When Noel Tierra died at the age of 21, some people shook their heads and wondered why he had to become a rebel when he came from a well-off family: his parents had good jobs and they owned some land in Quezon, planted to rice and coconuts.
In fact, Tierra was a typical teenager who got good grades especially in mathematics and science, loved the Beatles, played the piano and guitar. What was notable about him, however, was his concern for others in need. He liked to give away things – from empty bottles and old newspapers to a piece of land – which he thought could be of better use to other people. “I learned from him,” his mother said. “I realized that he was showing more compassion than me.”
It was in college at the University of the Philippines in Diliman that he encountered the ideas that explained why people were poor and exploited, and what needed to be done. He joined the Nationalist Corps, and later the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan. Soon, he was joining rallies, and exposure trips to different rural communities. They would engage the community members in dialogue, learning and teaching at the same time.
During the summer of 1970, Tierra and two of his friends went on their own to Atimonan, Quezon to try and organize the young people there. They were not too successful. But the group got to hold a protest rally with a handful of participants, and some placards, at the town plaza.
Soon he dropped out of college to go fulltime into community organizing in Quezon City. Now he looked like the activist of cartoons, not caring much about looking smart, always hungry.
“When I heard that Noel had become an activist, I said…we should be thankful that we have young people like that,” his former scoutmaster said. “If all of us thought only of ourselves, how can there be change? We must be thankful for young people who offer their lives for the sake of social change. If they did not wake us up, we would still have our eyes closed. Noel became an activist not because he was poor but because he used his intellect and he studied the situation.”
Shortly after martial law was declared, Tierra was arrested in Quezon and detained for some months at Camp Vicente Lim in Laguna. He was arrested again by the military in a “zoning” operation in the town of Tagkawayan in January 1974. This time he was heavily tortured; for the next two weeks, with hands tied behind his back and starving, he was paraded around the barrios and put on display as a captured rebel. Apparently he refused to give any information to his interrogators. Later he was taken back to the constabulary camp in Bagong Silang II, Guinayangan, and shot dead. His body was then left on a basketball court in the town center. His parents, only then informed, came at once to claim his body.
Noel Tierra said goodbye to his parents in a letter written in February 1972. “As long as exploitation of man by man, of one nation by another nation persists on this earth, there will be many sons and daughters who will leave their homes. That’s why I leave now. I, my comrades, and all the oppressed peoples of the world will rise like a mighty storm to end exploitation – forever. In this way there will be no more sons and daughters who will leave their homes. There will be no more mothers to cry. In the new day…the spirit of serving the people will pervade the earth.”