My boss, favorite labor leader/mass leader, kaibigan and pinakamamahal na kasama Anakpawis Rep. Crispin Beltran died earlier today, a little before noon after sustaining massive head injuries. No he wasn’t felled by bullets by assassins sent by the military or the government; he died because he hit his head on the pavement when he fell off the roof of his house in Bulacan. He was fixing it, most probably because it’s the typhoon season and he didn’t want to risk water leaking through fissures or cracks and flooding his and Ka Osang’s house.
Am trying to be calm about it, because in my grief I am angry. Angry because his death was so senseless — it’s silly even! Had his fall not been fatal and had he only broken a leg or a shoulder, the entire accident would have been turned into an anecdote, a cautionary tale – one of the stories one tells about the big hearted, kind, compassionate but often stubborn great labor leader that he is. Was. I wonder how long it will be until I begin referring to Ka Bel in the past tense?
But nevermind my anger. What happened — his being on the roof, a 75-year old man with a hammer, doing household work and making sure his home and family were safe from the rains — is (was?) so like Ka Bel. He lived and worked from day to day always with meaningful intent, with purpose, with the aim to protect and defend those he cared for and loved the most. And that purpose extended (oh how it it did reach outward and forward like an undeniable force of nature!) beyond his family — he embraced the working class, the Filipino people, and even the poor and oppressed of other nations.
He was a good guy. He liked to laugh- with others and even at himself. He laughed like a little boy with a good secret and he was tickled pink by it. He had a smile that made you forgive his sometimes outrageous comments (often directed against the likes of de facto president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, DOJ secretary Raul Gonzalez, national security adviser Noberto Gonzales and Executive secretary Eduardo Ermita as well as certain officials of the House of Representatives). He was self-effacing and self-deprecating when it came to his own achievements, and in his commitment and opposition against what he he referred to as ‘the evil government’ he was fierce and fearless. He was an internationalist, a man with the highest socialist ideals, and he lived and practiced what he believed in on a daily basis. He was a good father and husband, nevermind that he was never a good provider. He shared what he had with others, be it the last crumpled P20 bill in his battered wallet, or his wide knowledge of history, politics and economics. (Those who knew him best also knew better than to start a discussion with Ka Bel about the state of the nation or the state of the economy of whatever other country — Ka Bel loved discourse, and loved a healthy discussion. Often he’d risk being late for committee hearings or plenary because he’d gotten so involved in conversations with visitors. Thank goodness his staff are persistent – they had no qualms about dragging Ka Bel away and shooing him off to his appointments.)
I worked with and for Ka Bel for more than a decade. I became one of his staff when he was still the chairman of the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) back in 1995; and when he was elected to his first term as a party-list representative of Bayan Muna in 2001, I joined his office first as his media officer, and eventually as his chief of staff. This was a post I maintained when he got elected to his second and third term under Anakpawis until I moved to the NDFP-Nominated Section in the Joint Monitoring Commitee late in 2007. That’s a total of 12 years! I’m now 32, and I am proud to say that my most formative years as a writer, as an activist have been shaped and influenced by the likes of Ka Bel. Twelve years, and every day of it was a great honor to serve such a sincere, humble and highly-intelligent and deeply committed servant of the people.
I have to admit that this day is a day that I’ve long feared would come. Ka Bel wasn’t young, and he had diabetes and hypertension, and the last two years had been so stressful for him because of his unjust and illegal incarceration on trumped-up charges of rebellion. I feared that the day would come when I wouldn’t hear his voice anymore in the rallies or in the plenary hall of the House of Representatives. When I wouldn’t hear his laugh or see his smile and have him grasp my hand tightly in his as he asks how I’m doing. When the Philippine labor movement would lose its staunchest, most fearless leader.
Well, that day has arrived, and no matter how I’ve prepared myself for it mentally, emotionally it’s still quite, quite difficult to bear.
For posterity – my article on Ka Bel and Ka Osang which came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine in 2002:
For the last two decades, the name Crispin B. Beltran has been associated with pickets, demonstrations, strikes, and generally everything connected to the militant labor movement. Not surprising with him being the chairman of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). Since August of 2001, however, he has become known as something else – a member of one of the biggest, most influential bastions of conservatism in the country, the House of Representatives.
From 2001-2003, he was one of three Bayan Muna solons. From 2004 up to present, he now stands as the chairman and representative for labor and urban poor concerns of the Anakpawis partylist. Ka Bel breathes, lives and practices the politics of change and nationalism with the same fervor he does as a leader of the parliament of the streets.
But no less interesting than his politics is his personal life. His love life alone is the stuff of movies, megged by the late Lino Brocka or Ysmael Bernal, crossed with Jose Javier Reyes.
Since 1956, Ka Bel has been married to the former Rosario Soto from Malolos, Bulacan. There’s a joke circulating around activist circles that goes “Ka Bel is a voice who should be heard in the Lower House, but in his own house, it’s Ka Osang whom he listens to.”
This is their love story.
Ka Osang is the product of a broken home. Her parents separated early in her childhood, and as the youngest among the three children, she was left to an elderly relative, her father’s aunt who lived in Gagalangin, Tondo. Ka Osang grew up wanting for nothing – she was given new dresses and jewelry whenever she asked for them. But in exchange, she had to be obedient to the very strict, and sometimes unreasonable rules of her grandmother. She was entered in La Concepcion, a convent- school, and was told never to look at members of the opposite sex. “Wala talaga akong kaalam-alam sa mga lalaki nun. Si Papa lang at yung mga kapatid ko ang pwede kong kausapin.”
But the great aunt and the nuns combined were not able to curb the young girl’s adventurous spirit. One morning, On November 10, 1956 she cut classes and together with a few classmates, sneaked into a moviehouse.
“Pinanood namin si Nida Blanca at si Nestor de Villa. Pero pag-uwi ko, nalaman na ni Lola ang ginawa ko. Matindi ang naging away,” she says. In turned out that the Mother Superior herself came to the house and told her grandmother of what happened. Livid at being lied to, the grandmother slapped Ka Osang and told her to leave. And that’s what she did.
By 12 noonshe was wandering around Quiapo, with nothing but the clothes on her back and the other piece which her enraged grandmother threw at Ka Osang as she left the house.
In a daze, she entered into one of the taxis that was parked in front of Plaza Miranda. The driver was the man who would be her husband, the then 26-year old Crispin.
“Napansin kong bata pa siya, at medyo tulala,” was his first impression. He asked her where she was going. Still reeling from her experience, she answered ‘Derecho ka lang.”
They had reached Monumento, but she still hadn’t given Ka Bel specific directions. He stopped the taxi and turned to face her. Ka Osang remembers, “Naiinis na sya. ‘Saan ba talaga tayo?” sabi niya. Ako naman, wala sa sarili, naiyak na. Sinabi ko na yung nangyari.”
Ka Bel was very sympathetic. She reminded him of his sisters back home in Bacacay, Albay. He looked at her with compassion, and told her that he would drive her home. He also urged her to apologize to her Lola, “Masama magtanim ng galit sa kapamilya.”
Ka Osang shook her head and made a move to get out. By then, night had fallen. Ka Bel refused to let her go – “May masama pang mangyari sa iyo – parang wala kang kaalam-alam sa mundo.”
So he took her to his boarding house in San Juan where he lived with a few others, and told her to stay the night. She stayed there, in Ka Bel’s room, for three days.
“Tulala lang ako, nakatingin sa labas ng bintana. Kain, tulog, tatanga sa bintana, iiyak, matutulog. Sa susunod na araw, ganun na naman.”
She was alone most of the time, as Ka Bel drove the taxi all day, and at night attended school at the Asian Labor Education Center at the University of the Philippines. When he got home at night, she would already be asleep, on a low, wide bench that served as a bed, while Ka Bel had his own bed across the room.
“Ni hindi ko alam ang pangalan nya nun. Ang tawag ko sa kanya kuya,” Ka Osang recollects, laughing. Did she ever get a crush on him? ”Wala akong pakialam talaga sa kanya nun, ang iniisip ko lang sarili ko. Pero napaka-maalalahanin niya.” It was at that time when Ka Bel gave her what she calls his first gift.
“Dilaw na sepilyong naka-kahon. May tatak na Good Morning.”
On the third day, Ka Osang wanted to go home But not wanting to further inconvenience Ka Bel, she left the house without telling him.
“Nang malaman ng papa ko kung saan ako napunta noong naglayas ako, galit na galit siya! Pinuntuhan nila yung bahay ni Ka Bel, tapos binugbog siya. Wala naman akong magawa.” Ka Bel was taken to the municipal jail in San Juan and was accused of abusing a minor. Though it was already the late 1950s, no woman would be caught alone in the company of a man if they weren’t sweethearts. And it was already a scandal if they stayed in the same room together alone. Ka Osang stayed in Ka Bel’s room for three days.
In short, they had to get married. Ka Bel could have easily refused, but he didn’t. He knew that if he refused, Ka Osang would be disgraced. “Kaya kinasal kami. Walang pag-ibig nun. Ayaw ko talaga, iniirapan ko siya, sinusungitan. Pero siya, bukas ang isip. Sabi niya, napag-aaralan naman ang pag-ibig.”
And soon enough, she did learn to love her husband. Initially it was because he was a good provider (“Sweldo niya sa pagmamaneho ng taxi, buo kung ibigay sa akin, kasama resibo”), but later on it was for himself. She learned to love him for his gentleness with the children, his sense of humor (“Malambing yan, makwento”), patience (“Nang magsama kami, di ako marunong maglaba o magluto – siya ang gumagawa nun. Tinuruan lang niya ako, hati kami sa gawaing bahay”),and inevitably, for his politics which he had long before embraced.
“Malaking dahilan yun. Kasabay ng pagkilala ko sa kanya bilang asawa, nakilala ko din siya bilang lider manggagawa. Noong una, hindi ako payag – lagi na lang siya ginagabi, o minsan di talaga umuwi, kesyo may mga seminar daw. Madalas kaming mag-away,” she says. “Nang maintindihan ko na yung trabaho niya, nagkaroon ng mas malalim na dimensyon ang pagmamahal at respeto ko sa kanya.”
But Ka Bel was ever-patient. He continually explained to her his work, and what it meant. Even in his early 20s, he had become a full-fledged labor leader. He became president of the Yellow Taxi Drivers’ Union and the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Federation from 1955-1963. From 1963-1972, he was Vice-administrator of the Confederation of Labor Unions of the Philippines, and then vice-president of the Philippine Alliance of Nationalist Organizations (PANALO) which became the Alliance of Nationalist Genuine Labor Organizations (ANGLO), affiliated under the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) whose establishment on May 1, 1980, signaled the labor movement’s all-out war against the Marcos dictatorship.
Throughout her husband’s growing activism, Ka Osang strove to be supportive. Her love for Ka Bel and the life he had chosen was severely tested, however, in August 1982 when Ka Bel along with other labor leaders was arrested by the military.
“Sampu na ang anak namin nang ikulong siya. Wala kaming pera, maliban dun sa binibigay ng mga kasamahan sa KMU. Nagtitinda-tinda din ako nun sa palengke – isda, tsinelas. Minsan din binibigyan kami ng bigas at gatas ng mga madre na sumusuporta kay Ka Bel at sa ibang mga political prisoners,” she says.
By then they were living in a squatters’ community in Gao, Commonwealth, Quezon City, where they still live to this day. Ka Osang would walk from Commonwealth to Crame where Ka Bel was detained.
For two years, Ka Osang not only became the mother and father to their children, but also proxy labor leader: she delivered Ka Bel’s speeches for him in the rallies, and became a volunteer for Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP). She studied acupressure and acupuncture, and applied what she learned whenever she went to Crame and Muntinlupa, where other poldets were incarcerated. Along with the wives, daughters, and relatives of other political prisoners, Ka Osang lobbied for their release.
But the Marcos government was adamant. No way would it release one of its prized captives. Ka Bel was then KMU secretary general, and the president, one of the original pillars of the labor movement in the country Felixberto ‘Ka Bert’ Olalia was also under custody.
By 1984, Ka Bert had already succumbed to the constant torture of the military, as well as the dampness of the jail cells. He died of pneumonia.
“Dun na talaga ako natakot. May sakit na rin si Ka Bel nun – sa kidney naman. Ayaw siyang bigyan ng maayos na tulong medikal sa kulungan, kaya lumala yung kundisyon niya habang tumatagal. Si Ka Bert namatay na, ayaw kong masunod si Ka Bel,” Ka Osang narrated. She took action.
In Crame, she consulted with her husband and hatched a plan of escape. Ka Bel would come home for a few hours’ visit for the supposed birthday of a young nephew, then from there make his way to freedom.
Then she went to Ka Bel’s lawyers – Attys. Joker Arroyo and Rene Saguisag. “Sinabi ko sa kanilang wag pumunta sa hearing ng kaso si Ka Bel. Sa araw na yung tatakas si Ka Bel.”
The two men were incredulous – they thought Ka Osang was joking. “Tinanong nila ako – handa ba akong mabugbog?” Sagot ko, oo. Handa ka bang mamatay? Oo. Ang mahalaga makalaya siya. Pero di pa rin sila naniwala. ”
On the day of the children’s party, neighbors and friends came and pretended to celebrate. Ka Bel arrived with his guards. Beforehand, he and Ka Osang agreed on a sign – after putting down his second bottle of beer, he would make his move. He downed his second beer (“Yung beer para malabanan ang kaba – takot kasi siya para sa akin”) . There wasn’t a chance to say good-bye. He excused himself under the pretext of having to urinate. When he got to the toilet, he pulled out the piece of loose board, and squeezed himself through a rough hole made in the wall. Then his guards noticed the inordinately long time Ka Bel was taking. They broke down the toilet door and saw the gaping hole. They quickly turned on Ka Osang and began beating her.
“Suntok, sampal, sabunot. Di ko na malaman kung ano ang mas masakit, yung mukha ko ba, yung dibdib,” she remembers. They punched her in the stomach and dragged her outside, to the public basketball court which was a few meters walk from the house.
“Tinadyakan ako. Akala nila sasaklolohan ako ni Ka Bel kung marinig niya ang mga sigaw ko. Pero malayo na sya noon.”
For a month or so after, soldiers would be stationed around the house, and the house became a virtual garrison. But Ka Osang was unfazed. One time, a burly soldier asked her for a glass of water. She ignored the request.
“Namura ko yung sundalo. Sabi ko, ang dami-daming kriminal na nagkalat – sa Malacanang lang ang dami na – pero bakit kami ang binabantayan?’
Ka Bel went into hiding in Central Luzon. It’s something of a legend in the labor movement that he was taken in by members of the New People’s Army who heard of his escape. For two years, he took shelter with the rebels and took the nom de guerre “Ka Anto” after one of the fathers of the labor movement, Crisanto Evangelista.But instead of an armalite, Ka Anto carried a portable typewriter.
“Sa mga bahay na sinisilungan ng hukbo, may mga batang nasa high school. Ginawa nila akong taga-makinilya. Ako yung nagta-type ng mga assignment at term paper nila,” he says smiling.
Every three to five months, Ka Osang would visit her husband. It was a complicated process, and very tiring. She went on her pilgrimage to Central Luzon until the Marcos was ousted via People Power on February 25. When Corazon Aquino became president, she ordered the release of all political prisoners, and in particular mentioned Ka Bel.
Ka Osang herself went to take her husband home.
On hindsight, Ka Osang wonders where she got her strength. “Siguro dahil lagi akong sabik makita sya kaya di ko na pinansin yung pagod,” she says. But more importantly, she adds, she was bouyed by the knowledge that her husband was an inspiration to many. “Naging aktibista na rin ang ibang anak namin. Walang galit sa mga anak namin kahit may panahong lumaki silang walang tatay – alam nila kung ano ang pinaglalaban ng ama nila.”
And what does Ka Bel have to say about his wife?
He recites a few lines from the song Kasama by Gary Granada: “Hindi lang siya kaibigan, di lang siya kapatid. Di lang kasintahan, o kaisang-dibdib. Di lang siya asawa, o inang uliran. Siya’y aking kasama, sa mapagpalayang kilusan.”
In private, they call each other ‘Ma’ and ‘Daddy.’ He says Ka Osang has a sharp tongue. “Istrikto sya sa mga bata. Pero pag may nagka-problema ang kahit sino sa kanila, bibitawan ang lahat. Kahit sakit ng sarili niyang katawan, nakakalimutan niya,” he says. A grandson, 17-year old Cris, agrees. “Si Lola lang ang laging nanenermon, si Lolo, tahimik lang. Pero spoiled kaming lahat sa kanilang dalawa.”
Ka Bel says he is well-taken care of. Ka Osang insists on preparing his clothes every morning, whether it’s the round-collar shirts he wears to rallies, or the barong tagalogs for Congress. “Alam ko kung hindi siya ang naglalaba ng damit ko. Iba ang pakiramdam.”
She is also his chief confidante. He shares with her the details of his day – the rallies he marched in, the general mass assemblies of the local unions he has attended, and lately, about the Congress committee meetings and other legislative functions he goes to. “Siya naman kinukwento sa akin ang kakulitan ng mga apo namin,” he shares.
For a couple whose meeting and marriage are unusual at the least, Ka Bel and Ka Osang’s marriage is solid and loving. Proof of this is their 10 children, who, in turn, have given them 27 grandchildren. Oh, Osang says cheekily, there were times when Ka Bel was younger, he did a bit of fooling around, but he always returned to her. That was when the first three children were very young, and Ka Bel and Ka Osang had frequent quarrels (“Pero nagsisi naman siya – nag-kursillo sa simbahan, naging sakristan pa nga!”).
They don’t like going to movies – more often, they would just the two of them go to Bulacan and visit relatives. Every two years or so, they would travel to Albay.
Still very much like the 15-year old he rescued 48 years ago, Ka Osang becomes petulant when Ka Bel breaks his promises. “Minsan sobrang busy yan, di kami makapuntang Bulacan,” she scolds.
“Pero naiintindihan ko din. Nami-miss ko lang naman siya. Marami kasi akong kahati sa kanya, ang mga manggagawa at ang sambayanan.” #