Kuwento

How and why Susan Quimpo became a fearless warrior for young Filipinos

Susan Quimpo signing her book. VERA FILES

She was the fearless warrior who never stopped fighting. Susan Quimpo, friend, comrade, sister, simply would not quit.

She joined the fight against Ferdinand Marcos as a young woman — then led the effort to make sure young Filipinos know, remember and understand what the dictator did to the country.

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Susan Quimpo passed away last week. She was one of the most courageous activists of our generation.

That courage was underscored by the way she left this world: She had been struggling with an illness over the past two years, but she took one more fight, one more battle against another dictator.

The activist who faced off with Marcos did not think twice about taking on another thug, Rodrigo Duterte. It was a fight that quickly became eerily similar to, and in some ways worse than the one our generation faced.

And the urgency of that new battle  was evident in Facebook messages she sent me, especially as the brutality of his regime became clearer.

“If people react fast through a ground swell the martial law or revolutionary government declaration and all its ill effects can be avoided,” she told me amid reports that Duterte was planning a crackdown by declaring a revolutionary government. “Don’t wait for leaders.  Be one.”

Sadly, it was a journey, a fight, whose end Susan would not be able to witness and celebrate.

She died as the new dictatorship was tightening its grip on power. Her journey ended shortly after Duterte signed a cruel ‘anti-terrorism” law to crackdown on anyone who fights back against his regime.

It was the end of a warrior’s journey, bold and awe-inspiring.

We had known each other at UP in the early 1980s, at the height of what eventually became a triumphant battle against the Marcos regime.  We became close years later as we shared insights into what became a shared passion: telling the stories about the fight against dictatorship.

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I wrote a biography of Edgar Jopson in 1989 which was republished as UG, An Underground Tale in 2006. She became interested in the process I went through in putting together the book as she pursued her own project. It was an ambitious narrative about the Martial Law era focused on her own family.

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It quickly became clear to me that it was an important undertaking, and one that I actually related to. That’s because Susan and I shared a similar background. We came from middle class families with hard-working parents who wanted their children to get a good education so they could lead stable, prosperous — and safe — lives.

We were children when Martial Law began in 1972 and we both had and were influenced by older siblings who, with the rise of dictatorship, opted to pursue lives that were neither stable, prosperous, nor safe — who, amid the abuse, thuggery and torture under Marcos, declared: ‘We can’t just stay silent — we have to fight back.’

Susan’s family paid a hefty price for that defiance.

Of the 10 children of her parents, Ishmael and Esperanza Quimpo, seven joined the underground resistance to the fascist dictator Marcos; five were imprisoned; four tortured. One was murdered by the military; another abducted and is presumed dead; another forced to live in exile in Europe.

Subversive Lives is undoubtedly one of the most  compelling and important narratives of the Marcos years.

But it was also just a small part of what Susan wanted to accomplish: to help young Filipinos know, remember and learn from our past.

“My sole purpose is to remember a generation of activists who really gave their all,” she told me in 2013.  “Dapat lang naman. It has to be.”

When Subversive Lives came out in 2012, it had become clear that many young Filipinos didn’t know much about Marcos and weren’t aware of what we had gone through under his dictatorship.

That was when Susan Quimpo was transformed into the leading activist of the Martial Law generation who led the struggle to correct what had been the gravest mistake of our generation: failing to help later generations know, remember and understand how dictatorship wrecked Philippine society.

Writing Subversive Lives was one way to address the problem. But she knew that wasn’t going to be enough. She had to reach out to young Filipinos to inform, educate and engage with them on what had happened to our country under dictatorship.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

How to connect with young people in exploring the Marcos years was a concern she was constantly thinking about. “Tell me how UG has fared with Filipino youth,” she asked me once, referring to my book on Edgar Jopson. “I am constantly thinking of how best to maximize Subversive Lives as a vehicle for informing the youth”

Slogans, like ‘Never Again!’ which became an activist battle cry, can only go so far. “We keep saying, ‘Never Again to Martial Law,’” she told me. “But really… besides ourselves, who actually gets the message?”

To find more effective ways to spread that message, she hit the road, spending time with young people on campuses and other venues.

“I spent much of last year doing a school tour (high school/university) to give talks about martial law during the 40th anniversary of its declaration,” she told me.  It was difficult to connect – but one thing was clear – the kids were interested in Martial Law,  but they really needed a language they could understand.”

We had talked about putting together a new book together with writer Kris Lacaba on the Marcos years geared to millennials and other young Filipinos, But eventually, Susan saw the need for a more direct and dynamic approach.

In early 2016, she helped launch The Martial Law Chronicles, a campaign that featured a more direct, grassroots approach, including a wildly successful exhibit and in-person presentations on high school and college campuses.

She continued reaching out to even more young people in classrooms across the country. She clearly connected with many of them like Matthew Flores, a 10th grader at Xavier School in Manila who talked about what he learned from Quimpo and who shared his insights in a school publication.

“I feel that we are all compelled to become a more socially aware community, to see the parallelism between then and today,” Flores wrote. “After the talk, I was compelled to ask myself, “What am I called to do? What do I do now?’ I believe the best way we can properly honor the Martial Law victims is by making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It is happening again.

Duterte’s election in June 2016 ushered in a new era of brutality, marked by mass killings and a new abusive, authoritarian order. Susan was personally outraged by Duterte’s decision to honor Ferdinand Marcos as a hero worthy of burial at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.

She led a daring, creative campaign, dubbed #BawatBato, in which activists and citizens wrote names of the victims of the dictatorship on stones which they then placed on what was to be Marcos’ gravesite at the Libingan.

“Buti pa nga si Marcos may bangkay, marami ho tulad namin, wala kaming bangkay and we cannot even mourn their death,” she was quoted in a new report, after Marcos was buried at the Libingan, referring to his brother Jan who was made to disappear by the Marcos security forces.

In 2017, Ohio University, where she had earned graduate degrees, published an international edition of Subversive Lives which led to plans for a US tour.

Susan had always understood the importance of the huge Filipino community in the US. She had launched and led Tagalong On-site, a popular and successful program which allowed young Filipino Americans to learn Tagalog while being exposed to Philippine social realities in the urban poor areas or rural communities.

But the 2017 tour unexpectedly turned into a distressing, even painful experience.

Strange things started to happen during the San Francisco leg of her trip. One event got canceled mysteriously and others had to be scaled back amid lies spread about Susan. She was accused of being a red-baiter, whose main goal in the book and the tour is to wage a witch-hunt that would endanger the lives of activists.

These were brazen lies.

In a way the attacks underscored the powerful honesty and sincerity at the core of Subversive Lives, which recounted not just the idealism, courage and sacrifices of the Quimpo siblings, but also their criticisms of the underground left, including its hardline dogmatism and even an alarming capacity for torture and violence.

That antagonized people from the UG left, some of whom hit back at Susan. I denounced what was happening in a column that supported Susan.

But that triggered an even more outrageous attack.

A Bay Area organization, the League of Filipino Students at San Francisco State University, put out a statement titled “A ‘Subversive’ Only in Name, Not in Action” denouncing Susan and me.

To members in the League of Filipino Students at San Francisco State University, to be a ‘subversive’ during a time of neoliberal and violent regimes is quite the opposite of Quimpo and Pimentel’s defensive behavior,” the group said.

In a bizarre argument, the League of Filipino Students sought to draw a connection between Susan’s work to Trump and Duterte: “During this particular political climate when Donald Trump’s neo-fascism is transforming US imperialism globally and in the US, and when Rodrigo Duterte’s state violence reigns with impunity, members of League of Filipino Students at San Francisco State University, insist that subversion cannot take the form of self-aggrandizing via book tours.”

I wrote a follow up column, in which I also invited the LFS to a dialogue. I did not receive a response, but the offer stands today.

It was a strange, troubling skirmish with an organization whose roots can be traced to our time as activists. The League of Filipino Students was one of the leading student activist organizations during the Marcos years, with whom Susan, other activists and I had marched against the dictatorship. The LFS in the US chapter was launched and led by a good friend of mine, Francis Calpotura, who is now a respected social and racial justice activist and community organizer in the US.

But it was also clear to us that the activists who attacked us had been misled. Still, Susan was clearly hurt by the verbal assaults. When she returned home in Manila, she sent a note to friends recalling the tour which she called “a unique opportunity to speak to groups, especially the Filipino American community.

“Sadly, it wasn’t pro Marcos/Duterte supporters who blocked some of my talks in the San Francisco area, but members of the extreme Left,” she said.

Susan returned to the US in 2018 for another book tour which was more successful and was not disrupted like the previous trip. After UG An Underground Tale, my book about Edgar Jopson, was republished last year, we talked about holding a joint book event this year in time for the 50th anniversary of the First Quarter Storm, the 1970 student uprising against Marcos.

The pandemic put an end to that plan. For Susan, who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 2018, time was running out.Susan died on July 14.

There had been times when she seemed frustrated and even discouraged. Another dictatorship was rising, and there was no strong, vibrant activist movement like the one we were part of in the fight against Marcos in the 1980s. The old forms of activism didn’t seem to be working, she lamented.

“Naku, I’m glad you’re not here,” she told me. “Nakakadismaya lang — none of our old methods seem to work anymore.”

But she always managed to remain upbeat. Despite the bizarre, hurtful attacks in San Francisco, she grew excited as she recalled her other interactions with other young Filipino Americans during her 2017 tour.

“Mataas ang interest among Fil-Ams,” she told me. “Doon ako nagulat. Many Fil-Ams are very interested  and that really surprised me.”

She remained consistent and never got tired of one thing: recalling, exploring and warning us about our past, reminding us of the previous order we lived through as young Filipinos, when our people endured abuse, corruption,  torture, brutal thuggery and death.

That horrible past has returned. And Susan knew what had to be done. This was underscored by what she also told in her 2017 message to friends: “Again we are called to defend democracy.”

Paalam at salamat, Susan. Pahinga ka na, Kapatid. Itutuloy namin ang sinimulan mo…Farewell and thanks, Susan. Rest now, sister. We will continue with what you began.

Please join us for an online memorial for Susan Quimp on July 26, Manila Time. You can find more information on the We Remember Susan Quimpo page on Facebook.

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