Joel Cecilio Ozarraga Jose was among the best and the brightest of his generation. He gave up a promising career in favour of a dangerous but noble life of fighting the Marcos tyranny and for a free country.
Raised in a middle class family in Matina, Davao City, Joel is the youngest of five children of a government engineer father and a pharmacist mother. He attended Ateneo de Davao from elementary to high school, graduating in 1967. He was an altar boy, and would wake up early in the morning to do sacristan duties in a local church in Davao City. He loved music, often playing musical instruments together with his sister Teresita. “He played the violin while I played the piano,” she recalls.
History of political involvement
Joel had a critical mind even as a child, and he found answers to his many questions when he was an engineering student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He became active in the anti-Marcos dictatorship as one of the members of the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).The discussion groups launched by the SDK about school issues, national issues, political economy and other topics helped broaden Joel Jose’s social awareness.
The First Quarter Storm (FQS) of 1970 swept the streets of Metro Manila with a series of mass actions participated by tens of thousands of people coming from different sectors to protest against the oil price hikes, increase of prices of basic commodities, graft and corruption in the government and the excessive spending of public money to reelect Marcos as president. Joel Jose was with the FQS crowd and helped in mobilizing thousands of workers and students.
Joel immersed himself with the workers in the picketlines to learn about their condition and bring their issues to a broader audience for public support. With other activists, he met with workers and residents of urban poor communities in Caloocan, Navotas and Bulacan,to organize and educate them of their rights.
Heeding the call to broaden and intensify the people’s struggles not only against Marcos but against other social problems besetting the country, Joel left the university and went back to Davao in 1971. He chaired the SDK for Mindanao and led the establishment of SDK chapters in different schools and communities in and outside Davao City. SDK also forged an alliance with the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and other progressive organizations in the Davao region to launch people’s marches and other mass actions in protest against the anti-poor and pro-foreign policies of the Marcos regime. One such mass protest that Joel and his comrades joined was over the killing of Edgar Ang Sinco, a student activist from the University of Mindanao (UM) who was killed in a picketline at the gate of the UM campus itself.
Joel’s name was blacklisted by the Marcos forces and he had to go underground upon the declaration of Martial Law. He was eventually arrested with other comrades in May 1973 while organizing the farmers in Maragusan, Compostela Valley. Kept incommunicado for two weeks, Joel was tortured by his captors. When finally shown to the media, his swollen face was hardly recognizable due to severe blows. Released in July 1974, Joel left for Western Mindanao to continue the struggle against the dictatorship.
It was in the Zamboanga Peninsula in Western Mindanao that the brilliance of Joel, then known as “Sendong,” was dreaded by the military but deeply loved by the masses. “He was not a public speaker but he was very good at social investigation and education,” said Ma. Loreto Abella, his wife, with whom he bore two children. Joel pioneered in making surveys, putting into graphic presentation the face of exploitation of the ruling class making it easily understandable to the masses in remote areas of the country, Abella added.
The Subanen tribe resided in the most interior and forested part of the peninsula, while the settler-farmers, who traced their ancestry from Luzon and the Visayas islands, occupied the lower parts. The people grew vegetables, coconut, rubber, corn and rice. In these areas, the name “Sendong” resounded as the man who led the people in the campaign to reduce the land rent paid to the landlords and against the coco levy imposed by Marcos and his cronies. In all these gains, Joel and his comrades showed the people the power of collective action through what was later popularly known as “hunglos.”*
By his physical appearance – he was six feet tall and fair-skinned – Sendong was obviously not one of those with whom he loved and lived. But it was not a handicap for him. “He can easily integrate with them. He easily learned their language and communicated like one of them”, Abella said. Just like anybody else in the camp, he fetched water, gathered firewood and never complained of heavy load and long walks. “He was a simple man, cool-tempered, soft-spoken and considerate to his comrades”, said Nacianceno Mejos Pacalioga, one of Sendong’s comrades. Pacalioga is now a municipal official in a Zamboanga del Sur town.
His being a son of a pharmacist mother was a plus factor in his organizing work. He had a ready prescription for the locals’ illnesses, utilizing the medicines donated by his family and those from other sources around the region. He combined the synthetic medicine and those found in the area, earning him the reputation of a “people’s doctor.”
Despite its distance from Manila, Zamboanga Peninsula did not escape the brutalities of Marcos’ martial law. Hamletting, a military tactic of forcibly grouping the households into public village centers, was imposed in the remote barangays of Zamboanga del Norte and other provinces in the peninsula. The farmers and all their family members had to be in the hamlets by 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Anybody who was seen in the farms beyond this time was shot by government forces. Aside from hamletting, other forms of military brutalities were also unleashed in the peninsula. Communities were bombed and strafed, and farmers’ houses were burned by the military. Reports of rape of women and children were also documented.
Amidst all these, Sendong took charge in providing his comrades and the people the morale and practical guidance on how to face or evade persecutions. He also took special care of the vulnerable Subanen who marched with them, especially the old, the weak and the children. “He was there to buoy our spirit and give us the strength to never give up,” said a comrade, Girlyn Pacalioga.
Circumstances of death
Joel was often heard saying “I cannot imagine myself living away from the masses.” Indeed, he did not leave Western Mindanao since his arrival in 1974 until 1987 when he represented the region in a meeting with the peace talk negotiators. On May 19, 1987, Sendong was in a consultation meeting when their group was attacked by the military in San Isidro, Mawab, Compostela Valley. He was killed along with another NDF consultant, Fr. Roberto Salac (Bantayog honouree, 2015). His family and friends were able to retrieve his decomposing body three days later.
For helping them regain their dignity and rights, the name Ka Sendong remains etched in the hearts and minds of many people in Western Mindanao.
(*Hunglos is a Cebuano term for people’s collective action that aims to accumulate strength of the weak to attain a common objective. In Zamboanga Peninsula it means gathering the farmers and indigenous peoples (15-20 members) to undertake the land preparation, farm maintenance and harvesting of crops. Today, hunglos is still seen as a viable method especially for the cash-strapped farmers and is practiced in Misamis Occidental and its nearby towns.)
Born June 3, 1951 in Davao City
Died May 19, 1987 in Mawab, Compostela Valley
Parents Perfecto O. Jose (deceased), engineer, and Lourdes S. Ozarraga (deceased), pharmacist
Siblings Four (1 brother, 3 sisters) Birth order of martyr: youngest
Spouse Maria Loreto Abella
Children Two daughters (Cecilia and Maria)
Elementary Ateneo de Davao, Matina, Davao City, 1958-1963
High School Ateneo de Davao, Matina, Davao City, 1963-1967
College University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, 1967-1969
Bantayog profile forms submitted by Ma. Loreto Abella-Lopez and Teresita J. Bonguyan
Ma. Loreto Abella-Lopez (widow), Fe Salino and Anita Morales, July 20, 2015
Bobby Roldan, September 8, 2016
Agapito Gaddi, August 2015
Hon. Nacianceno and Girlyn Pacalioga, August 2016, Makati City
Affidavit by Ma. Loreto Abella-Lopez, widow, August 7, 2014, Davao City
Testimony by Juan Perez III,M.D., friend, August 29, 2015
Testimony by Alex Birondo, friend, July, 2015