The September of Naga
The month of September ends soon. And with the month’s passing, we mark a quieting down, a sort of pause.
September is chaos and celebration in our city. There are two major events for us in this month, and as it bids us goodbye, we look back to the second Friday of the month. This was the beginning of a region-wide devotion; there was also the third Saturday, when the river in our city, for some enchanting reason, was again ignored for what it was - a long, winding, polluted body of water. That river located for us the end of an ancient ritual, and the beginning of a lull, as if the feasting exhausts us annually.
But September is not merely about religion: through memories, this month has several times disturbed our peace, in history. Every September recalls the tragedy of an old bridge that collapsed. The dark days did not end there; dark years came from that day as the martial law that went on for decades was declared by the dictator. Overnight, the rule of government changed. The nondescript Philippine Constabulary rose to become a military force, dreaded. The police ceased to be a civilian force and were turned into a state force, enforcing curfews that preceded the lockdowns we would experience under a different condition.
The youth changed with martial rule. There were many who fought the violence of the State and continued their fight by leaving the comfort of their homes. The others remained - aloof, timid, conformist.
Dreams began to die in September of 1972. However, there were attempts to live on from that month. I recall my generation - in Ateneo de Naga. There was only one school organization allowed to exist and this bore a strange acronym - SP2ASM. The letters, note the “2”, stood for Symposium, Production and Promotion (related to the plays we would translate and produce on stage and promote to students), Arts, Survey (we did research), and Music. Rudy Alano was at the helm of the mentors attending to what would turn out to be a band of nonconformists. There was also Mel Regis, Lina Regis, and Myrna Nocos. We (in our teens and early twenties) called them by their first names. It took a lot of guts and graces but you got used to that practice. And, in mighty fairness to these teachers, they did not mind at all that breach of tradition.
Oh, we were ambitious, arrogant, and cool, and irreverent. We organized a symposium on Existentialism and we divided among us the topic. We moved from classroom to classroom to discuss Sartre and company. Our guide was Mel, light years away from being the Dean. Lina, who would turn out to be a very good moderator for the Eagles in the future, was there with her marine biology. We gravitated towards her as she conducted fieldwork as far as Del Gallego. Returning to Naga via a slow train, we arrived almost at midnight, the start of curfew. We had to stay at the old station in Balintawak to wait for 4 am, the time anyone could walk the city once more. Myrna provided the balance in all this, critiquing our lectures in her deathly whisper. We had to be good before them.
Fr. Bautista, the Jesuit philosopher who used to close the windows of his classrooms so that the bright ideas would not fly out of them, was not amused. Who are these upstarts? This was supposed to be his criticism of what we were doing. But we were persistent. We staged Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello. We translated Cyrano de Bergerac and Romeo & Juliet. We read Vonnegut, Gibran and Tolkien. We burnt the chairs in the Assembly Hall. We hunted ghosts. We fell in and out of love.
Looking back, that small organization of ours did allow us to feel a kind of freedom, something that disappeared during those years.
As the martial law years went on, real student organizations were allowed. One group was called “WE.” How it was named as such remained a puzzle to many. It had an achievement that has not been written about - the September Poetry and Painting Contest. The poetry contest had two divisions: English and Filipino (Pilipino then). The painting contest was always on-the-spot, targeting the areas around the Cathedral and the Seminary. They were places with textures and contours. Flash forward to the present: those places would be deemed “instagramable” at present.
September may be the month that ushers in the cooler days but to our generations it was that month that initiated the murder of young activists, the disappearance of many. It normalized a government that destroys rather than builds. The deaths from the old bridge may have brought sorrow to the city and the regions but the month of 1972 shattered the future of the young men and women of those years. Some of the older citizens that you see now roaming the city, or sitting on the porch of homes, do not have a world war to brag about; they have survived their own personal wars with a mind that either acquiesced to mindless politics or ignored all the evil around them.