I wish I had gotten to know my Tito Liling, the eldest born to my paternal grandparents, Rafael and Inocencia (Reyes) Roces, as well as I did all of Dad’s seven other brothers. We lost him too soon, at age 32. Four brothers are still very much around—Ding, 88, Marquitos, 90, Pipo, 98, and Peping, 100.
Liling was named Rafael Jr., and his brothers would be the first to concede no one deserved that honor more. He is the family’s very own hero, one of a batch of 28 men sent to their brutal martyrdom toward the end of the war; they were among those honored on Aug. 31, National Heroes’ Day.
With little help from government, Lolo was relentless in his search for the remains of his son. After the painful discovery, he himself secured a property in the North Cemetery on which he asked his nephew-in-law Pablo Antonio to build the monument and the niches for all 28. Lolo tapped some of the affluent families among the victims, like the Elizaldes and De la Ramas, to also contribute.
Liling was imprisoned at Fort Santiago, but, unlike his brother Tuting, also a prisoner there, he never made it back home. He was the chair of the Civil Liberties Movement in 1940, a columnist for the Roces-owned daily Tribune, resigning when the Japanese took it over. With his friends Lorenzo Tañada, Antonio Bautista, J.B.L. Reyes, Dr. Ramon Santos, Jesus Barrera and Manuel Manahan, among others, he put up a counterpropaganda magazine, Free Philippines, using the nom de guerre Gulok (long knife). To me, he may be unknown, but looms larger than life.
It was Dad, the third son, who first fleshed Liling out for me from firsthand memory and in stories. All his recollections seem to indicate that, among the brothers, he was the closest to him. Alas, each of the other brothers has his own stories to tell for proof of the same distinction. That’s how greatly he was coveted in sibling memory.
For us, the younger generation, memory is filled with rich detail by the book of his youngest brother, Alfredo, “Looking for Liling.” It serves in fact as official family history.
Dad spoke of how grateful he was to Liling and his wife, Noring, for having taken him and his girlfriend, Mom, into their home when they had nowhere else to go on an impulse elopement—Dad was 19 and Mom 15. By then, Liling and Noring had moved out of Lolo and Lola’s manor to be on their own and were to become my parents’ nuptial godparents. After the war, it was Dad’s turn to return the favor; Liling’s widow and his two kids stayed with us for a while.
Understandably, Lola did not welcome my parents’ ill-planned union and tried to persuade them to rethink it. Mom’s pregnancy, with me, resolved the issue perforce; Lola asked them to move into the very room that Liling and Noring had vacated. Thus was I to the manor born.
Among Dad’s fondest memories was working for the Promenade, the more literary of two magazines Liling put up in 1941—the other was Sports Spotlight. The tallest brother, Liling played basketball for Ateneo, and he asked Dad, for a small fee, to help some of Liling’s teammates with their writing assignments so they could have more time for practice.
Dad describes Promenade in Ding’s book: “Liling modeled it on The New Yorker,” he said, “too highbrow for the average Filipino reader and also too pricey. It lasted a couple of years or so. But Promenade helped a lot of young people who became famous writers later on.”
Indeed, its list of its staff reads like a literary hall of fame. Daisy Hontiveros was one of its editors, and among its writers were Leon Ma. Guerrero, Salvador Lopez, Cipriano Cid, Federico Mangahas, Hernan Abaya, Primitivo Mauricio, Teodoro Locsin and Arsenio Lacson. Its maiden issue featured writer-photographer Yay Panlilio, a pretty American mestiza; she would become a high-ranked intelligence officer in Marking’s guerilla force and Liling’s connection in the movement.
Liling gave Dad his first job, which paid P6.25 weekly. I guess we lived on it, augmented by an allowance from Lola. When the magazine held a contest offering a cash prize for story writing, Dad joined it using a pen name. Liling, unaware, awarded his story the top prize, and, claiming his check from his cousin, Itong Reyes, the magazine’s accountant, he was forced to reveal himself.
It’s unimaginable how Dad must have agonized over Liling’s execution on Aug. 28, 1944. It remains for me a horrible thought even today.
Ding reconstructs the horror in his book: ”They were brought in two trucks to their execution, but before that they stopped at Chinese General Hospital, their blood extracted for wounded Japanese soldiers, leaving just enough to keep them alive. In this weakened state, they faced [the] judge who ordered their execution. They were given a cigarette to [pass around for a puff] to deaden the nerves along with any will to resist. In batches of four, the condemned  were told to kneel and sit on their legs at the edge of a newly dug grave with their head jutting over the hole, while the Bilibid guard drew his gleaming samurai and raised it with both hands high over his head. Don’t believe all those legends about samurai prowess. It was not always a clean cut”—Liling had a cut in his jaw to prove it.
I don’t blame cousin Sylvia for wishing he had lived to be her father instead of dying a hero for his country. And, given where we are today, the torment must have become greater for the families our heroes left behind.