Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes each had a chance to visit the Philippines only once. But 30 years ago, the two Filipino Americans died fighting to help set the country free.
On Wednesday, Nov. 30, Domingo and Viernes, together with Arturo Taca, will be added to the roster of heroes and martyrs of the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani — the first Filipino Americans to have their names included on the respected foundation’s Wall of Remembrance honoring those who died fighting the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.
Domingo and Viernes, both whom died at the age of 29, will join the ranks of such respected figures as Ninoy Aquino, Jose Diokno and Chino Roces.
The story of Domingo and Viernes is not that well known to many Filipinos. But it’s a tale of courage and commitment that should be told and retold in the Philippines and the United States.
Viernes was the son of a migrant worker from Urdaneta, Pangasinan who worked in the fields of Yakima Valley in Washington State, and in the canneries of Alaska.
Domingo’s parents, who were from Ilocos Sur and Cebu, were also farm workers. His father and brother were labor activists, and with them, Domingo helped organize cannery workers facing discrimination in the workplace.
In the 1970s, Domingo and Viernes’ paths crossed. Outraged by the rise of a dictatorial regime in the Philippines, they joined thousands of U.S.-based Filipinos in the long fight against Marcos.
Like Domingo and Viernes, many of these young Filipinos were children of immigrants who grew up in the U.S., but who found themselves drawn to what was going on in their parents’ homeland,
It was a risky struggle. Marcos was known to have allies in the United States who spied on and bullied the regime’s opponents.
In the case of Domingo and Viernes, the harassment turned to violence.
On June 1, 1981, three assassins walked into the Cannery Workers Local 37 in Seattle, and shot Domingo and Viernes.
The killers were later arrested and convicted. But Domingo and Viernes’ family and allies knew the dictatorship was behind the murders.
After a long legal battle, a US federal court agreed. The court ruled that the Marcoses were liable for the killings.
In her decision, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote, as quoted in the Seattle Times: “The court concludes that the plaintiffs have provided clear, cogent and convincing evidence that the Marcoses created and controlled an intelligence operation which plotted the murders of Domingo and Viernes.”
The Marcoses were ordered to pay the families of the two murdered Filipino American activists.
Filipino American activist Geline Avila said paying tribute to Viernes and Domingo is “an important step” in remembering the “significant role that the U.S.-based Filipino community played in the anti-dictatorship struggle then.”
It’s an important point.
Many young Filipino Americans probably have never heard of Domingo and Viernes and the role that many FilAms played in overthrowing the Marcos regime. Many of them are probably looking at events in the Philippines with confusion, even dismay.
Domingo and Viernes are being remembered as the Philippines reels from one political drama to the other. Meanwhile, the Marcos forces are making a comeback. Marcos Jr. wants to become president. And he is making shameless claims that the Philippines, under his father’s dictatorship, was a happy, prosperous country.
And just like during the time of the Marcos regime, that view has its supporters in the Filipino community in the United States.
One ardent U.S.-based Marcos supporter has repeatedly sent me e-mails, defending the regime, once claiming, “Anywhere I go in the Philippines today, there are many in their ripe years who are saying that mas mabuti pa noong panahon ni Marcos.”
This supporter claims Bongbong Marcos is “one of the best provincial governors we have had since time immemorial,” and makes it a point to highlight the scandals during the administrations in the post-Marcos era.
The message from this U.S.-based Marcos follower is clear – and twisted. It goes something like this: ‘See how these presidents have failed and made a mess of things — which just goes to show how life under Marcos was so much better?’
Which is why it’s important to remember the nightmare we endured under Marcos. And it’s important to remember the Filipinos who led the fight against the dictator — including those who did their fighting in the United States.
As the Domingo and Viernes legal battles showed, the Marcoses used a network of paid allies to do their dirty work in the U.S.
It might even be said that, in the United States, Marcos was known to attract cockroaches – even literally.
That’s what Terri Mast, Domingo’s widow, discovered during the deposition of the late dictator in Hawaii where Marcos fled after his regime was overthrown.
During one of the sessions with her attorneys, as Marcos was answering a question, Mast witnessed a bizarre incident.
“All of a sudden, I saw this huge cockroach — just huge,” she told me in an interview a few years ago. “And it was crawling up him. I was watching and wondering if anyone else is seeing it, watching it climb up him… He was answering a question and all of a sudden his lawyer saw the cockroach, and so he reaches out and slaps it away from him.”
The move startled Marcos, as Terri Mast recalled: “Marcos says, ‘What? Did I say the wrong thing?’ Everyone chuckled, of course. It was one of those light moments.”
A light moment in a story that was both tragic and inspiring.
Indeed, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo never had the chance to spend much time in the homeland of their parents.
But Filipinos, especially young people, should remember and honor their courage and commitment to the Filipino nation.