“We climbed these gates, the day Ferdinand Marcos was ousted,” my mother said as we entered the Malacañang Palace on a school field trip. I was around 10 years old, just learning about martial law in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship. As the voice of our tour guide faded, my mother vaguely recalled the final hours of the EDSA People Power Revolution that overthrew Marcos on February 25, 1986. A time when she, along with her siblings and many other Filipinos, occupied the streets and stormed the presidential palace, braving a sea of soldiers and military tanks.
My mother is my first teacher. Deciding to homeschool me and my siblings during our elementary school years, she ensured we learned of the dictatorship she lived through, and inherited our countrymen’s collective memory. In my young, naive mind though, this felt distant; a freedom revolution in past tense. In her words, they fought so we didn’t have to. We rested in her words that such a time would never happen again.
“In my young, naive mind though, this felt distant; a freedom revolution in past tense. In her words, they fought so we didn’t have to. We rested in her words that such a time would never happen again.”
Since that field trip, however, she, along with my father, not once recounted their personal experiences of life under military rule. They hoped to shield us from the trauma and fear of their youth.
But I’ve always wondered. As I watched the lead-up to the 2022 Philippine presidential elections from the guilty comfort of living abroad and merely through my screen, I thought of my parents’ anguish and anxiety seeing the son and namesake of the former dictator vying to govern our country. I quickly learned of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s propaganda machinery and disinformation schemes, but at the same time, was filled with hope from other candidates’ grassroots campaigns to mobilize the country towards a better future. In witnessing what feels like a deja vu election, my parents were filled with hope that the “people’s power” would prevail.
However, as Marcos Jr.’s impending inauguration nears, hearing the phrase “President Marcos” once more triggered memories of a past my parents did not want to remember.
So I finally asked them how the martial law era under Marcos Sr. really transpired through their eyes.
Marcos Sr. ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, a period marred by violence, killings, and suppression of free speech. My parents spent much of their youth during the dictatorship, born a few years before Marcos Sr. declared martial law in 1972. Seeing military men and army trucks patrolling the streets were embedded in their daily lives.
“We lived near Malacañang Palace,” my mom Alma shared. “Our neighbors would always tell us not to walk too far from our house because we might be captured and jailed by men in uniform.” To cope, my mom’s uncles learned to befriend the soldiers patrolling their streets, to ensure their family wouldn’t fall victim to their unpredictable aggression.
As a young girl, my mom “was scared without [her] mom at school.” “There were always [military] men in uniform. I was afraid [they] would come get me if she was not around,” she said.
Fear of the military grew as people became used to stories of men being arrested from the streets to be beaten and jailed overnight. My granduncle was one of them. To justify the brutality, the government used such stories to brainwash the masses that people who were jailed and tortured were “bad” people who “deserved to be punished.”
My dad (second from right) as a child during Marcos’ rule. Photo: Courtesy of Anna Bernice delos Reyes
My dad, Geerminn, saw his worst fears materialize. His father was arrested and assaulted during the regime, leading to his death.
“I was 3 years old,” he recalled. “A member of Metrocom (police force) was informed of my dad being drunk… [the police] threw stones at [our] house. They arrested him, then assaulted and beat him inside the precinct. [As it turns out], my father was mistaken for someone else and accused of [their] crime.”
My dad told me that at the time he was arrested, my grandpa “had been newly operated on his right foot and had a wound from getting his tattoos erased.” He was afraid of being mistaken for an ex-convict, a stereotype then attached to anyone with a tattoo. They were thought to be “salot sa lipunan,” or a menace to society.
“The wound from his assault got infected with tetanus, which became his cause of death,” my dad said of my grandpa.
Such was the brazen violence of the military during martial law under Marcos Sr.
“Then, curfew hours were implemented,” my dad recalled. “Everybody had to be home by midnight, or you'd be [jailed] for a few days.”
Activities like drinking alcohol and protesting on the streets were prohibited; any criticism of the government or of the Marcoses was cause for an arrest without a warrant. Despite this, street gangs formed rapidly and caused riots with their homemade guns, forcing my parents and their families to often lock themselves indoors.
It became normal for people in my parents’ lives to “disappear.” Outspoken activists, like one of my mom’s high school friends, were abducted and never heard from again, while others were tortured and killed.
By the early 1980s, martial law had become part of my parents’ “way of life,” something they just had to “live with.” But demonstrations and protests also grew larger and more frequent, usually resulting in violence and arrests.
Starting college in 1984, my mom said it was common for universities to cancel classes because professors and students would join protest rallies. Student activists would go “room to room” in their university, recruiting others to attend the rallies. My mom often joined in hopes of inciting change.
“On my way home from school on February 22, , I saw several members of the army putting valve wire barricades on the roads,” my mom recalled. “Then I heard people say: ‘Giyera na (It’s war), Marcos will be ousted!’ My [family] got scared. Talk about the possible ousting of President Marcos was on television and radio. Military men had guns and surrounded our neighborhood.”
“Days later, our neighbors began walking to Malacañang Palace. My older siblings, three uncles, and I joined them. When we reached [the palace], the guards were still on duty, preventing us from entering. So, people climbed the gates to enter. My siblings and I took our chances and locked our arms with several others who insisted on getting into the palace.”
This was the first time the public accessed the presidential palace in more than 10 years.
“The palace felt huge,” she remembered. “We saw a lot of Imelda [Marcos’] shoes and gowns scattered. The people were furious and destroyed the decors and many of Imelda’s belongings. The Marcoses were no longer there when we arrived. Everyone kept chanting, ‘Tama na, sobra na! (Enough is enough!).’”
In reflecting on the recent elections, my parents fear that the new president’s administration will take after his father’s. They mourn the fight they fought in their youth, afraid that their children might endure the same traumas. Their stories, while not as atrocious as other accounts of torture, killings, and other human rights violations during the dictatorship, reflect a dark moment of fear and uncertainty in our country’s history.
In writing this piece and speaking to my parents, I am left with more questions and fears than answers and hope. I wish I had more of the latter. There is a grief that envelops my heart over the continued demise of fairness and democracy in the Philippines. I sink in guilt that I have not done enough to keep the memories of my parents’ youth alive. I grieve that my actions have fallen short of saving our country. We have failed our parents’ generation.
“I sink in guilt that I have not done enough to keep the memories of my parents’ youth alive. I grieve that my actions have fallen short of saving our country. We have failed our parents’ generation.”
I lament that the waters of this election were muddled by attempts to revise our history through counter-narratives disseminated through social media. I worry that while there are educated youth who know our true history and make it known, there are many who don’t have the resources to deflect the brainwashing plaguing us. Access to knowledge is the perpetual inequality of our nation.
Regrettably, I am part of the brain drain. I am one of the many Filipinos who have fled our nation in search of a better future elsewhere. Mine is a guilt and burden I’m sure is shared by many Filipinos working abroad, vicariously living our nation’s history-making through our screens. Everyday, we disguise our anguish in polite smiles, our country’s calamities reduced to mere small talk as we go about the jobs we have fought so hard to acquire abroad. We mourn in silence, while many also celebrate a victory. A part of me almost envies their feeling of glee.
Election season in the Philippines, like in many other democratic states, offers an opportunity for people to dream of a hopeful future. We look to the leaders vying for our votes to save us from drowning in the quicksand of our present circumstances. And yet, in the four presidential elections I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, it feels like we continue to fall into the perpetual cycle of hope that yields to disappointment and frustration as every new administration fails to live up to its promises. I wonder if I’ll live to see this cycle end.
I find it difficult to be optimistic in these times. Especially as I watch many other nations crumble under the elite’s hunger for power. However, as I allow my grief to run its course and let the tears run dry, I know that the fight for democracy does not end when the last ballot is counted. It continues to be exercised through discussion and educating our countrymen, outlining action steps to preserve our right to the truth and freedom of speech. There’s so much more we can continue to do. We can organize, educate, and continue telling stories.
“As I allow my grief to run its course and let the tears run dry, I know that the fight for democracy does not end when the last ballot is counted.”
I’m skeptical of this upcoming administration. But for the love of my country, I really want to be proven wrong about my fears, and my parents right about their hopes: That history will not repeat itself.
This is the least that my people deserve.
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