What is it about Naga?

(Speech delivered by Mayor Jesse M. Robredo of Naga City at the annual recognition ceremony of martyrs/heroes at the Bantayog Memorial Center, Quezon City on Dec. 2, 2008.)

I am honored by this invitation to speak in this hallowed ground before a crowd of distinguished men and women who have gathered here today to honor our heroes and martyrs.

Given the troubling signs of the times, this is an auspicious moment to once again join our hands together so that never again shall our people be oppressed and return to a deadly turning point in our nation’s history.

Perhaps the reason for me to be here is that I come from Naga, a small city of Bicol martyrs and heroes in the time of rage against a dictatorship since I was a young student in the 70s.

I am proud to have come from the Bicol peninsula, some 400 kilometers south of Manila, whose prominent sons and daughters include Fr. Joaquin Bernas, the late Execuive Secretary Ramon A. Diaz, former House Minority Floorleader and Comelec Chair Ramon H. Felipe Jr., the late Sandiganbayan Justice Francis Garchitorena, the late Sen. Tecla San Andres Ziga, Senator Joker Arroyo and columnist Conrado de Quiros.

It was a forsaken land in search of liberation from poverty and oppression where the blood of a hundred or so young heroes and martyrs were spilled over its abandoned hills and barren farmlands. I can remember some of the names of the heroes of the 70s such as Tony G. Ariado; Jemino L. Balaquiao Jr.; Floro Balce; Alex Belone; Dr. Juan B. Escandor; Romulo Jallores alias Kumander Tangkad, and his brother Ruben, also known as Kumander Benjie; the brothers Ramon, Jesus and Tomas Pilapil; and Nanette Vytiaco, among others. Some of their names, I believe, are etched on this Wall of Remembrance.

I was in third year high school at the Ateneo de Naga when a wounded Romulo Jallores was cornered and peppered with 22 gunshots by Philippine Constabulary agents inside his relative’s apartment along Ateneo Avenue at about 1:30 in the afternoon of December 30, 1971.

Ka Jemino Balaquiao, too, died a horrible death at the hands of Marcos soldiers. While lifeless, his face was desecrated and his bloodied body dragged by a tricycle on the way to the Army camp. His brutal death in 1980 prompted a Naga-based paper to strongly condemn it. The military warned the local paper to cease from further reporting Balaquiao’s death, much more an editorial about it. But Balalong’s editorial writer, the late Atty. Luis General Jr., was unfazed.

Sa pangkasalukuyang sitwasyon, hinihingi na tayo’y manindigan muli para sa karapatan ng mga mamamayan na magkaroon ng pamahalaang tapat na magli-lingkod sa kanila.

On Dr. Juan Escandor’s death, Sister Victoria Miranda wrote with so much pain and sadness:

Why did they still/Gouge out your eye?

                                Was it because your stethoscope/ Made no distinction between a peasant’s

                                Or a rebel’s heart?

                                Was it because you put to knife / Not merely cancers of your well-heeled patients

                                But also the cancer of Motherland?

                                Why did they have to / Gouge out your eye?

While we grieve their death, much more condemn the way they were murdered, we, the living, should not stop ourselves from dedicating our lives to serve the highest interest of our people and our Motherland. Their acts of supreme sacrifice would not be in vain if we continue the fight against any form of deceit, decadence and oppression that are once again threatening or land.

In the present context where I chose to become a public servant, we are sometimes asked, to our amusement, what is it then about Naga, the place and the people? Why do we have brave men and women whose hearts and minds are for the greater glory of their country and fellowmen? Why are they ready to die for their principles and ideals if the times so demand?

Perhaps it has something to do with the place where they come from. Perhaps it is because of their mindset, which tells them that they have a responsibility to do what is right and assert what is true and good for their community and the people who comprise it. In search for an answer myself, allow me to quote a fellow Nagueño whom I can qualify as also one of the heroes of Dekada Sitenta, Atty. Soliman M. Santos Jr. who wrote:

“First of all Naga has a characteristic of expressing in various ways its sentiments of the moment in a continuing quest for meaningful politics and governance. This is the dynamic part of the Naga tradition which also has a conservative religious side. In its history of active citizen’s participation, the Naga citizen answers back to the politico. And there are many venues for such expression, including institutions like the “Jardin” in Plaza Rizal (Naga’s version of Hyde Park or Plaza Miranda), and “the freest press in the Philippines.”

“Naga has a tradition and fondness for political discourse (but again also religious). This leads to openness to new ideas. Naga is pluralist, not purist. Naga is free spirit, as in butterflies are free to let a hundred flowers bloom. Debates are occasions for people to come together.  Along the way, some ideas become experiments like the peace zone and the people’s council.”

“Because of such tradition, Naga has seen generations of politicized elders who have left a legacy of meaningful politics an governance which is a challenge for each new political generation to improve on. Since martial law days, Naga has been fortunate to have militant leaders like Atty. Ramon R. Swan (“the Tañada of Bicol”) and Atty. Luis General Jr. (“the Diokno of Bicol”” who, however, both passed away in recent years.

“The other side of this, of course, is the presence of an active and vibrant NGO-PO community in Naga which is characteristically  pluralist… It was the Naga City NGO-PO Council of the early 90s which held quiet discussions with Mayor Robredo, Kagawad )James) Jacob and other progressive kagawads to conceptualize the “Empowerment Ordinance” creating the Naga people’s Council to maximize the historical moment and LGC-inspired momentum for people’s participation in local governance.”

With these and our strong advocacy for good governance, and in behalf of the people of Naga City, I would like to pay our homage and highest respect to our heroes and martyrs that we are honoring today. Their deaths are for a noble purpose that we ought to carry on with our commitment to continue to unselfishly serve our people in the best way that we can. Let us all be heroes, more so now than ever.