What Storytelling Gives Us

February 11, 2019
Anna Cabe

I was visiting my cousins some months ago in Pampanga. I had arrived in Metro Manila on a Fulbright Grant to research martial law, particularly the student activists at institutions like the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila, for my long-gestating novel.

As an American-born Filipino, I had learned nothing about it growing up, although my father had lived near the University of Santo Tomas in the seventies and eighties and his brothers had witnessed students getting dispersed by tear gas, and had brought sandwiches to protestors on EDSA during People Power. My cousins, however, though born and raised in the Philippines, professed to know little about martial law and said that they were eager to read my work. I soon discovered the reason for this lack of knowledge.

Some blamed it on education—the  higher attrition rates and a reduced and whitewashed history curriculum. A few people I talked to who are in their late twenties to mid-thirties said martial law was barely covered at all during their school years.

Martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, it bears repeating, happened not too long ago. Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081 on September 21, 1972.  The EDSA Revolution happened less than 35 years ago, which culminated in the departure of the Marcoses on February 25, 1986. The activists I’ve interviewed are only in their fifties and sixties. Over 3,000 people were killed, according to Amnesty International. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines recorded about 398 who disappeared from 1965 to 1986.  Thousands were arrested without trial or charges, and many of that number were tortured.

In the United States, ignorance about martial law is probably less of a surprise. The American government, in its crusade against communism, supported the Marcoses, but the United States is a country dedicated to its vision of itself as exceptional, even as its history and the current American moment indicate otherwise.

What this phenomenon of deliberate forgetting in both countries suggests is that it’s most expedient for the powers that be to invest in a history that benefits them. The Marcos family and their cronies remain active in electoral politics and refuse to make amends for their past deeds, all while actively rewriting history to minimize them. For instance, Imee Marcos has suggested that people her age should move on from the Marcos dictatorship, just as millennials have supposedly done. When asked to clarify her remarks, she claims her family has apologized many times already.

Her family, however,  has yet to return the billions of dollars plundered from national coffers. Furthermore, this claim that her family has apologized conflicts with their allies’ continuing efforts to minimize what happened under her parents’ regime. In a conversation with Bongbong Marcos released on the eve of the forty-fifth anniversary of the declaration of martial law, Marcos’s  former defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile said, “Name me one that we executed other than [suspected drug lord] Lim Seng. There was none. Name me one person who was arrested because of political or religious belief. None. Name me one person who was arrested simply because they criticized President Marcos. None.” This challenge was rebuked from several corners by people very much alive, who remember being detained for their political opposition.

Nevertheless, the Marcoses and their allies seem committed to making martial law cool or at least benign, while forgetting all the plunder, deaths, disappearances, and torture that occurred—just as how Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is obsessed with an idealized vision of America’s past that conveniently erases chattel slavery, American suppression of Native Americans, Japanese internment, colonization of the Philippines, and other state-sanctioned ills.

What is the result of the powerful’s attempts to revise history? Well, in the United States, we have an administration that embodies white supremacy, homophobia, and misogyny; that imprisons children in camps, elects a sexual predator to the highest court in the land, and seizes what protections the LGBTQIA community had won away; that supports its “Great America” at the expense of people who don’t fit its vision. And the Philippines? The Rodrigo Duterte administration has overseen an explosion of extrajudicial killings concentrated in marginalized populations, sanctions against politicians, journalists, and Catholic clergy who oppose its policies, and legislation that may criminalize children as young as twelve instead of addressing poverty and other societal factors that often drive crime—all supposedly in support of a Philippines without drugs, without drug addicts and dealers, and with more order. A “New Society,” if you will.

Allowing people, especially of younger generations, to remain ignorant of the past is not harmless. It is, for the powerful, a way to augment their power, to point at a false past and say, “We can be like this again.” It allows a past that sees Manifest Destiny, the fruitful homesteads in the American West, but not the Native Americans whom they dispossessed. It allows a past that sees Imelda Marcos’s edifices and not the poor people who built them, sometimes at the cost of their lives. It allows a past that just sees the “trouble” that protests cause, and not the thousands of dead or missing left by the supposed “order” that followed.

When we meet people who don’t know what martial law was, it’s necessary to remember that personal failings are not to blame for this unawareness. We sometimes over-emphasize individual effort at the expense of recognizing the systems that make this ignorance possible and desirable. After all, a “New Society” and a “Great America” require an unwittingly forgetful populace. We must willfully remember, but how can we combat this systemic historical revisionism?

An institutionalized problem requires a multi-pronged solution, so we each have to find our own way. For me, I write my novel for those, like my cousins, who are open to knowing about martial law. Since coming to the Philippines, I have seen that there are people who will willingly share their experiences of martial law, and people who are willing to learn from them. The information is out there; a Google search of “martial law in Philippines” returns over 22 million results.

But martial law didn’t mean anything to me until I met the people behind the numbers and heard or read their stories. This history didn’t become real until, through their words, I learned what it meant to give their youth to the struggle, to hope for a different world. It did not become real until I learned of their friends who didn’t make it out whole and alive, and what they had been like as people, their dreams for the future, before they became casualties in a time before I was born.

What this storytelling gives us are other narratives, ones with enough heft to outweigh the lies spoonfed to us. Writing allows me—and all the people I’ve met who write about martial law and any other painful chapter in our countries’ pasts—a way to rewrite this false history. We wrest it away from those who dictate it to us, and we make it truer, make it alive, make it ours.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of School of Humanities or the Ateneo de Manila University.