When farmer and activist Danilo Arjona was killed on January 22, 1987, he left behind a wife and five children. He was shot in the head and the bullet passed through his skull cleanly. It’s a detail that has remained in his widow’s memory for the last 24 years.
Danilo’s widow, Teresita, or “Nanay” Tess, can only be comforted by the knowledge that her husband’s death was not ordinary – “Namatay siyang nakikibaka para sa lupa,” she says simply, and even as her smile is sad, her eyes light up in pride.
Two decades have past but Nanay Tess vividly remembers what happened that day. She is unlikely to ever forget, she says, because the reasons why they marched to Malacañang then are the same reasons why farmers continue to hold protests and rallies and why so many others have been killed.
“There were no signs that violence could erupt,” Nanay Tess says. Contrary to the assertions made by police and military men who testified in the 1987 People’s Commission on the Mendiola Massacre established by the Cory Aquino government, she says that the farmers did not shout slogans demanding blood and violence.
“Everyone was shouting the usual slogans calling for genuine agrarian reform and land for the tiller, but no one was calling for violence. If I had any idea that there was going to be violence, Danilo would not have let me come, much less bring my mother with me,” she explains. Danilo, she remembers, was a marshal during the rally, and as such she did not join him in the frontlines.
She says his last words to her were instructions. “He told me to stay put and not wander around. He didn’t want my mother and I to get lost in the crowd. There were so many of us there, and I didn’t want to get lost either so I obeyed,” she says. She kept in the middle part of the throng and from there she could clearly hear and even see what was happening in the front. She saw that there were many men in military and police uniforms, but she didn’t find any reason to worry because, as she says, the farmers went to Mendiola to remind “Ma’am Cory” of her promises. “Hindi kami pumunta dun para maghanap ng gulo.”
The negotiations between the Kilusang Magbubukid (KMP) leaders and officials of the police and military were ongoing when the shooting started, she says. Could she have been mistaken? The Supreme Court in a 1993 decision on the massacre upheld findings that there were no negotiations between the farmers and the armed forces that day.
“No, there were negotiations. Everyone stood still, trying to listen to what was being discussed. I also saw my husband in front, and he was also paying attention to the negotiations.”
Then the bullets started to fall. At first it was like a gentle but deadly drizzle that soon turned into a monsoon rain. Nanay Tess tightly wound her hand around her mother’s own and ran.
“Everyone was running, running every which way. All I could think of was getting to Lawton where the caravan vehicles were; that and returning to my children. I didn’t know what happened to Danilo, I didn’t see if he was able to run or get away. I was crying as I ran and I didn’t immediately notice that my mother and I were both barefoot. The streets were littered with slippers and bags and streamers and placards. People were yelling, but I didn’t know if it was in pain or in outrage,” she says.
Nanay Tess herself felt rage when she saw, even as she ran for safety, that there were “owner-type” jeeps driving alongside the protestors who were scurrying for safety. “They were shooting at us, at everyone who was running!” she says, anger in her eyes, in her voice.
The casualties would without doubt have been more if all the bullets the military and police fired that day were real. It was found out later that they used rubber and plastic bullets, and though these were not fatal, they were enough to raise bruises that would hurt for days after.
By the time they reached Lawton, Nanay Tess thought she would collapse. All that kept her going was her determination to take her mother to safety and to return to her children. Her tears kept flowing as she worried for Danilo and the others, but there was nothing else to be done. The jeepney their farmers’ group rented immediately left bearing Nanay Tess, the owner and a few others. Its driver thought it wiser to leave without waiting for the others because he saw that the police were still running after the survivors and arresting them.
Safe at home in Pagsanjan, the news trickled in: Danilo had been killed. Members of the KMP hastened to comfort Nanay Tess and her children, and Danilo’s remains were taken to Mt. Carmel Church in Quezon City along with the bodies of the other victims of the massacre.
The Aquino government extended no assistance, expressed no sympathy. Not a single flower to the Arjona family and not once in the 24 years that have passed has Nanay Tess forgotten.
“We survived because of the KMP’s help, because the Kilusan gave us succor. I was forced to leave the land my husband and I tilled as tenants because I could no longer take care of it. We had five young children, the eldest was only 12, the youngest five. I had to find other means to secure our survival,” she says.
She has since worked as a washerwoman, a bean picker, and as a rice field worker during harvest season. Her earnings were never enough, and only one of her and Danilo’s children was able to finish high school. It has been a hard life, but not once did she blame the KMP or the mass movement for what happened.
“Pumunta kami sa Mendiola dahil may mga hinaing kaming mga magsasaka. Pinangakuan kami ng lupa, pero bala ang ibinigay sa amin. Pinatay ang asawa ko dahil naggigiit siya ng lupa at katarungan para sa mga magsasakang tulad naming. Lahat ng kahirapang dinanas ko at ng aking mga anak ay dala ng pagtutol ng gobyerno na ibigay ang lupa sa mga magsasaka.”
Through the years she continued to join peasant group activities led by KMP and its formations in Southern Tagalog. She lost touch in 2009 and 2010, however, but earlier this month, she saw a jeepney in Laguna with a KMP sign on it, as well as a sticker proclaiming the just and righteous struggle for genuine agrarian reform. Nanay Tess was overjoyed, and she waited for someone to come. KMP deputy secretary general Willy Marbella arrived — the KMP had been visiting the community — and he secured Nanay Tess’s promise to join the activities commemorating the 24th anniversary of the massacre.
Nanay Tess is now 52 years old, and on Saturday, January 22, she lit a candle for her husband and for the 12 others who were killed in Mendiola.
“I did not expect the government to help us, but I did expect that it would bring justice for those who were killed. Nothing like this happened. Now it’s Noynoy Aquino who is president. We can only hope that he will be able to do what his mother failed to do. Those who shot and killed my husband and the others, those who ordered the police and the military to begin shooting, they have all gotten away without punishment. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that he right the wrongs his mother’s government committed against the farmers. It’s not too much to demand justice, the same way that it’s not too much to demand that those who till the land should own it.”