‘The Last Jedi’ and a brave man named Father Tito
I was 13 when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977. That makes me a member of the first generation of Star Wars fans. For many Filipinos of my generation, however, the galactic saga, especially the first trilogy, has meant more than just entertaining fantasy films.
By the time the third movie came out in 1983, we were living in a nation in turmoil, slowly rising against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. “Return of the Jedi” was actually released just a few months before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, which unleashed a protest movement that eventually led to the defeat of the Marcos dictatorship.
To be sure, the tale of a group of rebels led by Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker defying odds to take on a powerful empire inspired many of us young activists eager to help put an end to a brutal regime.
But, of course, we didn’t need Star Wars to get fired up. Beyond a Hollywood blockbuster, we were more inspired by the true stories of heroism and sacrifices of Filipinos who opposed the regime.
There were many of them, politicians like Senators Pepe Diokno and Lorenzo Tanada, health activists like Mita Pardo De Tavera, student leaders like Lean Alejandro. And many priests and nuns and religious leaders.
One of them was Marcelito Paez, known simply as Father Tito.
I remember Father Tito as a kind, gentle priest with a sense of humor and a generous spirit. As one of my friends recalled, during the mass campaigns in 1980s, he always made sure there was enough food for organizers and protesters. He always wanted to make a visitor feel welcome. Once, when I had to stay overnight in his diocese in Pampanga, he invited me to a street corner store where we spend the evening just talking over beer and peanuts.
Magaling makisama. Matapang na aktibista. That’s how I remember Father Tito.
There were many others like him: the late Father Joe Dizon and Sister Mariani Dimaranan, Father Nilo Valerio (whom I never met but grew to admire based on the stories of his friends and former comrades.)
I still remember thinking what an honor it was to be fighting alongside brave people like Father Tito.
Activist-poet Mila Aguilar, known and admired by many from my generation by her pen name Clarita Roja, remembered Father Tito as “a jolly good fellow, always smiling and laughing.”
Other activists shared with her fond memories of Father Tito, remembering him as a “palabirong makabayan.” Another former colleague recalled Father Tito’s hopeful smile: “Maaaring isa lamang kami sa mga nakasalamuha mo Padre Tito, subalit sa ngiting puno ng dedikasyon sa pagsulong ng tunay na pagmamahal sa bayan, nag-iwan ka ng pag asa.” (We could be among the few you got to know, Father Tito, but with your smile that was full of dedication to true patriotism you left us hope.)
Three weeks ago, the jolly activist priest with an engaging smile, who continued working to help those struggling against abuse and corruption, was shot dead by an assassin in Nueva Ecija. Father Tito was 72 years old.
I had written so much this year about the slaughter and the bloodshed inspired and at times even instigated by Rodrigo Duterte that I found it hard to write about the death of this courageous man whom I admired and respected.
Then I saw “The Last Jedi.” Yes, it sounds silly. The latest installment in a Hollywood saga that began when I was a young teenager actually moved me to reflect on the death of a friend, a martyr who devoted his life to fighting for human rights.
Father Tito was murdered at a time when human rights are again under siege in the Philippines, under a president who unleashed a killing campaign, who jokes casually about rape and murder and who essentially declared that human rights are irrelevant.
Those of us who lived through the terror under Marcos and who later celebrated his downfall cannot help but ask: How in the world could this happen again? How could yet another fascist leader get away with unleashing a wave of violence and abuse? And how did he manage to make a huge portion of the population believe his regime of lies and violence?
“The Last Jedi” features heroes of the Star Wars saga reflecting on how the destruction of the second Death Star and the death of the evil Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” did not put an end to the threat of the dark side of the force.
How did the evil Snoke and the First Order come to power?
How did Ben Solo, now known as Kylo Ren, Han Solo and Princess Leia’s son, Luke Skywalker’s nephew, end up being transformed into the prince of the dark side?
How could the Jedi and the forces of good be turned once again into a beleaguered rebel force?
“This is not going to go the way you think,” a now elderly Luke Skywalker tells Rey.
Kylo Ren himself tells Rey, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.”
And Yoda, the wise Jedi master who trained Luke Skywalker, tells his one-time apprentice: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
That lesson applies to us, including me and the Filipinos of my generation. It would be an overstatement that many of us believed everything would be okay after the fall of Marcos. (As I mentioned in an earlier column, I actually campaigned for the boycott of the 1986 elections, partly because I agreed with those who were skeptical of Cory Aquino’s ability to implement the necessary reforms even if they went against her family and her class interest.)
Still, it’s clear now that the reforms that needed to be pursued to prevent the rise of another fascist leader never took place. A form of atrophy set in, and we have ended up with yet another thug who, in a time of discontent and unrest, has easily managed to dupe a segment of the population that only he can make things right.
My friend, the journalist Glenda Gloria of Rappler breaks it down in an insightful piece in Rappler:
“We ought to stop romanticizing the people power revolution we mounted 3 decades ago and the norms it embedded in our lives. … Democracy today is not some self-sustaining business that has recurring revenues. Consider it as a start-up swimming in rough waters that needs to innovate, evolve, adapt, learn.
“While it is true that we booted out a dictator 31 years ago, it is also true that we tolerated him for 20 years before that – especially as he held so much promise and potential. Authoritarians past and present seldom come via the backdoor. We usually elect them to office, often nurtured by business and political elites that fool themselves into thinking they could put them under control, and then realize their folly a tad too late.”
One thing has remained true, however: there are still people who, once they realize what’s going on, do not hesitate to resume the fight for human rights.
Like Father Tito.
On her Facebook post honoring him, Mila Aguilar, the activist-poet known as Clarita Roja, said: “His death will not be in vain, Benjie. We shall make sure of that. .. For every martyr they kill, ten more arise. I believed that then, and I believe it now.”
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