Reading and Such

Jose W. Diokno’s pamana: A daughter remembers bravely

Thrilled, I went up to shake his hand, this man who was basking in relative freedom, looking not worn out at all from close to two years of imprisonment

The fighting Ka Pepe raises a clenched fist. (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

Author Maria Socorro Cookie Diokno (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

The Diokno couple the morning after his release from prison (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

PORTABLE MAGIC

‘Book Haul’ by Cecil Robin Singalaoa, watercolor on cotton rag paper, 2020, 4×6 inches

I met human rights fighter-lawyer-former senator Jose Wright Diokno through his middle child Cookie, Maria Socorro, my former college classmate at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s then Institute of Mass Communication (IMC). I knew then that her father was a political prisoner of authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos in 1974, but there was something about Cookie that belied whatever agony she and her ates Maris and Menchu, both campus head-turners for being outstanding students in history and economics, respectively, were undergoing.

I sort of fell in with Cookie’s IMC group made up of Rita Agcaoili, Maribel Guevara and Chato Villanueva. Occasionally, Rowee Tan Torres would join us for lunch inside the Diokno Volkswagen Kombi parked across from Palma Hall. When I turned 22, they helped me celebrate my birthday in our Pasig home after our Saturday class. But that’s neither here nor there in the narrative.

Cookie went on to graduate with cum laude honors in 1977 with her father, already released from illegal detention, serving as college graduation speaker on a Saturday afternoon. I missed that occasion although I was also scheduled to graduate. My then newspaper job in the crony-owned Philippines Daily Express didn’t allow for two days off. I had Sunday off so I attended the university graduation rites where Supreme Court Associate Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma was the speaker. Hers was a courageous speech that, I imagined Diokno’s was, too, lambasted the regime. Midway, power was cut off. There was loud booing, but the graduates in their togas and hats remained in their seats until the lights went on, and Palma resumed where she left off.

After I was finally graduated, my dad sought me out in the crowd where I was teary-eyed. I was officially a journalism graduate, but my place of employment had always been a source of embarrassment when I was in Cookie’s company. The night after her own dad was released, she invited me to their Magallanes Village home to meet him. He was in the lanai, already meeting with other opposition leaders when she made the introductions from a distance. He shouted in his famed public speaking voice, “Hi Babeth!” Thrilled, I went up to shake his hand, this man who was basking in relative freedom, looking not worn out at all from close to two years of imprisonment, including that infamous stay in solitary confinement in the military barracks in Laur, Nueva Ecija, with Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. in the neighboring cell.

I lost touch with Cookie until we bumped into each other in a mall. She relayed the happy news that her son Luis Xavier was graduating from a literature course. She still was with the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) founded by her dad. So busy was she with cases (FLAG assists clients who cannot seek redress for violation of their human and political rights and cannot afford the usual lawyers) that she looked forward to only one relaxation—mahjongg! That threw me off—my smart, sophisticated, highly politicized classmate part of a joy luck club? Why not?

After all, the work she inherited from her dad was “the concretization of his dream of an integrated bar—a group of lawyers that would serve as a shield to protect our people and their rights, welfare and interests, a spear to pierce government repression and oppression and a flag to guide us all in our common vision towards a truly free, just, humane and sovereign nation.”

Lolo General (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

Lolo Mong (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

Carmen Icasiano Diokno: ‘Dad and Mom’s story was more difficult and painful for me to tell.’ (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

At her father’s centenary birth celebration in February this year, Cookie amazed me when she launched the family’s biography Pamana (De La Salle University Publishing). It covers the lives of her father Jose, mother Carmen Icasiano, her fighting Lolo General and Lolo Mong. To know where the current 10 Diokno siblings, Maris, Cookie, Manuel or Chel, among the more prominent ones, are coming from, one ought to go back to these grandfathers.

In her dedication, she described Lolo General as having “bequeathed bravery that knew no bounds and a relentless determination to forge a Philippines genuinely free of foreign domination, united as one truly independent and sovereign nation” while “Lolo Mong bequeathed an untarnished name that resonates with goodness of character, profound love for our country and a passion for justice that favors neither rich nor poor, powerful nor powerless, friend nor foe.”

Lolo General, also known as The Guerrillero and whose real name was Ananias Noblejas Diokno, fought in the Philippine-American war, emerging victorious in some skirmishes and acquiring a reputation for his ferocity and fearlessness as a fighter. Right to the very end of his life, he refused the directorship of the Bureau of Agriculture under the US government. As Cookie, who waded through many documents to reconstruct his life, wrote: “Lolo General could not, would not, serve the ‘enemy’ that denied the freedom and independence of his beloved country.”

Ramon Diokno or Lolo Mong, lawyer, former senator and Supreme Court justice, possessed what Spanish-speaking Sen. Claro M. Recto called lealtad. Beyond loyalty, it means “firmness of conviction, diligence and discipline, which must be seen in those of our compatriots still in their formative stage if they are to be useful in the future to themselves and to the community.”

Among other achievements, Lolo Mong, un-intimidated by power, chaired the Senate committee that investigated then Senate President Jose Avelino who faced charges of graft and impropriety. More revealing is his stance against Filipinos who collaborated with the Japanese. As Cookie wrote, “Lolo Mong strongly opposed amnesty because he believed that it would benefit only a few top political collaborators, and could negatively impact on any resistance movements, if, in future, another foreign country invaded the Philippines.”

While the author relied on secondary sources for her grandfathers, she went to town on Jose and Carmen, writing that “Dad and Mom’s story was more difficult and painful for me to tell. Writing about them—and the dangerous times they lived through—dredged up memories, some more bitter than sweet. I built their story on my memories, knowing full well that my memories reflect my biases and perceptions. I have had to dig deep into my memories since I blocked certain memories especially during the martial law years. These triggered deep emotions of anger, frustration and sadness, or I have had to suppress some memories to protect the safety and well-being of others.”

But nobody can put a Diokno down as her dad, mom and forebears had shown to her and to all Filipinos. To begin with, Diokno didn’t imagine himself becoming a lawyer. As he told a magazine: “My becoming a lawyer is more… a result of having grown up in a lawyer’s family and spending a lot of time in my father’s library.  In fact, my parents were pressuring me to study law, and I was resisting. I wanted to study mechanical engineering because I like gadgets.  I still do.  So we compromised.  ‘I’ll just study,’ I said, ‘commerce or business because there are law subjects in business.’  Well, I found out that it was the law subjects I liked best so I didn’t tell my parents anything anymore.  I just enrolled in law school.”

He was brilliant at it and admired for his prodigious memory. In fact, he topped the bar exams with a grade of 95.3 percent in 1944. But he, like Lolo General before him, refused to practice law until after liberation because “I did not want to take the oath under the puppet government established by the Japanese.”

She met Jose Diokno at a party hosted by Arsenio Lacson, their common friend. They were with their respective dates

Carmen or Nena came from a line of patriots, too, her grandfather Alipio B. Ycasiano having fought in the revolution against Spain and in the Fil-Am war. She met Jose Diokno at a party hosted by Arsenio Lacson, their common friend. They were with their respective dates, Diokno escorting Baby Quezon, Nena with an American colonel.

As Cookie described the meeting, “Dad was smitten by Mom’s beauty at first glance. Mom was intrigued by Dad’s intelligence and wit. Instantly attracted to each other, they promptly forgot their dates!  They spent the entire evening getting to know one another.  Before the night was over, Dad and Mom agreed to see each other again. Before they met, Dad was courting a young Filipino mestizo while Mom was engaged to a scion of a wealthy clan.  After they met, both promptly broke off their courtships. Mom returned every gift she had received from her fiancé. They began their own courtship.”

This was the era of analog letter-writing. Jose always started, until the end of his days, his letter to Nena with “My Darling” and closed it with “Yours, Pepe.” There would be challenges to their relationship, but none as burdensome and fraught with almost tragic nuances as when he was imprisoned without charges by Marcos.

‘You have done a very nice job.  You have brought honor to yourself and to your country, but I don’t need you anymore. Thank you.  Goodbye.’

Earlier, he had served the Diosdado Macapagal administration as justice secretary, but power brokers ensured Diokno would not win the case against American businessman Harry Stonehill. As Cookie put it, “Dad interpreted Macapagal’s letter this way: ‘Yet after I had done the job he gave me,  after I had cleaned up the Bureau of Immigration, after I had cleaned up the Public Service Commission, after I had arrested Stonehill, the thanks I got was a letter that began ‘Dear Pepe, I congratulate you.  You have done a very nice job.  You have brought honor to yourself and to your country, but I don’t need you anymore. Thank you.  Goodbye.’”

At this point of Pamana, the story builds up all the way to the bombing on Aug. 21, 1971 of Plaza Miranda where the Liberal Party, was holding its miting de avance.

Diokno had a foreboding about what a Marcos presidency would do for the country. Still, he decided to run for senator (and win) twice.

Cookie narrates: “Dad found out that Marcos planned to remove him from the senatorial slate and relegate him to the sidelines. Marcos always wanted to control Dad, but he knew he could not control Dad through money. Marcos was heard to have said, ‘Hindi ko maabot si Pepe (I cannot reach Pepe).’ Because he could not control Dad, Marcos wanted to make sure that Dad was out of the senatorial lineup.

“Dad reacted by going to Marcos and telling him: ‘I’m going to run.’  Marcos could not do anything about it, except to put obstacles along Dad’s second senatorial bid. During the campaign, Mr. and Mrs. Marcos sent messages saying they were going to do everything to make sure that Dad would end up in the bottom of the winning circle (seventh or eighth spot).”

When Martial Law was declared, Diokno figured high among those arrested. He said about what kept him going through his imprisonment: “Five factors have made our burden bearable: the thought that our people, and particularly people like you, have not forgotten us or lost faith in us; the devotion of our families that every day undergo the ordeal of bringing us our needs, subjecting themselves to the degradation of being frisked and searched, riding an uncomfortable army pick-up, just to comfort us for an hour;  the conviction of our innocence and the belief in the ultimate justice of God; the knowledge that someday, in some way, the madness that holds this nation in its grip must end; that, as Bernstein put it in his The Mass: ‘O you men of power, O you men of power, Your hour is now, You plan to rule forever, But you never do, somehow;’” the realization that the injustice perpetrated upon us and our people degrades the perpetrator rather than his victims, for man is not demeaned by the harm done to him, but only by the harm he does himself.”

Diokno with family after being granted furlough from political imprisonment. (Photos courtesy of Maria Socorro I. Diokno)

Released to his wife, he concluded about the seeming world of good detention gave him: “It taught me a lot about my strengths and weaknesses. It made me come very much closer to my family which I had practically lost in the process of being an active politician. But one thing you’ve got to understand about detention is that if you indulge in any degree of self-pity, you’re done for, but if you believe in some being or cause greater than you are, you’ll come out much stronger.”

Copies of Pamana are available at DLSU Publishing House, Yuchengco Hall, Room 601, 2401 Taft Avenue, Manila, or email [email protected].

About author

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She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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