Three sisters preceded Jesus, so that when his devoutly Catholic mother became pregnant again, she vowed that, if she had a son this time, she would name him after Jesus Christ. The family resided in San Carlos City, Pangasinan.
Jesus was born with one blind eye due to congenital cataract. His mother, who tended to be over-protective because of his disability, made herself his first-grade teacher. But in his young as well as adult life, Jesus never let this disability stop him. Jesus also kept changing the name he was born with.
Jesus, or Jess to friends, joined the Student Alliance for Nationalist Democracy (STAND) in 1971 when he was only a third-year high school student.
In college, his organizations included the Alpha Sigma fraternity and the Political Science Club, where he pursued his own brand of activism. In particular, he grappled with the problem of fraternity wars and sought to direct the fraternities’ energies into more positive expressions, such as social activism. He became a popular activist leader in the Diliman campus of UP.
After martial law was declared in 1972, activism became more difficult. Jess and his activist friends, undaunted by the martial law edicts prohibiting associations and gathering in groups, as well as by the proliferation of spies in campus, secretly went about organizing student opposition to martial law. Jess became a key figure in building the anti-martial law forces at UP from 1972 to 1976. Soon, the campus was alive with activities pushing for student rights and welfare.
After graduation from college, Jess had the option to take up law as his father wanted, or find a cushioned job using his family and fraternity connections, and his own personal attributes and good education.
Instead, Jess pursued clandestine organizing against martial law. Now known in the underground circles as Ka Tembong, Jess frequented Manila’s university belt. He also enroled in a graduate program at the University of the East to facilitate his entry into what was then the university with the largest student population.
By 1977, the university belt was noisy with student protests and boycott calls against tuition fee increases, a feat that can partly be attributed to Jess’ organizing skills. Then Jess and his comrades dared to defy martial law and moved to launch open protest rallies. Jess acted as the central command in one held in front of the Adamson University and another at the Avenida Rizal. As expected, the rallies were dispersed with truncheons and water cannons.
But the students and student leaders who participated in these rallies learned from the experience and became seasoned protesters. These protest actions that Jess helped organize can be said to have helped break the terror effect of martial law among Metro Manila’s student population. Moreover, as these students graduated and spread across the country, many later became participants and even leaders in the widespread anti-Marcos protests that were sparked by the assassination of the late senator Benigno Aquino.
The following year, 1978, the Marcos regime called for “interim” parliamentary elections. Jess by then has shifted to organizing among the urban poor of Tondo. He had become Ka Nol among the members of the Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO). By way of testing the waters, progressive groups fielded several candidates, including politicians Ninoy Aquino, Aquilino Pimentel, and Tito Guingona, community leader Trinidad Herrera, student leader Gerardo Barrican, and labor leader Alex Boncayao.
Jess was part of the core group that coordinated and directed this electoral campaign. They called on the people to vote for the anti-martial law candidates, and to act boldly to protect their ballots. When the Marcos regime rigged the elections, massive protests erupted, culminating in a historic noise barrage on April 6, 1978.
After the electoral campaign and the ensuing protests, Jess and his comrades dove back into the quiet work of building anti-martial law opposition among Metro Manila residents. They clandestinely distributed opposition newsletters, carried on discussions in the privacy of residences, built core groups, searched for new contacts, and so on.
In 1981, with the visit of Pope Paul II to Manila, massive protests were planned in order to highlight the repressive conditions under martial law. Jess was selected coordinator and ground commander of highly successful protest actions, including one around the Quezon City Memorial Circle.
After Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983, rage against martial law rose to higher and higher levels. This time, Jess, now called Ka Les in his circles, was given the task of directing the student movement nationwide. As a result of his leadership, thousands of students from various schools in Metro Manila joined the almost weekly mobilizations against martial law for the next three years. In many occasions, students actually formed the bulk of the mobilizations, again a quiet testament to Jess’ planning and organizing skills.
After martial law was dismantled in 1986, Jess stayed in the underground for a few more years. By the mid-1990s, Jess decided to test the broader “democratic space” and surfaced. At first he found work as consultant to various local leaders and executives, including Governor Oscar Orbos of Pangasinan. In 1998, he joined the staff of Senator Gregorio Honasan as a senior member. He stayed with the senator’s team up to 2004, then moved to support the presidential bid of Fernando Poe Jr. Later he helped launch the United Opposition and became active in the Kilusang Makabayang Ekonomista.
Jess was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2007. He died from complications arising from the disease four months later. During his wake and after, friends wrote of him and sent in their tribute.
Writer Noel Pangilinan recalled an occasion when in fun, friends threw their Ka Nol into the deep-end of a swimming pool. It turned out that Jess couldn’t swim and had to be towed in. But his worried friends couldn’t help but laugh and hoot when Jess, rising from the gutter, coughing and hair and face dripping, said offhandedly: “Ang babaw!”
Political and economic analyst Filomeno Santa Ana said that Jess’ life fits the song from the Sound of Music: “Climb every mountain, search high and low, follow every byway, every path you know, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.”
Jess used many names in his life. But he lived that life much like his great namesake, working for the poor and helping establish peace and justice in the world, climbing every mountain, and in the process, touching many lives.