PETE LACABA / MARCH 8, 2020
Artists gather to raise funds for the medical care of multi-awarded poet, editor, screenwriter, songwriter and journalist Jose “Pete” F. Lacaba at Kamuning Bakery Cafe in Quezon City.
INQUIRER PHOTO / RICHARD A. REYES
Only two or three people came wearing face masks, and those soon came off. Apart from playful stabs at the “elbow bump,” air-kissing and other forms of plague humor, there were few signs that the COVID-19 (new coronavirus) outbreak was top of mind.
Considering that the average age of the crowd gathered at Kamuning Bakery Café was right up there in sexagenarian territory (and above), they must not have gotten the Department of Health memo about “vulnerable sectors” avoiding crowded places.
But then, many of those who came for “Kape’t Ka Pete” had stared down a dictator in their scrappier days, some enduring prison and torture for their troubles. No mere microorganism was going to keep them from paying homage to one of their own.
“People should not forget that writers are important to society,” said the evening’s host, writer and Kamuning Bakery’s proprietor Wilson Lee Flores.
“Writers are the heroes of our culture, the social conscience of society—writers like Pete Lacaba.”
The honoree was his usual unassuming self, gamely signing copies of his book “Showbiz Lengua: Chika and Chismax about Chuvachuchu” for the people who were lined up along K-1 Street.
Mounting medical expenses
The event, which was subtitled “Unang Sigwa ng Salin-awit at Tula ni Jose Lacaba,” was meant to be a benefit to raise funds to help defray the writer’s mounting medical expenses. Lacaba has been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a fairly uncommon autoimmune disease that attacks the neuromuscular system, resulting in weakness, among other symptoms.
The lineup for Pete’s panegyric was impressive: Among those scheduled to read, perform or otherwise pay homage were National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera and celebrated poet Gemino Abad; noted writers Vim Nadera, Michael Coroza and Charlson Ong; performers Becky Demetillo-Abraham, Jess Santiago, Noel Cabangon, Cookie Chua and Skarlet Brown.
Just as impressive was the audience, many of whom had in one form or another helped shape modern Filipino culture as we know it today. In the crowd were artists, writers, journalists, activists and political figures. We saw National Artist BenCab, Danny Dalena, Fernando Modesto, Jose Tence Ruiz, Satur Ocampo, Ed dela Torre, Linggoy Alcuaz, University of the Philippines (UP) chancellor Fidel Nemenzo, Edru Abraham and many more, all of whose lives were touched in some way by Lacaba’s writings.
The “theater” was Kamuning Bakery’s ancient pugon or ovens, which had been gutted by fire some years back. It was a strangely appropriate venue for the proceedings—like many in attendance, marked by time and history, but still standing.
Lacaba himself is the epitome of the engaged writer. He is probably best known for “Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage,” a compilation of his reportage for the Philippines Free Press and the Asia-Philippines Leader magazines on the events that became known as the First Quarter Storm.
First published in 1982, it has been through numerous reprints and remains the definitive account of the student revolt that rocked the country and paved the way for martial law.
Embedding himself with the demonstrators and later recreating his experiences in vivid narrative prose, Lacaba has allowed generations of Filipinos too young to have witnessed the First Quarter Storm to connect with what is arguably the crucible of Philippine activism.
After martial law was declared, Lacaba—writing under the pseudonym Ruben Cuevas—wrote a poem titled “Prometheus Unbound,” which was published in the pro-Marcos “Focus” magazine. It was only later that censors discovered that the first letter in each line spelled out the slogan “Marcos Hitler Diktador Tuta.”
The prank landed Lacaba in a cell in Camp Crame, where he was routinely tortured by his jailers. It was only the efforts of Nick Joaquin, who made his release a condition of his acceptance of the government’s National Artist Award, that led to his being freed in 1976. Shortly after, he learned that his brother Emmanuel, also a noted poet and writer who had gone underground, had been summarily executed by the military in Davao del Norte.
Lacaba continued his resistance by other means, as a screenwriter (“Jaguar,” “Sister Stella L,” “Orapronobis”) and Pilipino poet (“Sa Panahon ng Ligalig,” “Edad Midya,” “Kung Baga sa Bigas”).
In his later years Lacaba turned his pen to more sedate pursuits. He created a form he called “Salinawit,” translating classic English standards into Filipino, and was until recently executive editor of the show-biz glossy “Yes!”.
Writers, of course, never retire. One can only hope Lacaba continues, like Prometheus in his poem, to bring light.
“The real epidemic is the epidemic of ignorance and apathy,” said Flores early on in the program. “The antidote to that is poetry, art and truth from people like Pete Lacaba.”
More benefits are planned for March. Scheduled for March 22 is “For Pete’s Sake: An Evening of Good Food and Song to Benefit a Well-loved Writer” at the Gourmet Gypsy Art Cafe in Roces Avenue, Quezon City.
Also scheduled is a film showing at the UP Film Center, with details to be announced at a later date.