Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Down from the Hill: Ateneo de Manila in the First Ten Years of Martial Law, 1972-1982 (A Kasarinlan Review)

Cristina Jayme T. Montiel and Susan Evangelista, eds. 2005. Down from the Hill: Ateneo de Manila in the First Ten Years of Martial Law, 1972-1982. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 344 pp.

First published in Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 21, 2 (2006): 161-165.

Down from the Hill: Ateneo de Manila in the First Ten Years of Martial Law, 1972-1982 captures Ateneo de Manila’s brave moments of activism before and during Martial Law in such a way that it brings to the fore Ateneo’s important part in the struggle for democracy. The book chronicles, quite meticulously, in individual essays and personal accounts, the varied stories of student and faculty rebellion in the Jesuit school. Moreover, it reveals how Ateneo activists forged a counter-culture against Marcosian fascism. In the process, it provides some balance to the more common perception that campus radicalism is something only the University of the Philippines and some of Manila’s “University Belt” schools can be proud of as a tradition. The book demonstrates, in matter-of-fact candor, how the school’s elite profile has been brought down from its perch on the social ladder—down from the hill on Katipunan Road—through strident yet creative activism, merged with Ateneo’s guiding philosophy of “becoming one for others.”

The most meaningful feature of the book may well be just that—narrating how Ateneo’s radicalism flourished as a humanist and democratic counter-culture contra fascism, in conjunction with the Jesuit apostolate of being “men and women for others.” Shaped by intellectual initiative from the ground and the stimulus of national-democratic and social-democratic organizing, radical activism interfaced with the theological inspiration of Jesuit mentors in the spirit of service to others. It seems then that the distinguishing mark of Ateneo’s campus activism, as may be elicited in the narratives, is how praxis was partly induced by the institution’s humanist philosophy, and how, in turn, it became part of the institution, fused by enlightened Jesuit scholars into the curricular agenda. “Social concern,” of course, “had long been a major focus of the Ateneo community,” as Susan Evangelista asserts (178). But the activist spirit of the 1970s, as grafted in Ateneo’s institutional program of service, refashioned its guiding philosophy and brought men and women to proactive, if not militant social engagement, some of whom continue to work in the service of the people.

A prominent case in point is the project dubbed Sarilikha. Organized in 1972 under the name Operasyon Tulong (Operation Help) to respond to the heavy floods that hit Central Luzon, Sarilikha “brought students truly down from the hill and into the lives of their countrymen and women in the provinces.” Volunteerism came to be its hallmark. Jose T. Deles recounts, “We talked of Sarilikha service not just as a student pastime . . . we envisioned ourselves as ‘alternative professionals,’ committed to social change as a lifelong vocation” (183). The stories indicate how faculty and students worked with projects and materials (such as readings for volunteer formation) geared toward community service. On an institutional level, the Ateneo Office for Social Concern and Involvement (OSCI) sponsored seminars, which discussed class and social analysis for the officers of Sarilikha and other organizations, bolstering the Ateneans’ fight for social justice in a climate of repression. Combining activist and institutional efforts, these initiatives helped shape a particular brand of Ateneo activism, deemed as a precursor of NGO advocacy today.

The book marks the beginning of Ateneo activism in 1968 with the publication of an article in the student organ, the Guidon. Entitled Down from the Hill and written by Jose Luis A. Alcuaz, Gerardo Esguerra, Emmanuel Lacaba, Leonardo Montemayor, and Alfredo Navarro Salanga, the article speaks of a revolutionary situation in the country and condemns the power elite and its institutions—which, the article asserts, includes the Society of Jesus—as responsible for the crisis that then beset the nation. It calls for serious reforms, a “renewal” of the university, which entailed Filipinization and the ordering of a just society as a Christian commitment. From this point on, various writers narrate the subsequent events that gave flesh and blood to the school’s engagement in social and nationalist activism, which assumed the form of an anti-fascist struggle after 1972. Starting with the authors of the Guidon manifesto, the narratives are also a veritable “who’s who” not only of the school’s history of activism but the country’s as well. The names Edmundo Garcia, Bienvenido Lumbera, Dante Simbulan, and Father Jose Blanco, for instance, provide markers for the main ideological and political persuasions of leadership, at least in the Ateneo campus.

Beyond the personalities, the book points to indicators of the complementary and diverging performances of the two principal competing forces of activism during Martial Law—the national-democratic and social-democratic formations, as played out in the school by their groups and leaders. It is interesting to note that while citing divergences, the narratives rather emphasized the convergences around which these two formations worked and cooperated: the campaign to Filipinize Ateneo, the defense of student and faculty rights and welfare, liberation theology and work in the spirit of “preferential option for the poor,” and critical participation in political exercises such as the Laban campaign in the 1978 Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) elections. It is to the credit of the writers that the narratives focused on these convergences, which in practice turned out to shape the particularity of Ateneo’s activism.

Whatever the bias for or against a certain political persuasion, it does not come out obtrusively in the essays. Instead, what stands out are the militant esprit de corps on campus and the individuality of a school’s activist engagement. The book elucidates its beginnings in academic freedom and Filipinization, which included the historic establishment of a Filipino department and “immersion in things Filipino,” among others. These events unified and radicalized endeavors for all political tendencies on campus, until Filipinization and radicalism gave way to the emergence of newer modes of activism.

The book does not only chronicle the evolution of activism in the Ateneo but takes stock of its role in society in the light of its humanist philosophy, which sharpened against the backdrop of martial rule and the grave moral, sociopolitical, and economic consequences that followed. Thus, in “interrogating the self,” the book has to deal with the conservative dimension of Jesuit leadership—how this tried to hold back institutional change and direct social engagement—as it has to bring out its enlightened side that encouraged social integration and action, as in the works and pronouncements of Fathers Joel Tabora, Roque Ferriols, Raul Bonoan, Horacio de la Costa, Bienvenido Nebres, and others. Tabora’s idea of Filipinization, which the book quotes, encapsulates one such enlightened thought: “Filipinization of the university involves a Filipinization of our lives, an immersion of our lives in the Philippine situation . . . marshalling our personal and material resources toward the alleviation of suffering, onto the happiness of dignified living” (216). In earlier calls for social engagement, some Jesuit priests participated as elected representatives to the constitutional convention in 1971. But much of the engagement was in the mentoring of faculty and students, and support for those who walked the road less traveled.

From the perspective of historical writing, a book of memories always carries with it the problems of objectivity and range: objectivity, when the writers are the participants themselves; and range, how much coverage and scope is enough. On the first, the creators of the book seem to have resolved the matter easily. They combined writing by social scientists, historians, and literati who provided period contexts and connections in the larger society based on records and personal interviews—some of whom appear not to have had the same immersion as the participants themselves—and by some principal participants who wrote brief personal accounts or vignettes.

On the second, prior limitation appears to have been set in terms of the time frame and, apparently, by focusing on events, ordinary and landmark, that indicate the evolution of activism in the specified period. It is on the second aspect, being a limitation of chronicles, that we seek more, specifically, the theoretical and organizational dynamics of the roles played by the national-democratic and social-democratic formations, especially their “underground” dimension, in the leadership of the open movement, living out united front and solidarity work, and the actualization of their political lines.

This requires another work of a deeper and broader proportion, however, and considerations as well for the legal and institutional implications of truth-telling. Nonetheless, this substantially and generally well-written book of storytelling has more than filled a gap in the writing of that dark period of our history. It has, to paraphrase Milan Kundera’s words, pursued the struggle of memory against forgetting to assert the struggle of humanity against power. —Ferdinand C. Llanes, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of the Philippines-Diliman


  1. Anonymous6:52 AM

    With all the pseudo-activism of the Jesuit clerico-fascists, one Atenean is worth remembering:


    The Jesuits despised EdJop. Now this book? Crap. Another Jesuit propaganda.

    Mga sigurista. Switik.

  2. kapatid, hindi lahat ng atenista pareho sa iniisip mo. maraming atenista din ang nagbuhis ng buhay sa davao, cagayan de oro at naga simula nung martial law hanggang ngayon. maraming heswita din ang namatay para maibalik ang kalayaan sa masa di lang sa bansa natin kundi pati na sa ilang bansa sa latin america. mukhang kailangan mo pang magbasa at mag-ikot sa bansa at sa mundo.