of the man who I have seen only in photographs. I introduced myself and told him I saw the invitation that was published in his newspaper a few days earlier and that I was there in response to his call for fearless young writers to join him in his crusade for the restoration of freedom, justice and democracy in the Philippines.
Jose Burgos, Jr., publisher of the alternative weekly Ang Pahayagang Malaya, looked at me. He seemed concerned. “Are you sure you know what you are getting yourself into?”
I could sense his reluctance in sending someone who might just as well be his son into harm’s way. After all, it had only been just 11 months since the military raided the offices of Malaya’s sister publication, WE Forum, and arrested Joe and several others members of his staff.
“Yes, Sir,” I told him.
I presented my credentials. Just a year ago I was editor-in-chief of the Clarion, my high school paper in Angeles City. I actually wrote almost all the articles in the school paper but had most of these, including the poems I composed, bylined by my classmates. I was also in the top 10 of the newswriting competition in the Regional Secondary Schools Press Conferences during my junior and senior years.
Just a few months earlier, I became a staff member of the La Sallian, the official student publication of De La Salle University. I was assigned to the news section. My first banner article was about the hazing freshmen ROTC cadets were subjected to. I also covered the outpouring of grief over the assassination of Senator Aquino in Pampanga and Tarlac and even interviewed Kris Aquino as the funeral cortège was passing through Angeles on the way back to Manila. I also reported about the student protest actions inside the Taft campus.
I was not really there to apply for a job. I was there to join the fight. I was there to help seek justice for Ninoy Aquino and thousands of others who were oppressed by what I came to realize was a repressive regime. I was so affected by the assassination that I told myself I had to do something.
And so there I was in front of Joe Burgos that November evening in 1983 responding to his call for brave young men and women to join him in his fight. Joe was looking at me. He still was not convinced and appeared to be trying to find an excuse to turn down my application and do my parents a favor.
“How old are you?” Joe asked, probably thinking I was underaged. I actually was.
“How old are you?” Joe asked, probably thinking I was underaged. I actually was. I was 16 then but would just not miss this chance to help make a difference for our country and our people.
“Eighteen.” I lied.
Joe believed me and took me in. I was salimpusa at first. Since I was still studying, I was only able to do my reporting on the side. My first published article was about the concerns of vendors at the San Fernando public market. A few months later, I would take a brief leave from my studies and plunged myself full time in journalism work in Pampanga and other provinces of Central Luzon.
I reported about student boycotts, labor strikes, and anti-bases rallies for Malaya. I even resurrected cold cases of human rights violations and wrote about these and other abuses of the regime. I filed stories on just about anything that the mainstream media would not report on. My name would eventually end up in the military watchlist.
It would not be long before the end came for Ferdinand Marcos. More than two years after I showed up at Joe’s office, the regime was overthrown. The fight was over. We have won. And the victory was made even sweeter because I was among three journalists who were able to catch a glimpse of the aircraft as it took off to take him to exile.
I stayed with Malaya for another year and then moved on to the Manila Chronicle after Joe decided to sell the paper. It never occured to me that November evening 35 years ago when I was seated in front of Joe that I would go on to spend the next 17 years as a journalist. Up to this day, I still consider myself one.