Martial Law Babies: Lidy Nacpil, to live for more than oneself
(3rd in a series of profiles of Martial Law Babies as we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the martial law declaration in September. This is the generation Marcos tried and failed to mold into his version of the Hitler Youth. They fought his dictatorship instead.)
We didn’t expect to live long back then. Dying young was possible. After all, we grew up under a dictatorship so brutal and with so little respect for life that many of us from the martial law generation believed that if we wanted to help end it, we had to give up a lot for the fight — including our lives.
For Lidy Nacpil, that became real on September 19, 1987. What was painfully ironic was that the dictatorship had already been overthrown then. But the fascists were still around and there were still forces who shared the dictator’s disdain for democracy and who targeted those who were fighting to preserve and expand it — like her husband, Lean Alejandro.
On that day, Lidy returned home to find the sitter of their 6-month-old daughter, Rusan, waiting for her at the door. She was in tears. “Ate, si kuya na-ambush daw po. He was ambushed,” she told Lidy.
“My first thought was that she said ‘ambush.’ So I was really hoping that it did not mean he was dead. So I said, ‘Sabi saan dinala. Where was he taken?’ I was so afraid of asking point blank: ‘Buhay pa ba? Is he still alive?’”
But the sitter confirmed her worst fear: “Namatay na daw po. He died.”
Death of Martial Law Baby
Lean had just led a press conference before the attack to share plans for the upcoming 15th anniversary of the declaration of martial law. He and several companions were about to drive into their office on Rosal Street in Cubao, when a van pulled up next to the car. Then the assassins opened fire.
Rosal Street is about a mile away from our house in Cubao. I actually remember hearing the shots, though I did not think much about it initially. Only an hour later did I realize its significance when a friend called and said she heard a radio report about the ambush.
I drove to the office, which had been abandoned by the time I arrived. There was blood on the driveway. The staff, including friends of mine, had retreated to a nearby office of a major human rights coalition in New Manila.
We were in shock. A brilliant leader, the most inspiring symbol of the Martial Law generation, was gone.
Friends and family joined Lidy at the morgue for what she recalls as “a nightmare into the night.” Lean’s face was shattered in the attack. “What I did was not look at where he was badly damaged and just concentrated on looking at parts of his body and his face that were intact,” she said. “Vivid na vivid ang memories ko noong panahong iyon. My memories of that day are still vivid. I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”
‘There is so much to do’
I last saw Lidy in person in 2007 when we commemorated Lean’s 20th death anniversary in Quezon City. By then, her activism had expanded in scope, focused not only on social justice and human rights issues in the Philippines, but also on a grim global concern: climate change.
In 2012, when I posted a Facebook note celebrating Barack Obama’s reelection despite misgivings about some of his policies, Lidy posted a comment: “Boying, hope he will have a far, far better position on climate change and U.S. cuts on its emissions than he took during his first term.”
When we talked last week for this series on Martial Law Babies, the urgency of the climate change battle clearly informed her own updated view of activism — and the sacrifices one must be willing to make in the fight for change.
We were in our late 20s when Lean was assassinated 35 years ago. Most of us are now in our late 50s or early 60s. When we were younger, being prepared to die for the cause, for the struggle against dictatorship was a given. But things are different now, Lidy told me.
“The sacrifices and what we are willing to give up, nag iiba iba iyan. It changes,” Lidy said. “At that time for us, the biggest was you were willing to risk your life.”
“Ngayon ang challenge para sa akin, the challenge today is: You have to live long because there’s so much to do — and to pass on. We cannot recklessly risk our lives today. That’s not what is being asked for. The times are different. The needs are different.”
Young Filipinos fight back
Lidy was a high school freshman at UP High when martial law was declared in September 1972. After a long break from school after Marcos seized power, she returned to a campus where there were “whispers” of students and teachers who had been arrested. But she had been vaguely aware of the protests and the unrest. She and her schoolmates didn’t have a clear idea of what was going on.
“That’s why we were called Martial Law Babies. We were just babies, not literally in age but in consciousness.”
Although she would later be known as a UP student leader, it was actually through her church and groups like the Student Christian Movement that she became exposed to political activism.
In fact, she was initially unimpressed with the first student activists she encountered in Diliman. “I used to see small groups of students marching down the corridors of Palma Hall, sloganeering. I used to think, ‘Ano ba naman iyan, ang babaw. Paano mo mababago ang lipunan kung nagsisigaw ka lang diyan? It was shallow. How will you change society by just yelling slogans?”
She laughed at the memory, adding, “If that’s all we were going to do as students, do marches and shout slogans, I wasn’t interested. I was looking for something deeper and more profound.”
Eventually, she found it.
The marches and the slogans turned out to be just one part of a broader and more dynamic activist movement that was at that time starting to push back against the dictatorship. And these efforts, the years of testing the limits and pushing back against the regime — which had led to arrests and even the death of Philippine Collegian editor Ditto Sarmiento — eventually produced victories. By the time Lidy entered UP Diliman, students, after years of struggle, had reclaimed their right to elect their own student councils and other campus rights.
It was around that time that she met Lean. They would later share a scary experience — though one that they would later talk about lightheartedly.
It happened in 1980 when Lidy and Lean joined a major student demonstration at Liwasang Bonifacio. The rally was violently dispersed. “Nadapa ako sa dispersal. I fell during the dispersal. I vaguely remember someone helping me get up and then I ran.”
She didn’t see and had no idea who helped her up. But Lean later told her that it was him — and he actually paid a price for it. “Tatruncheonin ako ng pulis pero sinangga ng kamay niya. I was about to get hit with a truncheon when he blocked it with his hand.”
Lean was wearing a Rado watch which got smashed in this act of chivalry. “His father had given it to him, so it was valuable. Kaya sabi niya, ‘Ikaw ang dahilan kung bakit nabasag. You’re the reason it got smashed.”
Remembering that made Lidy laugh.
A brilliant, quirky leader
I still fondly remember Lean as a brilliant, inspiring activist — intelligent, articulate, charismatic. He was a young leader brimming with confidence who could give a firebrand speech at a rally at Mendiola Bridge and also engage in serious political discussions with established political figures like Lorenzo Tanada and Pepe Diokno.
He was also a humble, patient young leader. During a rally shortly after the Aquino assassination, when he was not yet a nationally known figure, I saw Lean defuse a situation in the crowd where some impatient protesters started throwing little stones at other protesters who had decided to stand up see what was going on at the main stage.
“Huwag po. Magkakainitan lang po tayo niyan. Sir, please don’t do that. It will just make things worse,” Lean said calmly, successfully convincing the irritated rallyists to settle down.
I also remember Lean for his quirks and unorthodox style. He used to walk around Diliman in faded jeans and flip flops. He was known as a computer geek and an avid fan of chess, The Lord of the Rings and Fiddler on the Roof.
Like many of us back then, he was a chain smoker — perhaps because many of us didn’t think we would lead long lives, so why not smoke our lungs away. We were prepared to go all in so to speak.
In fact, Lean famously said: “The line of fire is the place of honor.” The day he was assassinated, Lean was reading Antonio Gramsci, the Italian revolutionary who is also famous for the quote, “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born.”
For Lidy, it is the first sentence of what Gramsci said that truly resonates more than 30 years later. The world indeed is dying — and there is much to be done.
The climate justice activist
Lidy became involved in the climate justice movement about 15 years ago. As one of the leaders of the Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development, she has emerged as one of Asia’s leading voices in the movement.
That fight has become harder since the pandemic began. When the UN Climate Change Conference was held last year without the participation of countries in the Global South, she was among those who spoke out. “The conference has long been dominated by wealthy governments and corporate interests, thus it’s always an intense effort to raise the voices, perspectives and calls of people and communities, especially those from the Global South,” she said.
It is a different kind of struggle — one that poses a host of unique tougher challenges.
“Ang pinaglalaban mo on the one hand is for things not to get worse in terms of climate impact. You’re fighting for things not to get worse in terms of the climate. On the other hand, you want to establish systems where there’s more equality and where people will have a better chance of a good livelihood. “
“Pero iyong real impact of climate change, hindi mo na iyan mare-reverse. The real impact of climate change can no longer be reversed. What we’re telling people is hindi na tayo babalik sa dati. Ang ginagawa natin ay pigilang mas lumala pa. We cannot go back to the past. We’re working to prevent things from getting worse.”
It would be hard to imagine a time when there are no super typhoons, she said. There is, in a way, the element of making people fearful of what could happen.
“That’s not the easiest thing to do. Mas madaling sabihin sa tao, ‘Lumaban tayo dito para mawala iyan’ imbes na ‘Lumaban tayo para hindi lumala.’ It’s easier to tell people, ‘Let’s fight to make this go away,’ instead of ‘Let’s fight so things don’t get worse.’”
But today’s generation of climate change activists also are “blessed,” she said. Activists from earlier generations had laid the foundation for the fight — similar to the way our generation learned a lot from the experiences of earlier activists and leaders like Tanada and Diokno.
Lidy became involved in the climate justice movement a decade after the 1992 international conference which helped make clear the dangers the world faced and establish basic principles on how nations should respond.
“Nagugulat nga ako kung paano ba naipanalo iyan noong 1992 and 1993, those progressive provisions and principles. Kasi ngayon they are very useful for us. I was surprised and wondered how they were able to win progressive provisions and principles, because they are really helping us now.”
Her past as a Martial Law Baby, and a veteran of the struggle that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship has also helped. A key lesson from our time as Martial Law Babies is top of mind for Lidy in the battle for climate justice: You have to keep pushing — even when the odds seem overwhelming.
“From our experience in the fight during the dictatorship, you learn to widen and push the edges of these platforms and these opportunities. Hindi ka pwedeng magkasya doon sa ito lang iyong binigay sa iyo. You must never settle and accept what they say they can offer you. You push for more so you can have more space to raise your voices.
“Maganda iyong discipline natin as activists sa Pilipinas. The discipline we developed as activists in the Philippines was helpful. We were very broad-minded in terms of tactics, strategies, and alliance work. … What we experienced during martial law, what we learned about struggle, about strategies and tactics, these are very useful in taking on all these global problems and fights and institutions and arenas. “
For example, she said, with movements in some countries, there is a dichotomy between “those who just believe in mobilizations, mass actions and radical slogans and those who just do policy advocacy and do the nitty gritty of negotiations.”
That’s not how she was trained as an activist. In a way, the lesson goes back to her initial reaction to UP activists, those who held loud marches in Diliman — which she subsequently realized were just one part of a broader and deeper movement. Marches and pickets were just as important as other tasks, from studying an issue to formulating a policy and position and engaging negotiations to achieve a goal.
“Para sa Pinoy, lahat yan kasama. For Filipinos, that’s all combined. Those are all needed.”
‘We rose to the occasion.’
There’s another lesson Lidy shared and it’s related to how we all remember Lean. “Lean had extraordinary and outstanding traits,” she said. But in honoring his memory, we shouldn’t idealize who he was.
“Ang hirap kasing naghohold up tayo ng icons minsan kasi baka ma-frustrate lang. Holding up people as icons is sometimes not helpful. It may just lead to frustration. Not everybody can be a Lean Alejandro.”
And not everyone has to be a Lean Alejandro, she said. That’s a key lesson from the martial law generation. Many of us weren’t. But that didn’t matter.
“I think the most important story of our generation is that most of us were just your average youth. The thing that was extraordinary about us is that we rose to the occasion. We weren’t particularly more intelligent. Mas sharper pa nga sila ngayon e. Young people today are even sharper. The knowledge base is much larger now. The technology is there. They are faster in dealing with all the technology.
“But we rose to the occasion. We realized that we had more than ourselves to live for.”
And that’s what she hopes young Filipinos today will keep in mind, she said — that “they realize that they have to live for more than themselves. And that they rise to the occasion, whatever the occasion demands, whatever the times now demand from them. It doesn’t take extraordinary things. It’s your willingness and readiness and there are many ways that you can contribute.”
In a way, the idea of “giving your life” for the cause — “medyo abstract na. It’s a bit abstract now,” Lidy said. “That means many different things.”
“Ako nga ang iniisip ko, I want to last as long as it takes until there is a fresh resurgence of movements and struggles so we can pass on whatever knowledge and wisdom we gained from our experiences. ”