Crispin Beltran was born a poor man, lived a life of service, and when it was done, he left this world still with but a few coins in his name just as when he started, but making a mark despite himself.
His parents were farmers in a small town in Albay province. Crispin was already in grade school when the Japanese invaded the country. The ensuing war interrupted the bright young boy’s schooling. The 9-year-old boy scout volunteered for the anti-Japanese resistance, eventually earning for him a youngest-courier award from the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
He graduated salutatorian in grade school, and also with honors in high school. He also showed leadership qualities, serving as official in his class and in the student council.
After high school, he moved to Manila to try his luck there. He did two years of college, found jobs as a janitor and messenger, but eventually ended up earning a living as a taxi driver.
Several years after he started with the Manila Yellow Taxi Company, Crispin joined the union, seeing a chance for blue-collar workers like him to work for a decent livelihood through united action. By 1955, when he was 22 years old, he helped establish a federation of taxi drivers’ unions, called the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Association. He was elected president and held the post for eight years.
As a young union leader, he had a chance to attend labor education courses at the University of the Philippines. He steadily gained a greater grasp of issues and the options that surrounded labor. When Philippine unionism saw a boost in the late 1950s, Crispin’s leadership grew even more notable, serving as vice-president of a Philippine Workers Congress in 1956, and in 1957-1958, of the Confederation of Labor of the Philippines which he co-founded.
Crispin was 26 when he met his future wife Rosa, a rural girl who had run away from home and had serendipitously taken his taxi. The meeting would become a life-long relationship and partnership.
The Marcos regime transformed Crispin. Faced with an increasingly autocratic government, Crispin whose concerns had been focused on workers’ welfare, started to see other issues, threats to his country’s democracy and nationhood, echoes of those war cries raised in the days of his youth.
The dictatorship banned many of labor’s few allowed activities, such as assemblies, pickets and strikes, and even unionism itself. Ranks of workers and unionists swelled the anti-Marcos resistance and open opposition. This led to the arrest, abduction and even assassination of scores of labor leaders.
Crispin, now a popular figure called “Ka Bel” by friends and fellow unionists, quietly but firmly helped reshape the local labor movement into a force that would contribute in opposing the dictatorship. He and other labor leaders, notably the charismatic Felixberto Olalia Sr., established the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) in 1980. Within two years KMU had 750,000 members, and KMU forces swelled the ranks of protesters in rallies and demonstrations in Metro Manila and other major cities in the country where labor was a significant sector.
Marcos ordered the arrests of labor leaders in 1982, leading to the imprisonment of both Ka Bel and Olalia. Ka Bel escaped in 1984 and went into hiding. He emerged after the Marcos dictatorship fell and the new Aquino government came into power.
Instead of resting on his sterling achievements as a labor leader, Ka Bel went on to break new ground. In 1987, he tried his hand at national politics, running for senator under the short-lived Partido ng Bayan. He lost the elections but won over 1.5 million votes, a testament to this person with the humble beginnings’ growing nationwide popularity. He was elected chair of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) from 1993-1999.
He continued to serve his first love, the labor movement. He served in KMU as national president from 1987 to 2001, taking the place of assassinated KMU president, lawyer Rolando Olalia, son of his erstwhile comrade at arms in the labor movement.
When the party-list system went into effect, Ka Bel took a seat in Congress in 2001 as representative of the poor for the party list Bayan Muna and later for another party-list Anakpawis. In Congress, he authored and co-authored resolutions in behalf of the poor in his country. He worked by the standard that people’s taxes must be used well and honesty. He earned the ire of President Gloria Arroyo who in February 2006 had him arrested for rebellion, and detained for one and a half years until the charges against him were declared by the Supreme Court baseless. While he was in prison, rallies calling for his release were held in many countries such as Germany and the Netherlands to Japan and Australia.
His staunch advocacy for the labor sector and the poor, his love for country, and the simple decency with which he bore himself earned him the respect of a broad section of the population, pedestrians as well as politicians. On his death by a freak accident in 2008, his family would receive thousands of condolences from within the country and abroad, expressing grief at his untimely death and admiration for the person he was. Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim had a marker built in Ka Bel’s honor at the historic Plaza Miranda, also declaring the day of his death, May 20th, as “Ka Beltran’s Day.”
Circumstances of death
On that foul day when it happened, the news had warned of a powerful storm coming. Ka Bel, worried that the roof of his house might not stand the winds, took out the ladder and climbed up the roof to try to do repairs. Unfortunately, the 75-year-old, stout-hearted unionist, slipped and fell, and his broken body could not survive the fall.
Impact of life and death
Expressions of grief and sympathy poured in from here and abroad. The necrological service was the biggest known held at the House of Representatives. His wake drew 50,000 visitors, and the funeral march, some 30,000. Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. called him a “torchbearer,” and former senator, now president, Benigno Aquino III, said he felt Ka Bel’s sincerity.
The impact Ka Bel had on the ordinary Filipino is best illustrated by an account of a young woman who had never met him. In a newspaper column, this young person wrote that she had gone to the Quiapo market on her father’s request to buy flowers for Ka Bel’s wake. Quiapo’s flower vendors, learning who the flowers were for, all pitched in and prepared a beautiful wreath for free, adding still another bouquet of chrysanthemums, because Ka Bel, they said, was their champion.
A country, it is said, is known by the kind of heroes it honors (from speech of Sen. Jovito R. Salonga, delivered during the first Bantayog ng mga Bayani celebration, November 30, 1992). Crispin Beltran served his country as a leader of laborers and a fighter for their rights and welfare. He taught them they should not fight only for themselves or their union, but for their country and their fellow Filipinos. Ka Bel stayed true to his course, not lulled by his accomplishments, not giving in to the temptations of power, bribery or even threats, defying even the demands of age.
For nine years a representative of the working class in the Philippine Congress, Ka Bel had the right to add the word “Honorable” before his name. In his case, however, it was a true description of his character, a rare occurrence in Philippine Congress by most accounts. All Filipinos would be proud to see this truly honorable man included in their roster of modern-day Filipino heroes.