Born to a middle-class family, Ferdinand Arceo’s many talents brought him various awards from his elementary school days all the way through college. Still, he seemed happiest when helping others especially those who had less in life.
In college, Arceo, called Ferdie, gravitated toward student activism, becoming one of the organizers behind the reform-oriented National Union of Students of the Philippines. He helped out during the rescue operations for victims of the 1969 earthquake disaster in Manila’s Ruby Tower, meriting him a presidential award (but he refused to attend the awarding ceremony).
He read broadly about politics, including the writings of Marx, Lenin and Mao, and Filipino ideologue Jose Maria Sison. These were considered forbidden literature but Arceo went on to discuss them with his friends, believing the ideas were helpful for workers and labor unions. He developed close ties to workers and visited them in their communities. During the summer of 1970, Arceo worked as a parish volunteer in Cagayan de Oro where he gained even more insights into the problems in rural areas.
These personal experiences led him to found the Liga ng mga Demokratikong Atenista (LDA), considered the first radical activist organization in Ateneo. The LDA aimed at raising the political consciousness of Ateneo students and other youths outside the campus by engaging them in discussion groups, and inviting them to teach-ins and eventually, getting them to become involved in the “parliament of the streets,” demonstrations and protest marches. Ateneo activists remember how, with arms locked, they stormed the school administration building in 1971.
When martial law was imposed in 1972, Arceo was about to take his last semester of studies for a humanities degree. But he opted to drop out when school authorities warned him to stop his activism, or he would not be permitted to enrol. Not only that, Arceo decided to join the New People’s Army in Panay island, in order, he said, to avoid being a “sitting duck” – an easy target for the military – and more importantly, to live among the poor and (in his mother’s words) to understand them, know their needs, know their way of life “so I can speak for them, articulate their aspirations.”
The Arceo family was a constant source of support for Ferdie, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father Reginaldo resigned his executive position to be consistent with the principles which his son was upholding. His example inspired the family to have more compassion for the poor. In one of his last letters to them, Ferdie referred to the closeness of their family ties but added: “Let us hope that what will bind us together will not be limited to the confines of consanguinity, but unity based on the things ‘bigger’ than ourselves.”
Exactly eight months after he left home for the Madya-as mountains, Arceo and a companion were shot by policemen along a beach in San Joaquin, Iloilo. The incident was part of an operation by state security forces against “subversives” in Panay. Arceo died at age 21.