Among his many involvements in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, Nicanor R. Gonzales is most remembered for his work among teachers in Davao and Southern Mindanao. Among them, he was venerably called “Sir Nick”.
Nonoy and Nick among family and friends, Nicanor was a native of Davao City, born on April 02, 1940. Born to a poor family, he was the eldest of nine children and grew up taking care of his siblings. He went through the public school system for his elementary and secondary education and went on to earn an Elementary Education teacher’s degree from the Harvardian College in Davao City.
It was as a young teacher at the city’s Calinan District in the 1960s that Nick’s concern for teachers began to show. A colleague recalls how Nick, during district meetings, voiced out his concerns about school policies. He later became a member of the nationalist organization Kabataang Makabayan and helped organize its chapter in Davao City. He was also involved with the labor sector through the Young Christian Workers and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW). Nick helped organize the employees of the House of Magno, the city’s first department store, which went on a yearlong strike in 1969. Among the employees was Camila Bacalla who later became his wife and life partner. They got married in 1971.
This was also the advent of activism and Nick joined rallies and demonstrations along with other students and workers organizations. The Gonzales family residence served as some kind of headquarters where activists met and congregated. When the writ of habeas corpus was suspended in 1971, the local KM temporarily went underground as members contemplated going to the countryside as martial law loomed in the horizon. Martial law came a year later and Nick was forced to go underground in the countryside, leaving his wife and infant son behind. Initially, he organized the farmers and indigenous people in the mountains of Paquibato area and later, workers in Butuan, enlightening them on their rights and the evils of martial law. Eventually he found his way to Cagayan de Oro which became his base of operation. His wife and son were able to join him there but security considerations made the family move back to Davao City.
Nick was arrested by the Philippine Constabulary in Tagum on December 31, 1975. He was moved from one military facility and safehouse to another. For a month-and-a-half, he was kept incommunicado and subjected to interrogation and various forms of torture – beatings, water cure, insertion of needles on his nails, Russian roulette.
By the middle of February 1976, he was taken to Camp Alagar in Cagayan de Oro City where he was detained until his release in September 9, 1976. So severe was the torture that it permanently impaired his hearing and resulted in an abnormal growth on his skull. He was so traumatized by what he went through that many years later, he refused to allow the installation of window grills in their newly built house because these brought him memories of prison.
After his release, he started working with the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference but continued to work for the struggle against the dictatorship, contributing articles for underground publications and translating other articles to Visayan.
Eventually, he was able to return to teaching in Davao City. He started organizing teachers in the public schools, raising their consciousness towards defining their role in social transformation. With the deepening crisis of the martial law regime in the early 80s, the teachers’ struggles for educational reforms were linked to the bigger national issues. Nick led the conduct of study sessions, indoor forums, participation in street marches and pickets.
In 1982, despite warnings from the Education Ministry, public school teachers in sixteen school districts in Davao City joined a nationwide strike to press for salary increases. The strike was the first ever such activity in the city, a political statement from the teachers who did this not only to fight for their rights but also to show their defiance of the repressive Marcos regime. Nick always reminded them that fighting for their rights is not rebellion. His dedication and selflessness were an inspiration to the teachers. Parallel union organizing work was also going on in the private schools, with Nick among the moving spirits.
Worsening economic and social conditions, militarization and unbounded human rights abuses were arising in the province then. Nick was instrumental in getting the ranks of the educators to support mass actions against the dictatorship. To keep him away from his organizing work among teachers, he was offered promotions, even monetary inducements by school officials but Nick remained steadfast in his commitment. His torture related hearing impairment was no deterrent in the pursuit of his commitment of freedom and democracy for all.
The teacher militancy soon spread to Southern Mindanao and to other parts of Mindanao and later gave birth to the Kahugpungan sa Magtutudlo ug Kawani sa Edukasyon sa Mindanao (Group of Teachers and Education Workers in Mindanao) or the KAMKEM, the local chapter of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT). Nick became KAMKEM’s chairman. He helped organize the Davao City Public Elementary School Teachers Association (DCPESTA). The militancy continued until the end of the dictatorship and beyond as the teachers continued to press on for better benefits, salaries and other conditions. But real improvements in their lot came about after the ouster of the dictatorship
After the fall of the Marcos regime, Nick became active in the fight for justice for the victims of the regime. He helped organize fellow ex-detainees and document cases for the class action suit against Marcos and became the local chairman for Southern Mindanao of the Samahan ng mga Ex-Detainees Laban saDetensyon at para sa Amnestiya (SELDA). He also became a director of the Nonoy Librado Development Foundation, a labor center.
Nick’s organizing work left little time for him to spend with family but his wife and children understood and were supportive of his work. He made sure that time with them were memorable. He always brings home pasalubong and would spend weekends with them, often at the beach. His children, too young to know at the time, realized the full import of his work much later when they had become professionals or activists themselves and became associated with the people Nick worked with.
Nick retired from teaching in 2005. Fragile health and age may have slowed him down but he continued to work for teachers, joining their meetings and lobbying for their benefits.
When he died in 2007, his family was surprised by the number of people who turned up for his wake and funeral. The biggest group were the teachers who mourned the passing not only of a colleague but a champion of their rights. People who came spoke glowingly of him and his work and various involvements. The KAMKEM awarded him with the Gawad Dakilang Guro “for leading with all humility the organizations he was in and working beyond the four walls of the classroom.” He was also given the honorary Gawad Diego Silang Award for his support of women’s cause and in his role for seeking social change. Writing for a local paper, a writer paid tribute to Sir Nick which highlighted his work for the teachers. The writer described his relationship with teachers as one “that defined a selfless activist whose wisdom and guidance are valued by those he served, whose commitment to social change is an inspiration to many.”
Nicanor R. Gonzales Jr. was 67 when he died on May 25, 2007. He left behind his wife and four children and several grandchildren.