Herbert Cayunda was born and raised in Davao City, and the eldest of eight children. His father drove a jeepney and ran a machine repair shop while his mother prepared and sold native delicacies in Davao City’s Bangkerohan district. Herbert helped the family by selling dried fish in the market.
Herbert took a chemical engineering course in college. But he spent a lot of time in artistic activities. He drew well, sang well, and played the guitar well. At the University of Mindanao, he joined the UM Dramatic Guild then under the directorship of Aurelio Peña, a former editor of the Mindanao Collegian.
The wave of student activism nationwide had reached the UM, where a student reawakening was also becoming evident. The UM dramatic guild featured plays by Filipino playwrights (as contrasted to foreign playwrights.) Herbert performed in full theater productions for “Wanted: A Chaperon,” by Wilfrido Ma. Guerero, and “The World is an Apple” and “New Yorker in Tondo” by Alberto Florentino. The guild held roadshow presentations and gave training to aspiring actors from other UM branches. Herbert attended intensive workshops in acting and stage directing.
History of political involvement
As student activists made their presence more and more felt in the national political scene, so did they in Davao.
Herbert joined the Samahang Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK) and was mostly active in its cultural arm, the Gintong Silahis (GS). He started directing street plays that depicted Philippine society’s ills. His group got invited and performed during protest demonstrations. Herbert was a good organizer of students. He was also creative, able to use his visual, theatrical and musical skills to convey and explain concepts and ideas.
In early 1971, UM students launched a strike over campus issues. It was February, in one such rally that a speaker from the students, Edgar Ang Sinco (Bantayog martyr), was shot and killed by a policeman. The violence enraged the students. They went on a rampage along the streets of Davao City. They found their way towards Claro M. Recto street, where the United States Service Library was located and which the students saw was a symbol of “US imperialism.”
Herbert was in the thick of what came to be called in Davao student lingo, the “Battle of Claro M. Recto.” For his participation in this incident, the university put Herbert’s name in the school blacklist.
But AngSinco’s death drove Herbert into a resolution. He would become a fulltime artist-activist.
That year he joined a newly-formed group of social realist artists and students, the Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista at Arkitekto (NPAA). Herbert helped create the murals and posters usually brought in mass actions, or as visual aids for teach-ins. The murals usually depicted images of farmers struggling for land reform, or workers demanding just wages, or various people calling for government reforms. He talked with uninvolved professionals in Davao to join the protests.
In the crackdown that accompanied Marcos’ installation of his dictatorship, Herbert was one of six students arrested on November 10, 1972, in Indangan, Davao City. (They became known as the “Indangan Group” by fellow activists.) Arrested with Herbert was fellow activist Fe Carreon, then his girlfriend.
Fe Carreon, in a testimony submitted to Bantayog, described how Herbert was beaten up by their military captors to force information out of him. Herbert bore the abuse and stayed silent. And despite the fact he was tortured and in pain, he used the time every afternoon when all prisoners were taken out of their cells and allowed to come together, to give a musical performance, thus propping up the morale of his fellow prisoners.
He and Fe were kept in prison for nine months. Released in August 1973, Herbert and Fe left Davao City and proceeded instead to faraway Dipolog City in Zamboanga del Norte. The two comrades got married and continued with their lives as activists. Herbert continued to teach art and art techniques, and how to use art to raise awareness, to learn about US imperialism, and so on.
He and Fe also lived in other cities such as Dipolog, Ozamis, and Iligan. Herbert became part of an editorial team putting out an underground newspaper to resist the dictator’s censorship. He translated articles (English or Tagalog to Bisaya) to make them accessible to the underground newspapers’ readers, who were often factory workers.
The two were living in Iligan when they were again arrested in September1974. Herbert was again tortured. Their imprisonment lasted five months.
After their release, they went to the countryside and lived with the lumads where they became exposed to issues faced by indigenous communities, such as politicians or logging and mining concessions driving them out of their ancestral lands, military abuses, very little government attention, and so on.
Here Herbert’s contribution was more basic: teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills, health and hygiene. He also discussed about their human rights.
Unfortunately, the communities he worked in were not all welcoming with these efforts. On August 15, 1975, he and several others were invited for a political discussion in barangay Nanganangan, Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur. But his group was met by the Ilaga, a paramilitary unit operating in Mindanao. They were ambushed as they walked along a river, and two were killed: Herbert and an unnamed woman. Those who survived the ambush later reported that Herbert’s head was cut off from his body and displayed at a military detachment in Dumalinao town. His family never recovered his body. He was 31 years old the day he died.
Impact of death on his family and community
Fe, who was somewhere else at the time, learned of Herbert’s death a month later. Since his body was not recovered, he is reported as a victim of enforced disappearance. Fellow activists gave him tribute, who to this day, express admiration for this artist and budding stage actor’s offer of life for a cause he believed in.