James Orbe came from a military family. His father was a member of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) and later was Chief of Police of the city of Iligan (1963). Four of his 12 siblings also entered military service, including the Philippine Constabulary (PC).
In 1966, James went to the Cebu Institute of Technology (CIT) for college, where he was introduced to activism. He participated in a students’ strike calling for the abolition of the pre-board examination review and the commercialization of education. By 1969, he was a member of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). He also joined the Consolidation for Reforms for the Youth (CRY), an alliance of youth organizations, fraternities and student councils. CRY was Cebu’s counterpart to Metro Manila’s Movement for a Democratic Philippines (MDP).
When the First Quarter Storm erupted in Manila in 1970, Cebu’s student population was also in an uproar over tuition increases, the rise in prices of basic goods, government corruption and other national issues. Another huge cause of youthful anger was the death of CIT student Michael Doong, killed during a violent dispersal of a protest rally. Rallies and demonstrations were also becoming frequent in Cebu City, as in Metro Manila.
James went back to Iligan in 1970, where he began to organize among students, farmers, workers and Moro communities in the Lanao provinces. James and his fellow activists were involved in providing assistance to evacuees of the Moro uprising in Marawi.
Also in 1970, James married Purita Licayan, a fellow activist and member of another activist organization, the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).
James gave talks about many social issues in small group discussions and in big student forums. But he also often engaged his father in political talk — the US bases in the Philippines, American war of aggression in Vietnam, government corruption and the looming Marcos dictatorship. He even had discussions with his father’s military friends. His father showed respect for his son’s commitment to change what was wrong in society, but he was also concerned for his son’s safety.
Upon the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, James left Iligan and joined other activists who fled to Isabela in Luzon. Before he left he asked one of his brothers: “Please take good care of mommy.”
In Isabela, militarization was intense. Farmers were often harassed and beaten up, their villages bombed, leaving them homeless and destitute. Soldiers accused communities of harboring guerillas of the New People’s Army. James’ political work consisted of organizing barriofolk to resist militarization and to demand an end to the Marcos dictatorship. With his rare academic background, he was also running literacy programs for the unlettered peasants, although the program was difficult to sustain under Isabela’s heavily-militarized conditions.
James was killed in February 1974 during a raid by troopers of the Philippine Constabulary in the community where he and his comrades were. They had all raised their arms in surrender but were shot down anyway.
James’ father came to claim his son’s body but with the prevailing difficult conditions he decided to leave the remains where it was already buried with the other fatalities in a public cemetery in Santiago, Isabela. James’ siblings came in turn in 1994 when conditions in Isabela were easier. They had the grave exhumed and the remains taken home to Iligan City. Today, James Orbe’s life is still remembered and celebrated by his friends and by the lives he had touched.