For retired lawyer Albert Balingit, one of the most memorable conversations from the 1980s is a three-minute, $12 phone call punctuated by screaming and crying. Not from distress, but celebration.
The year was 1986. A family friend called amid a crowd of demonstrators in Manila to tell him what was already front-page news: Then-Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. had just resigned, ending a 14-year regime marred by thousands of extrajudicial killings, military control and significant censorship.
Human rights organization Amnesty International found that during the period of martial law from 1972 to 1981, 70,000 people were imprisoned for opposing Marcos.
Balingit was among the many Filipino Americans who participated in and organized demonstrations in Sacramento during the Marcos dictatorship.
“I remember Cynthia [Bonta] would have me dress up in my three-piece suits,” he remembered. “She said, ‘Show me a lawyer,’ and I would wear this three-piece suit. It was so tight … and I was so hot.”
One of his frequent protest sites in 1978 was Bataan News on Fruitridge Road, where M.H. Jacaban, a co-owner and publisher of the newspaper, supported Marcos.
The suit routine brought levity to an otherwise grave situation. “He’d get really pissed off at me … [for] demonstrating against his newspaper,” Balingit said of Jacaban, who he says was “like an uncle to him.”
Jacaban would ask why Balingit was protesting. “Because you’re supporting a man who’s killed a lot of people. Martial law is not a democracy.”
Thirty-six years has done wonders for the price of overseas phone calls. But during the past few weeks, calls across the Pacific Ocean have struck a markedly different tone.
On May 9, the Philippines held its elections, in which the top two presidential contenders were current vice president Leni Robredo and Marcos Sr.’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.
Marcos Jr. won in a landslide.
Though the elections have been marred by claims of mechanical breakdowns at polling stations and the spread of disinformation, Filipino activists — while rejecting the results — are preparing for another Marcos to take office, 50 years after his father declared martial law in 1972.
Balingit, the lawyer, was part of a larger contingent of Filipino Americans who mobilized against martial law in the Sacramento area. That contingent included a Sacramento chapter of the socialist group Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino, or KDP, an organization similar to the Black Panther Party.
Now, its former members are making connections with younger Filipino progressives to share their history and continue movement-building.
On May 20, Sacramento-area Filipinos and dozens others gathered at Miwok Park in Elk Grove for one of the many “vigils for democracy” organized across the U.S., part educational event and part protest.
“Everyone comes from different learning levels,” said Nikki Abelada, part of local organization Sacramento Filipinx LGBTQIA+ and one of the event’s emcees.
The May vigil spanned generations, with speakers in their early and mid-twenties preceding Sacramento KDP core member Liz Fenkell, in her seventies. And organizers say they are planning to gather again this week, June 14, for a national day of action to support Filipino rights in Sacramento, the United States and across the globe.
“We’ve been talking for years, ‘Who is in our community that’s still progressive? We didn’t hear a peep about them,’” Fenkell said at last month’s vigil.
“We have come here this night crossing paths because you have a journey and a job.”
A Filipino American activist movement emerges in Sacramento
During the 1970s and 1980s, the region’s Filipino population was comprised of American-born Filipinos, many of whom had farmworker parents in Stockton and other parts of the Central Valley, and recent Filipino immigrants who left for varied reasons: opportunity after the 1965 Immigration Act, fear of death or imprisonment under martial law, Marcos Sr.’s 1974 labor export policy.
Balingit and Jacaban’s dispute over martial law echoed a broader divide in Sacramento Filipino American communities: Support Marcos Sr. or oppose him?
Younger Filipinos, like Balingit, tended to be more politically progressive, with an eye toward liberation both abroad and in America — a positionality influenced by growing up during the Vietnam War and the fight for ethnic studies.
The KDP built off those struggles, with two objectives: fight for national democracy in the Philippines and worker-driven socialism in the United States. Founded in Santa Cruz in 1973, the KDP had chapters throughout the country, including Sacramento. Much of its membership was American-born Filipino or Philippine students and activists who fled due to martial law.
Two of Sacramento KDP’s core members were vigil speaker Fenkell, whose father was a farmworker in Isleton; and Sorcy Apostol, who left the Philippines in Dec. 1972.
Despite their radical stance, in response to the political polarization in the Sacramento Filipino community during the 1970s, the Sacramento KDP core helped organize an event meant to promote unity between Sacramento-area Filipinos of all political bents: Philippine National Day.
It was initially piloted at Sacramento City College in 1975 and was meant to celebrate traditions from different Philippine ethnic groups. Eventually it became part of what is now the Filipino Fiesta of Sacramento.
But the day, for its front of unification, was also a protest and a way for anti-Marcos activists to introduce progressive ideas to the broader Sacramento Filipino community.
“Asserting the Philippine National Day, making June 12 our Independence Day from the Spanish colonists — we thought we would celebrate that,” Apostol said. “July 4 is actually what we called in the Philippines ‘Huwad na Kalayaan,’ which means ‘fake independence.’ It was a token independence. … PND was established to be an alternative for the Philippine Independence Day that was fake.”
Protest as education, combatting disinformation
Much of KDP’s efforts focused on education about what was actually happening in the Philippines — given press censorship under martial law -— and what the group says was the role of the United States in upholding martial law abroad and oppressing communities of color at home.
Apostol says she helped develop the ethnic studies department at UC Berkeley. When she moved to Sacramento to take part in its KDP chapter, she helped build the Anti-Martial Law Coalition, which united progressive Filipinos in the region who weren’t necessarily part of the KDP.
Its protests served as an educational reminder. “We always protested by the federal house on the Capitol where the immigration building is, because Marcos’ No. 1 support politically and financially was the U.S.,” she said.
Apostol also worked on the KDP’s Education Task Force, which was tasked to review different social studies books in high schools for their portrayal — or lack thereof — of Filipinos.
Ethnic studies also led Fenkell to the KDP. At her alma mater, Sacramento State, Fenkell says she, her sister and fellow Filipino activist Dick Mazon helped create the college’s first Tagalog class and recruited an instructor to teach a Filipino history class.
“But it wasn’t what we thought,” she said. “That’s traditional history … accepted by the Spanish and all that old history stuff. We realized, ‘We have to get people educated, willing to teach the resistance.’”
The opportunity came in 1970, when she, Mazon and Villones met Philippine activists building resistance against Marcos with those already involved with the Civil Rights movement, and the anti-war movement in Vietnam.
“We knew we could do something here [in America], but we didn’t think about our own families and the horror in the Philippines — my family was there, and they were suffering, too,” she said. “We felt like it was wrong to ignore it when it’s our own people.”
Fenkell credited KDP for teaching her about capitalism and imperialism.
“My parents, [whom] I worked side by side in the fields with, were oppressed all those years and we didn’t even realize it,” she said.
Bridging a generational divide through activism
Apostol and Fenkell both say they’ve worried about progressive Filipino community in the Sacramento area dying out.
But for Fenkell, the vigil in May provided an opportunity to connect with younger progressives.
“I just want to tell you, I am so proud of you,” she said to the crowd. “Please be in the streets. Bring your signs that say ‘Filipinos for Democracy.’ For ourselves, for our children, for our future.”
Her husband, Tim Fenkell, says that education around martial law doesn’t have to just look like protests or vigils.
“It’s about teaching everyone your history,” he said, referring to the KDP’s arts education program, called Sinagtala, where members wrote and performed plays based on Philippine and Filipino American history.
It’s that broad approach to education that Filipinos against martial law are drawing on now. Learning outside of an academic setting, through being in community with others with differing levels of understanding, attracted Daniel Domaguin to the Elk Grove vigil.
Like vigil emcee Abeleda, he is part of Sacramento Filipinx LGBTQIA+. For Domaguin, being present means rejecting the idea that, “If this doesn’t affect me directly, why do I have to care?”
“Whether you were born here or born elsewhere, it's still where your roots are and it’s important to know, because it shows the impact of why people might have been leaving the Philippines,” he said. “There was oppression going on during martial law. And with the election now and another Marcos coming into power, there's the worry of something similar happening again.”
For Araullo, stories about the Marcos dictatorship were intertwined with his childhood. His father was a youth activist in the Philippines who narrowly avoided being abducted by the military in the 1980s.
He told CapRadio he encourages people — especially Filipino Americans — to start learning more about martial law by speaking with older Filipinos and documenting their stories.
“As a historian, I'm always telling my students to talk to their elders because a lot of these things are not documented in official records,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories out there that haven’t been heard yet. Especially in the diaspora, a lot of Filipinos left because of dictatorship. … A lot of these injustices [in the Philippines and U.S.] are connected to what happened 50 years ago.”
Fighting martial law, again
Under current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the ongoing “war on drugs” has resulted in extrajudicial killings racking-up, while journalists, community leaders, Indigenous peoples’ leaders and anyone critiquing the government have faced greater threats and attacks.
Activists worry that under the Anti-Terror Law, which is poised to go into effect under Marcos Jr.’s presidency, tactics like arrest and detention without warrant will be used to stifle any government critique.
In light of that, the Critical Filipina/x/o Scholars Collective works to preserve stories of past and present resistance to martial law. Open to scholars internationally, it aims to make academic knowledge more accessible for organizing.
Dr. Joy Sales, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at CSU Los Angeles, is part of CFSC. In 2016, she spoke to students protesting Marcos Sr.’s burial as a national hero in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, or National Heroes’ Cemetery.
“They said, ‘We don’t learn about martial law in school, or if we do, we learn about it as a golden age,’” she said. “If Marcos is truly a national hero, why is he being buried in secret? Why is he considered a hero with human rights violations?”
Her experience teaching ethnic studies rooted in Philippine history has taught her its importance for understanding oppression and historical distortion in both the Philippines and United States.
“Learning about the Philippines is a gateway to learning about everything and everything,” she said. “It can help us understand not just why Filipinos are in the U.S., but also where the U.S. is placed in the world. It’s about this community that has deep transnational connections to the homeland, which is probably very relatable to other diasporas of color. … People’s lives are at stake here.”
NCPASA, which also supported last month’s vigil, is currently running a six-week teach-in series called Ingat. “Ingat” means “Take care.” It was a common farewell used during martial law, when activists didn’t know if their last meeting with each other was the last.
Additionally, Sales and the Critical Filipina/x/o Scholars Collective co-created an Anti-Martial Law Syllabus with the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. It’s centered around combatting disinformation around the Marcos regime and human rights violations. The collective and center plan to use the syllabus to teach classes this summer.
“Opposition against authoritarian rulers in the Philippines has a long history,” Sales said. “We’re not starting from scratch, so that should be a point of inspiration, too.”
The Philippine constitution states Marcos Jr. is set to take office on June 30, though his vice president is eyeing an earlier date for her inauguration, June 19.
Meanwhile, vigil organizers say the upcoming “National Day of Action” on June 14 is meant to urge Filipino Americans to spread awareness of and garner legislative support for the Philippine Human Rights Act.
The act is co-sponsored by several California legislators, including Democrats Rep. Jim Costa and Rep. Jackie Speier. It would suspend U.S. security assistance and aid to the Philippines until the government makes police and military reforms and safeguards the rights of government critics.
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