EDSA, World War II, and generational storytelling

Benjamin T. Tolosa, Jr.

Posted on February 24, 2015

HOW DOES one share the significance of Martial Law and the EDSA Revolution with young people who have no memory of this period in our history? This question took on a particular urgency last year when we saw disturbing images of Imelda Marcos and young Atenean scholars/alumni posing happily together in social media. It was seen as a moment of collective forgetfulness about the Marcoses and dictatorship. What are we teaching our students or have taught our young alumni? What have we learned, and how are our responses today shaped by our understanding of the past?

Every year as we commemorate EDSA People Power, we confront these hard questions. On the eve of the anniversary last year, Pia Hontiveros of Solar News Channel (now CNN Philippines) conducted “ambush” interviews of Ateneo Grade School students about the meaning of EDSA. I was pleasantly surprised when I watched my then 10-year-old son answer on TV, “EDSA was when we stood up when we were being manipulated.”

Talking to my son about Martial Law and EDSA is like my parents talking to me about “Japanese time” and “Liberation” when I was his age. This year we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and, in particular, the Battle for the Liberation of Manila in February-March 1945 which for my parents was a defining period of their late teens. My son is graduating from grade school. When I was in his shoes in 1975, it was the 30th anniversary of the Philippine liberation from the Japanese. Next year, we mark the 30th anniversary of the victory of EDSA People Power in February 1986 which for me was a high point of my youthful sociopolitical awakening and involvements. I find these generational parallels quite striking.

There is a literature in sociology that asks how generations are formed and become significant in social change. Generations are not to be equated with chronological age-cohorts. What makes them distinctive is their shared experience of a traumatic historical event that produces a collective consciousness with potential for action. But while this experience can set a generation apart from both the past and future, the focus need not be on generational gaps or conflicts. The very acts of storytelling that lead to generational self-identification also create the space for listening to others, appreciating what has come before and will follow, and forging intergenerational bonds. Social change can arise from generational dialogues.

But what kind of generational stories we tell will make a difference. If the stories of traumatic historical events are not just about injustice, destruction, and brutality, but also about how people can overcome violence, respond generously to a call to service despite adversity, and discover human dignity amidst seeming inhumanity, the possibilities for forging human solidarity, promoting the common good, and building lasting peace are enhanced.

My parents’ families were fortunate to have lived in the northern end of Manila, not far from the UST concentration camp which was liberated early in the Battle of Manila. They were saved from the burnings, bombings, and barbarities mercilessly inflicted upon the civilian residents of southern Manila. Their Liberation stories were full of their work as attendants in emergency makeshift hospitals. My mother wrote about her experiences in her 1948 college yearbook: “It was those first weeks of Liberation...I could not help feeling that I had some obligation...I had also heard of the lack of hospital workers and had listened to heart-rending tales of casualties pouring in hundreds from the Intramuros zone. I had felt so inexpressibly grateful that everyone in our family was spared. Here was the chance to prove that gratitude in deeds!” She tells stories of feeding an old lady whose mouth had been shattered by shrapnel, of comforting a young woman who lost practically her entire family, of admiring the devoted presence of a man for his girlfriend whose body was completely burned. She also says that the happiest birthday of her life was her 20th in 1945, because a 17-year-old paralyzed girl she had cared for and prepared received her first Holy Communion that day.

This human face of World War II was also reinforced by a favorite TV show from the 1960s -- Combat!. It was not about war-making per se, but about the daily struggles, dilemmas, and hopes of an American army squad in France. The war was the setting, but it was a show about human dignity amidst violence, which even the German enemies were seen to possess.

I experienced the EDSA Revolution from thousands of miles away because I was an overseas graduate student that school year. This is probably one reason why I see EDSA as not just the four days of 22-25 February 1986, but as a longer process of socio-political awakening, formation, organization, and practice in active nonviolence that was inspired by the self-giving of Ninoy Aquino in August 1983. Fr. Catalino Arevalo, S.J. said shortly after the triumph of People Power that EDSA as a communal faith experience was “a disclosure story -- a story of a person responding to what God is asking him [or her] and that in turn moving others to respond.” It was about being stirred by the bravery and selflessness of Ninoy and Cory Aquino, Evelio Javier, the Namfrel volunteers, the computer workers who walked out of the Comelec, the military personnel, the Church people, and many others who defied the violent dictatorship. These little stories of personal calling, painstaking work, self-sacrifice, and commitment converged in a nation overcoming differences and fears and emerging victorious at EDSA. Together we profoundly witnessed God as present and moving in history.

There is another crucial historical moment we are facing as a people today: Mamasapano, the Bangsamoro, and the continuing struggle for peace in Mindanao. How will our present generation engage the unfolding story, and how will we tell it to the next?

Benjamin T. Tolosa Jr. is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government where he is the Director of the Pugadlawin political education project for democratization. He also teaches in the Development Studies Program and Department of Economics.