Pastor “Sonny” Mesina was the youngest in a brood of six. He was born in Davao where his father was then a government building official. When Sonny was five, the family moved to Pasay, and here Sonny studied at the Jose Rizal Elementary School where his mother taught music and home economics.
He liked to do scientific experiments, and in 1966, won a scholarship for admission to the Philippine Science High School (PSHS). Students in this school were chosen through exacting examinations. Sonny was among PSHS’s second batch of graduates.
The young Sonny was meticulous, whether he was cleaning his father’s shoes, helping in the kitchen, arranging his clothes, or creating a daily schedule of activities. He had a time set for study, play, watching television, and sleeping. He was also a practical person. He ran a neighborhood comic-book rental and he sold quiz paper to classmates.
Sonny loved the Beatles, and had a collection of Beatles songs as well as of other singing groups.
Once when he was five years old, and watching his sisters go up a stage to receive honors, he said he would himself get up that stage and receive a medal of his own.
At the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Sonny took up Chemistry thinking it was a good preparation for becoming a doctor. By then he had become more people-oriented. Friends recall how once he said he would not enroll in ROTC because “it did not serve the people.”
The university was roiling in protest and criticism. The last week of January 1971 marked the first anniversary of the historic First Quarter Storm. The dollar-peso rate had been devaluated, inflation was rocketing, militarization was rising, and civil rights were being brutally suppressed. The suspicion was rife that Marcos planned to declare martial law. When oil prices, which had stayed steady for several years, were raised from 30 to 33 centavos per liter, a whopping ten-percent increase, the public reacted with outrage.
The university swirled with even greater turmoil. Students joined activist groups, held teach-ins, rallies and marches. Protest posters flooded the campus. Sonny, then a freshman, was attracted to the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).
On February 1, a huge multisectoral rally was planned. Education officials cancelled classes in an attempt to forestall organized protest. But Marcos remanded the order, refusing to show fear or weakness. With classes uncertain to be held in the university, some of Sonny’s friends planned to see a movie, asking Sonny to join them. Instead, Sonny joined his SDK friends in a protest march that proceeded to the University Avenue. The protesters put up a barricade along the avenue to try to enforce a boycott of classes. The air was militant but festive.
Then, without warning, a mathematics professor named Inocente Campos, whose sympathies were known to be for Marcos and against activists, brought out a rifle, took aim at the students standing in what is today the CP Garcia crossing, fired, and in the next instant, Sonny Mesina fell bleeding to the ground.
Sonny was taken by his friends to the university infirmary (he didn’t want to be taken to the nearby Veterans’ Hospital because it was a “military hospital”). Sonny fought with death but succumbed three days later. His death shocked the entire UP community. The UP student council issued strong protests. What was at first a protest against oil price increases had grown into a full-blown student revolt against authorities and for academic freedom. As the outrage in the university spread, the government sent in soldiers and helicopters, agitating even the then UP president Salvador Lopez to protest the “violations in academic freedom.”
The turmoil in the university rose to what would become the historic Diliman Commune of February 4-9, 1971. Sonny and the Diliman Commune would always be linked together in history, with Mesina earning the honor of being considered UP Diliman’s “first martyr.”
Sonny’s death and the Diliman Commune would open up reflections by the whole UP academic community of what “serving the people” meant to people in the university – to instructors and students of medicine, engineering, fine arts or theatre, journalism, literature or law. The events of January and February 1971 forced many to rethink their academic assumptions. Sonny did not live to join these debates that followed after his death. But he gave his life for academic freedom, and he gave a meaning to what people in academe would refer to whenever they said that academics and professionals should “serve the people.”