I first met Ka Roger in March of 1995, in a guerrilla camp located in the deep recesses of the Sierra Madre in the Southern Tagalog Region. Unlike most of the visitors from the urban areas who went to the area to join our comrade red fighters and masses in celebrating the 26th anniversary of the New Peoples Army, I was there to begin a new stage in my life; one of revolutionary service in the countryside. I had already been on short “exposure trips” to guerrilla zones elsewhere, but this was different. I was there to stay.
I was one among many revolutionary urban youths who were inspired by the Second Great Rectification Movement to join the rural armed struggle that year. I found it moving as well as hilarious at the same time when I later found out that our comrades that were left behind in Manila were severely understaffed for a time because so many of us had decided to go “fulltime” in the countrysides. Ka Roger was a very significant figure for us at the time, serving as a beacon for us students and youth. For all of us, hearing him on the radio, seeing him on TV and reading his statements in the papers meant that the revolution was alive and well at a time when the movement was just barely recovering from the excesses and mistakes of the previous decade. I distinctly remember reading an interview he gave to Kalayaan, the KM’s national paper, at the time. He spoke about the role that the youth played in igniting the People’s War back in the 70’s, how they bravely undertook the gargantuan task of organizing the masses and building guerilla zones with hardly any experience or knowledge of how to go about it…all they knew was they had to wage revolution! That definitely struck a chord within me, these guys definitely had guts! He never spoke about himself in the same light, being the humble person that he is, but he was one of them. No doubt about it.
Others claim to have been star struck upon first meeting him. Me? I was silent….not because I was in awe of him. I was perplexed, to say the least. I was surprised to find how short he was! The man whose deep and charismatic voice boomed across the airwaves, whose sharp and witty words jumped out the pages of publications, was just a tad over 5 feet….. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disappointed or disillusioned in any way….I just expected somebody taller! He introduced himself, smiled, shook my hand and we went our separate ways. After a few months, I had the privilege of getting to know him better over the next several years.
What he lacked in height, he made up for in so many other things.
Obviously, he was an expert propagandist and educator; with the ability to make even the most seemingly complex social and economic issues very easy to comprehend. I remember him fondly as an engaging conversationalist who could talk for hours on end about a myriad of topics; from the serious….to the not so serious. He was always game for a laugh, often trading jokes and good natured insults (his “Achilles’ Heel was his age) with the best of them. What I enjoyed most where his recollections of his youth, of his days as a peasant in Batangas plowing his family’s rice field, his stint as a peddler of mosquito nets and pillows, of how he came to become a student activist, his escape from prison and of how he reestablished contact with the movement. He also had a lot of stories to tell about their early days in the Quezon-Bicol guerrilla zone and all of the growing pains that went with it. Rather than assume that he was a man that liked to talk about himself, he struck me as someone who gave of himself to the point that he would share things about himself freely when you asked him, always willing to share his experiences (good and bad) in the hopes that someone might learn from them.
His carrying capacity was the stuff of legend. Aside from his cavernous backpack that could easily contain the equivalent of 4-5 regular packs, he would often sling a large “sako bag” or two over his shoulders. To top this all off, he would have his ever present belt bag that held his beloved transistor radio and other personal effects. This often gave him a look akin to a Christmas tree, if he had an extra limb or two he would probably have carried more! He was a hoarder of sorts who liked to collect odds and ends that he would bring around with him. Most would laugh at this habit of his but in retrospect his reasoning made perfect sense. All of these things would eventually have some use, he said, and true enough he was usually the “go-to guy” when someone needed a strip of wire or something or other. As heavy as his load was, he never asked anyone to carry any of his personal things for him. He often even volunteered to haul supplies when necessary and never saw himself as above such tasks.
Whenever we set up camp, he insisted on building his own hut himself. He wouldn’t turn down any help that was offered but he would definitely do a lot of the work. Usually, this wasn’t just any ordinary-sized hut; he would build a HUGE one that could easily fit 10-15 people. When I asked him about this he simply replied that he used to be content with building a small lean to, however, he realized that comrades as well as visitors usually liked to hang around “his place” so he decided to build shelters that would accommodate all of them.
For all the responsibilities that he had, he never assumed an air of importance. When most reactionary politicians and bureaucrats strut around with a retinue of bodyguards, there were many times where he actually preferred to go on solitary strolls through the barrios to touch base with the masses; even sneaking out of camp sometimes so that none of the comrades could insist on accompanying him for his protection. I recall that he sometimes referred to the support that the masses gave the People’s Army as if being “in the hands of God”. He was full of love for the masses, and the masses definitely loved him back. The old fisherman who spoke at his tribute said it best: in spite of the 5-million Peso price on his head, the masses never turned him in.
I had a very hard time choking back my tears during the tribute that was held in UP. All of my memories of him and so many other comrades came flooding back, especially during the video segments of him talking about his life…so similar to many a moonlit or fire lit night where we would swap stories or just listen to the radio. When it was time to sing the Internationale at the end, I could no longer hold back my tears which came in torrents. Try as I might to sing along I just couldn’t. It is always hard to deal with the death of a comrade, but it is always harder to deal with the death of a comrade you knew personally. As I looked around, however, I could see the theater filled to the rafters with clenched fists and raised voices. Though he is no longer with us, his memory and legacy definitely live on.
What I will always remember him as is this: he was a man who gave so much of himself but never expected anything in return. He was definitely the quintessential “son of the masses” who came from humble beginnings, pre-determined by the establishment to hardly amount to anything, but fuelled by his love for the people he was forged in the fires of struggle into the revolutionary we remember and honor today.