They had a choice. They could have chosen not to, but they did. I hope I will, too.
Of course I came to the pre-SONA (State of the Nation Address) forum organized in the University because of Jun Lozada (the whistle-blower of the multi-million-dollar bribery scandal with regard to the installation of a national broadband network for the Philippines). As expected, he was a political firebrand admixed with some level of docility when it was his turn to occupy the podium; his stinging remarks did not disappoint.
But who “stole the show” was a 60-something widow, whom I still can’t get out of my mind a month after my brief encounter with her. She recounted her life’s story with equal amounts of wistfulness and unassuming candor, impressing upon her much, much, much younger and sheltered audience the urgency of patriotism and selflessness.
Her name is Edith Burgos, wife of Joe Burgos, and mother of Jonas Burgos. Joe and Edith gained fame- or notoriety depending on whose side you are on- especially during the Philippines’ Martial Law years. Joe published materials through their “mosquito press”- their pesky system through which reading materials were written and distributed to kindred spirits so as to never let “the buzz” for freedom and democracy be quieted. She prided herself as being Joe’s bodyguard, as they surreptitiously spread their underground writings.
However, as is wont to happen, Marcos’s agents swatted their system. They became victims of the infamous ASSO- arrest, search, and seizure order. Their printing facilities were taken, vandalized, and padlocked. Joe and his staff were jailed but they were never truly silenced. They churned out editions of their alternative reading materials a month after their release from prison, culminating in the founding of a new broadsheet Malaya (FREE).
Through it all, Edith was Joe’s partner and ardent supporter. Certainly, I think she equally deserved to receive the honor Joe garnered via his recognition of being one of the century’s 50 World Press Freedom Heroes awarded by the International Press Institute in 2000. She continued to steadily work beside him as he segued into advocacy for farmers via radio, until his demise in 2003.
Edith has drifted quietly off the press’s radar, retiring after years of working in tandem with Joe. That is, until the abduction of their son, Jonas, in 2007, forcibly taken from inside a shopping mall in Metro Manila.
Edith continues to work for the release of her son, from captors that are alleged to be part of the Philippine military. Jonas’s work as farmer and membership in a farmers’ organization probably made him “a person of interest” to government forces, especially since his organization has been labeled as “an enemy of the state.”
When Edith talked about Joe and Jonas, she was not in tears. But she didn’t come off a calloused. What struck me was her matter of fact manner through which she encouraged the rest of us to remain hopeful for the country and to put that hope into action. She challenged us to go to the streets (Tell your parents that even Edith Burgos, a sixty-something year old woman will march on the day of the SONA…) but she also gave us the option to “fight violence with gentleness,” as if reading the mind of those who were less courageous than her. And that includes me.
I remember her best through the words regarding her missing son- if there should be a sacrificial lamb and it has to be Jonas, so be it. It was neither an act of surrender or defeat but an act of defiance- to accept the fate life has dealt her family with, to continue to make the cause of other forced disappearances more pronounced in media by way of talking about her own son’s plight. She is using her grief and longing for her missing son to attract attention to the situation of the desaparecidos and their families and the bigger problem of injustice in the Philippines.
If she can use the worst times in her life to do her share in making the Philippines a better place to live, I should be using the best of my personal resources to match her continued love for the country. If a widow with an abducted child remains committed to improve the lives of her fellow Filipinos, how much more us able-bodied young ones?
Find out more about Edith's search for her son Jonas here.