On January 30, 1970, Nelson Navarro, then a 22-year-old idealist, was dodging bullets along Mendiola and Azcarraga streets. Legions of students marched the streets of Manila to protest against Malacañang. They condemned President Marcos’ iron grip on politics, his alleged cheating during the presidential elections, and his continuing enrichment while most Filipinos lived in poverty.
Violent clashes broke out between students chanting antigovernment slogans and the police. The Battle of Mendiola marked the beginning of the First Quarter Storm, the eruption of violent student demonstrations against the government.
It was also the turning point in Navarro’s life, which he describes in his memoir “The Half-Remembered Past,” recently launched at Writers’ Bar of Raffles Hotel.
“FQS put the issue directly: What will you do about it? You couldn’t just talk and talk. The people who stood for change had no power. They were marginalized by traditional politics, the imperialists and the local cohorts who had astute power in this country to only favor them. This system created poverty and injustice,” he writes.
Yet, Navarro was blessed with opportunity at this critical time. He got a scholarship in America that eventually led to a 15-year residency.
“FQS turned me into an exile. It forced me to the kind of life I wanted—to remain true to my values and to be a man of the 20th and 21st centuries. I was a concerned individual who would fight for a good cause but who also loved life. (In America), I fell in love with music and literature. For the first time, I was free. I felt good about Marcos and reviled him at the same time. Accidentally, he gave me my freedom from my own country and its parochialism. Living in New York, earning a living, spending money, making choices and mistakes, I moved on. How could have I gotten this education? I met wonderful people and went to wonderful places. Those have forever changed me.”
Navarro’s memoir isn’t so much a linear sequence of events as it is a compilation of biographical essays.
“I’m 65 and I don’t want to die with so many things unsaid,” he says.
In 276 pages, Navarro writes about growing up in Bukidnon, Mindanao, the “Land of Promise” in the ’50s. Although he wanted to be a writer, his father insisted on him studying at the University of the Philippines College of Business Administration in preparation for law school.
Navarro was a sophomore at the UP College of Law during the advent of the First Quarter Storm. He was also the spokesperson of the Movement for a Democratic Philippines, which organized the Mendiola demonstrations.
On Feb. 14, 1970, two weeks after the Mendiola riot, he and other student leaders found themselves the guests of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile at his 46th birthday party. Enrile wanted a dialogue with them.
“Johnny had warm feelings for me, but I never saw him again until I came back after Martial Law,” recalls Navarro.
In May 1971, Navarro went to New York on the invitation of the United Presbyterian Church to attend its United Nations Development Decade Program. In August, the Plaza Miranda bombing occurred during a rally of the Liberal Party. Navarro landed on the wanted list despite his absence.
“There was a warrant of arrest against me, and the writ of habeas corpus was suspended. Our house was raided. I couldn’t go home because I could get arrested,” he says.
“The warrant was titled ‘People vs David,’ a violation of Republic Act 1500, the anti-subversion law. One of the acts was complicity in the bombing of Plaza Miranda and organizing Kabataang Makabayan (the youth group of the Communist Party of the Philippines) in the US—which was not true. I was never with Kabataang Makabayan. I was a bourgeois nationalist liberal.”
The local media and the Filipino newspapers in America bared the list of individuals who were named subversives. Navarro faced imminent deportation.
But under the graces of the United Presbyterian Church, he was offered a frontier internship, a program for foreign students to learn about developing countries. Navarro wanted to go to Cuba but the Cuban visa never materialized.
To remain in the US, Nelson was instead tasked to research on multinational companies and their impact in the Philippines.
Navarro then got a fellowship in journalism and national affairs at the University of Columbia graduate school. To support himself, he worked parttime as a proofreader at The Village Voice and at Ningas Cogon, an opposition newspaper which he set up with lawyer-businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis.
After his studies in 1976, Navarro worked for the Trenton Times in Connecticut and covered Mercer County, one of America’s most affluent communities. Soon, weary of the quiet life, he returned to New York to work as a senior writer for international social development for the United Methodist Church.
In 1981, a bill granting political asylum to individuals fleeing dictatorial regimes was passed. As one of its first recipients, Navarro got his green card and was free to travel to Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Cuba and Southeast Asia.
One of the high points of his US residency was meeting opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., who was staying in Manhattan after his heart surgery. He asked Navarro to edit his speech for the Asia Society.
Based on the content, which urged people to overthrow the Marcos regime, Navarro titled it “The Filipino is worth dying for,” which eventually became Aquino’s signature quote.
After 15 years of living in America, Navarro returned to the Philippines following the Edsa Revolution in 1986. He saw that social transformation was still shallow.
“Friends have said that the more things change, the more they don’t have to change. When you wake up, it’s the same thing,” he rues.
Navarro became a columnist of Malaya, Manila Standard and Philippine Star.
Eventually, tired of the newspaper grind, he made his foray into writing biographies. His first project was on the life of sportsman Moro Lorenzo.
He then worked on the life story of Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez. Navarro quoted author F. Sionil José as saying that Pelaez was too decent. “If he played the game, it would have been him who would be president, not Marcos. The 1965 election was all about what kind of politics you would play to become president. Marcos knew what he wanted. Pelaez wouldn’t buy votes, terrorize and organize warlord armies. Everybody moved to Marcos’ side. That’s how elections were fought in the Philippines. After 14 years of dictatorship, we haven’t learned.”
Navarro’s closeness to Maximo Soliven also enabled him to write the late publisher’s biography.
“Max was like my father. He taught me about the world. He wasn’t afraid of controversy. He was the most widely read columnist of his day. (Fidel) Ramos said the first column he would read was Soliven’s, even if he always attacked the President.”
Enrile and Prudente
Navarro also wrote about Nemesio Prudente, a human rights activist and former president of Polytechnic University.
“He was accused of being a communist when he was a socialist who understood socialism. He was above all a Filipino,” he says.
The late Prudente was manipulated by José Maria Sison, leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Maoist hard-liners, he adds. “There was a totalitarian streak in the Communist movement that was a dictatorship. Why would you fight a dictatorship of the Right of Marcos only to submit to another dictatorship of the Left? Both of them violated human rights. Both lead to stagnation for a country and tyranny. It’s not a matter of opposing Marcos, but standing up for this country.”
When Enrile was jailed in 1990 by President Corazon Aquino on charges of organizing the 1989 putsch, he was left alone in Camp Caringal. Navarro visited him to pay his respects.
“Johnny embraced me and said, ‘I know who my friends are. Thank you for being here.’”
That friendship, in time, led to his writing Enrile’s 800-page memoir.
Did it touch on the much-publicized walkout of Enrile’s wife, Cristina, over allegations of infidelity?
“I’m no Kitty Kelly,” says Navarro. “I’m only interested in his political career.”
A pattern he observed in Enrile’s life is that “he would always be accused but there would be no proof.”
On Enrile’s relationship with his former chief of staff, Jessica Lucila “Gigi” Reyes, for instance, Navarro notes that “she’s a crack lawyer. He regarded her as an equal. If you work with Enrile and you’re stupid, he will make mincemeat out of you. Gigi stands up to him.”
Navarro has just completed Vice President Jojo Binay’s biography.
“Maverick: the Story of Jejomar Binay” chronicles the man’s rise from UP law student to human rights lawyer, on to longtime Makati mayor and then defeating Mar Roxas to become vice president of the Philippines.
“He is a lucky man. He is educated but comes from humble beginnings,” says Navarro. “That’s why he is close to the poor. When he was growing up, Makati was ruled by an iron fist by Max Estrella and Nemesio Yabut.”
Binay’s foray into politics came by default. Nemesio Yabut died of a massive heart attack in February 1986, leaving the post vacant after the Edsa revolution. Binay was one of the pillars of Mabini, a group of human rights lawyers who supported Corazon Aquino. She then named him officer-in-charge of Makati.
When he stepped in, Makati’s revenues were in the few millions. Today, it generates about P12 billion.
“Makati grew rapidly. There was a modus vivendi with the Zobels who wanted to turn Makati into a multinational business. But the Central Business District and the villages were ringed by the poor. If there was a wide gap between the rich and the poor, there would be problems of peace and order. As mayor, Binay didn’t adopt the policy of confronting the rich. He had tax incentives that were invariably used to improve the lot. There was social amelioration,” says Navarro.
Binay is credited with building the Ospital ng Makati and the University of Makati, providing free medical care and education to the city’s residents. Senior citizens are also accorded generous privileges.
Unlike other politicians, Binay chose to live in low-key San Antonio Village instead of Dasmariñas or Forbes Park. Still, despite Binay’s populist touch, he was accused of graft.
“Jojo was persecuted. Cory loved him and Ramos and Gloria (Arroyo) wanted to jail him. He was too independent-minded. (President Joseph) Estrada saved him from persecution. It’s hard for people to understand why he’s friendly with Erap. He is grateful to the Aquinos and the Estradas.”
After Enrile’s memoir, Navarro also dove into writing the biography of producer and singer Armida Siguion-Reyna, which captured the musical life of the Philippines in the early 20th century.
Former Cabinet member Vincent Perez also commissioned him to write the biography of his father, Commander Vicente Perez. This was followed by “Ad Astra Aspera,” the biographies of Perez’s great-grandmother, Rosa Siongco; his grandmother, Aurea Santiago; and his mother Lucila Perez.
“These women were very strong-willed that they conquered adversities. They had supportive men who were not threatened by their strength,” says Navarro.
Navarro’s own memoir touches on his travels, such as to Machu Picchu in Peru, and his passion for the opera and the arts.
“The purpose of art is to elevate you from the prosaicness of life. There is something more that we humans are capable of. There is beauty in life and we must share it,” he says.
The memoir ends with a celebration of life. “It is titled ‘The Half-Remembered Past’ because you think of the happy things, but you also edit the events that made you cry,” says Navarro.
“Every autobiography is bittersweet. You take the pain with the joy. You affirm what is valid and human.”