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“Our Generation of Youth Knew No Boundaries:” A Review of A Time to Rise

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Image of the book cover for A Time to Rise depicting people at a rally with the book title overlaid

A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) is the most vivid recounting yet published of young activists confronting U.S. racism and Washington’s empire in the 1970s and ’80s. If you want to get a taste of how Marxist analysis and organizational cohesion can unleash both individual creativity and collective power, read this book.

Stories of triumph, pain and determination

Here’s a sample of the first-hand stories of triumph, pain and determination this exceptional volume has to offer:

“Finally, Marcos’s plane arrived, and then there he was, right in front of me… Slowly and casually, I got the banner from my bag. Marcos started to speak again. I unfolded my banner and began shouting, ‘Marcos, Hitler, dictator, tuta!’ and ‘Free all political prisoners!’…Marcos looked straight at me and then, gesturing to the crowd, said ‘Paano bay an, mga kababayan?‘ (What is this, my countrymen?) He went on to discredit us in Tagalog: ‘Even if I wanted to debate them, they can’t even speak our language, they’re Americans!’ I shouted back ‘Putang ina mo! Sinong may sabi sa iyo? Sino ang Kano? Pilipino ako!’ (You son of a bitch! Who said that? What’s American? I’m a Filipino!’) Marcos was visibly shocked. And just then we looked up to see the kasamas on the freeway above unfurl the large banner ‘Down with Martial Law!’ The media caught all of it – everything!” –-Sorcy Apostol in her story, “No Aloha for Marcos”

“June 1, 1981. Shocking and incredible news is traveling through the KDP grapevine. I can’t believe it. This couldn’t really have happened, Gene and Silme have been shot! I can’t seem to get any hard facts, but they might be dead. They’re so young, for Christ’s sake…. Oh, poor Cindy. And what about Terri and her two kids. The parents must be devastated too. How do you handle your kids dying before you? Especially at the hands of some assassins!… I’ll always remember that picture on the front page of Ang Katipunan: Terri Mast, Cindy Domingo, Elaine Ko, Leni Marin. I know how much each of them loved Gene and Silme. How could they have found the strength, the courage, to get up at the memorial, in front of everyone, to sing The Internationale through their tight throats and tears, so soon after the murders? One thing the KDP had, for sure, were strong women.” — Lillian Galedo in her story, “A Memory of Strong Women”

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“When people learn the bits of my history that I relate in this collection, they may wonder how a teenage mother, then a single mother with three children on welfare, and later a mother of four could have done so much under such extreme circumstances. Certainly, my personal background as a child of a poor immigrant family gave me the work ethic to try to succeed. But I believe that many of us did extraordinary things because the revolutionary times we lived in called for that. Our generation of youth knew no boundaries or limits. Youth all over the world were turning the tables, demanding to be heard, wanting to change the world with a sense of urgent necessity. The rallying cry of the French students in 1968 captures our youthful optimism and audacity: ‘Be realistic. Demand the impossible.'” –-Estella Habal in her story, “I Have Not Stopped Dreaming”

Building a new revolutionary organization

The ’70s and ’80s were bumpy years for revolutionaries across the globe, and certainly within the U.S. The racist, sexist and anti-labor counter-attack against the gains of the 1960s was in full swing, the economy was being restructured, new modes of imperial domination were being tested as Washington experienced – and then tried to recover from – defeat in Vietnam. Every sector of the left was challenged as the surge of radicalization that marked the 1960s began to ebb and the ground beneath radicals’ feet was shifting rapidly.

It was in this context that a contingent of young Filipinos and Filipino-Americans built a revolutionary organization that stood in solidarity with the movement fighting against the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, fought against all forms of discrimination against Filipinos in the U.S. and shouldered more than its share of responsibility for efforts to revitalize the U.S. left. From its founding in 1973 a year after Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines to its dissolution in 1986, the Katipunan  ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino – Union of Democratic Filipinos, or KDP – was immersed in one practical campaign after another. It led protests against Marcos’ early 1980s “state visit” to the U.S., defended the rights of Filipino nurses facing harassment and discrimination, and fought to save the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, which was home to many elderly Filipino men (manongs). KDP spearheaded efforts to build militant and democratic unions of agricultural and cannery workers and fought to reform the racist and anti-working class U.S. immigration system. It exposed and successfully brought an end to a come-to-the-U.S. 4-H program billed as an educational opportunity for Filipino farmers but which was actually a method of providing U.S. landowners with unpaid, virtually imprisoned labor. The KDP brought together Filipino elders who had participated in the labor battles of the 1930s and ’40s, often as members of the U.S. Communist Party, and young people radicalized by the upheavals of the 1960s. It was ahead of much of that era’s left in grappling with issues of sexuality and gay and lesbian identity, but as Gil Mangaoang’s powerful “Hitting the High Notes” story indicates, this was no smooth or struggle-free process.

A Time to Rise, edited by Bruce Occeña, Rene Ciria-Cruz and Cindy Domingo, takes you inside those experiences – and as a set of “collective memoirs” it does so in a unique way. The heart of the volume consists of 41 individual stories detailing each author’s experience from his or her own angle. An introduction by Rene Ciria-Cruz, and a timeline compiled by the late Helen C. Toribio provide a capsule history of the KDP. A foreword by Augusto E. Espiritu, Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, sets the political context and points the reader to key issues in the collection. A photo section puts human faces on the stories told.

The result is a volume that not only delivers the basic historical facts in an accessible way but also conveys the complicated texture of the KDP experience by featuring different points of view and a variety of voices. There is no shortage of expressed pride in the KDP’s achievements. But there is no romanticism and no sugar-coating of mistakes and shortcomings. This is a “tell no lies, claim no easy victories” book through and through.

Though there is overlap, the individual entries are divided into four sections. “Beginnings” features stories of how different individuals got involved in radical politics and the KDP. “In the Thick of the Struggle” includes essays about the KDP’s singing and theater groups, the experience of building a KDP chapter, a cadre dispatched to join the armed struggle in the Philippines and more. “Looking Back” is just as the title implies: six contributors reflect on the KDP experience and what it has meant to their post-KDP lives.

“A Test of Fire”: Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes are assassinated

It is Part III, “A Test of Fire,” however, where the volume punches hardest. This section focuses on the June 1, 1981 assassination of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, KDP members and officers of Cannery Workers Local 37 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU); and the subsequent Campaign for Justice, which led not only to the identification and conviction of the assassins but proved that the Marcos regime had ordered the killings.

Essays in that section include contributions by Cindy Domingo, Silme’s sister, who led the Committee for Justice that conducted the multi-year campaign; Terri Mast, Silme’s widow, who became president of Local 37 in 1982 after the pro-Marcos President – who had been involved in the assassination – was ousted, and who is now secretary-treasurer of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, the maritime division of the ILWU; and Michael Withey, who  served as lead counsel in the case of Estates of Domingo and Viernes vs. Ferdinand Marcos, and who has just published a book on the case – Summary Execution: The Seattle Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes.  (Related to the release of this book, a new phase of the fight for justice has begun, focusing on exposing the role of the FBI in the killings: read about that new phase here.)

This sections sledgehammer impact comes from the way it weaves together many levels of this simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring drama: the vivid picture painted of Gene and Silme in all their dimensions, the emotional impact on everyone in KDP (and beyond) of their assassination, the channeling of anguish into a powerful justice campaign and the character of that campaign which combined large-scale grassroots organizing, extensive coalition efforts and a brilliantly conceived and executed legal strategy.

Differences with the Communist Party of the Philippines

A Time to Rise also includes as an appendix an article from the KDP’s theoretical bulletin issued April 16, 1984, “Orientation to Philippine Support Work in the Current Period.” Written amid fast-moving developments in the Philippines after the assassination of Marcos opponent Benigno Aquino, Jr. just after he stepped off an airplane on returning to Manila in August 1983. It expressed the KDP view in the final chapter of a long-running debate over strategy between the KDP and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

The KDP had been founded on a “dual-line” program of supporting national democracy in the Philippines and promoting socialism in the U.S., a combination that the KDP’s founders believed brought greater strength to each battlefront. Although initially supportive – or at least not critical – of this approach, in the 1980s the CPP started to press the KDP to give overwhelming or even exclusive priority to Philippine support work. This contention overlapped with longstanding differences over the “international line” of the Maoist CPP, which followed the Chinese Communist Party’s view of the USSR as a capitalist superpower and a more dangerous enemy than US imperialism. KDP leaders disagreed and offered criticism of what they considered serious flaws in Maoism in general. This appendix, as well as the discussion of the KDP-CPP differences in the book’s introduction and various contributors’ essays, sheds light on current day differences within the Philippine left as well among activists in the U.S. who are building support for opponents of today’s Duterte regime.

Like all radical reflections on past experience, the value of A Time to Rise is not simply or even mainly in telling stories of days gone by. Rather, its significance lies in the strategic lessons, fighting spirit and overall political legacy this exceptional volume passes on from one generation to the next. Fitting then to conclude with the last few lines of “Revolutionary Baby,” written by Rebecca Apostol, daughter two KDP activists:

“I have learned that our legacies lie in our stories – the ones we tell and, eventually, the ones that are told about us. For my unassuming father, I honor his legacy by retelling his story as he told it to me while I was growing up.

Through one of his most difficult trials as an undocumented student, thousands of miles away from home at the young age of seventeen, being demeaned as cheap labor in a profession he loved, my father found love, his voice, and activism, and he built a family. Oh, and did I mention that after the KDP and community exposed the exploitative 4-H international program, it was suspended?

This is my father’s extraordinary immigrant legacy.”