Emmanuel F. Lacaba

(Eman was born on 10 December 1949, exactly a year after the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations.  When he was seven, the Lacaba family moved to Pateros, Rizal from Cagayan de Oro City, his birthplace.

Eman is recognized as a great poet, essayist, script writer and dramatist.  As editor of The Guidon, he channeled his passion and skill in writing to instill social consciousness among Ateneo students.  He fought for the Filipinization of the then-American dominated school administration and helped organize the studentry.  A participant of the First Quarter Storm, he joined Panday Sining, cultural arm of the militant Kabataang Makabayan.

After graduation, he taught Rizal’s Life and Works at the University of the Philippines.  He also became active in the labor movement and joined the Panulat Para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA).  He got involved in stage and film productions and wrote the lyrics for the theme song of “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang,” an award-winning 1974 film directed by Lino Brocka.  Not long afterwards, he went to Mindanao to join the New People’s Army.


The following essay was included in this collection with the author’s permission.  It was originally written in Filipino for a weekly magazine by Jose “Pete” Lacaba who also translated it to English and made it the introduction to Eman’s “Salvaged Poems,”a posthumously-published book of poems that his older brother Pete edited.)


On 18 March 1976, Emmanuel Agapito Flores Lacaba—my younger brother Maneng,
better known to friends by the nickname Eman or Emman—was killed in the barrio of
Tucaan Balaag, Asuncion town, Davao del Norte province. He was 27 years old.

I remember waiting in a funeral parlor in Pateros, our hometown, for the coffin that
was being flown from Davao and fetched at the airport. One of the funeral attendants
asked what Eman had died of. “Tingga,” I said. He didn’t ask any more questions.

Those who knew Eman know how he died. A report came out in the papers that a
certain “Manuel Lacaba” was with a group of New People’s Army rebel killed in Tucaan
Balaag, and not long after, it was confirmed that the “Manuel” in the news was indeed
Eman. Still, questions were asked by those who knew Eman—especially by those who
knew him as an award-winning poet and short story writer in English, as a flower child
who hung out at the hippie Indios Bravos Café, as an occultist who liked staying with the
messianic sets on Mount Banahaw.

The most-often asked question was what he was doing in that remote Davao barrio
at the time of his death. In 1976, when martial law was still formally in force and it was
difficult to explain these things, my usual answer was: “Perhaps he was doing research.
Perhaps he was gathering material for his poems, for a novel, for a play.”

As I write, nearly a decade has passed since Eman’s death, and I guess it is now
possible to admit a truth that even now seems difficult to believe: yes, Eman was in
Davao because he had decided to cast his lot with the armed struggle.

Eman and I differed in many ways. I used to be reed-thin, I’ve always been sickly,
and friends say I am too careful, too restrained; Eman had a fine physique developed
through isometric exercises, soccer, and track and field, and in everything he did or went
into, he gave his all. In school he was at the top of his class from Grade One to fourth
year high school, at the Pasig Catholic College; and when he went on to college, at the
Ateneo de Manila University, I believe he managed to maintain his full scholarship until
graduation. I, on the other hand, not being as competitive as Eman, was not as consistent
a scholar; when I graduated from high school, I was content to get an honorable mention,
and I did not even bother to finish my college course, having lost my scholarship as
a result of low grades.

When Eman and I went through our counter-culture stage,
Eman, I heard (we never discussed these things), went into the obligatory experiments
with marijuana, LSD, and other mind-bending drugs. I was content with two or three
marijuana sessions, and didn’t dare try the harder stuff. And when finally we entered
our activist stage, I was content to write polemical tracts and do translations, but for
Eman, wading was not enough. He immersed himself totally in the labor movement, and
afterwards he moved on to what activists call the highest level of struggle.

When I was in college and Eman was in high school, we shared a room in Pateros.
Four years and a sister came between us, but we were, in the Lacaba brood of six, the
closest. When he reached college, I was already in journalism and was often out of
the house, and he himself was staying at the Ateneo dorm, and as a result we drifted away
from each other. In college and in writing circles, he became “Pete’s brother” at the start,
and I noticed how uncomfortable he was in this role; he wanted to get away from the
elder brother’s shadow and establish his own identity. If I remember correctly, it was at
this time that he became Eman. He spelled it Emman in those days—with a double m—
though he later came to prefer Eman. At home he remained Maneng, just as I remained
Pepito. I remember kidding him about the new nickname he had chosen to give himself,
but in a few years he had become Eman at home, too, just as I had become Pete; and in
some circles, it was I who came to be known as “Eman’s brother.”

Outside of his poems and other writings, I failed to keep track of the development
in his thinking and consciousness. I don’t know exactly when his politicization
began, although I remember an argument we had in 1970, when he questioned the
concept of “encircling from the countryside” as inapplicable in an archipelago like the
Philippines. I probably became aware of the depth of his commitment when he requested
me, in 1971, to write on a strike in a small printing press in Mandaluyong—a strike
supported by a working-class alliance to which Eman belonged.

Signposts in the route Eman was taking are the names of his two daughters. In the
name of the first, born on the first anniversary of the “battle of Mendiola Bridge” and
the siege of the presidential palace by student activists, may be seen the varied and
conflicting interests of Eman in those days: Miriam Manavi Mithi Mezcaline Mendiola.
The second daughter, born two months after the imposition of martial law, had a simpler,
more direct name: Emanwelga Fe.

Emanwelga was in her mother’s womb when Eman joined a support group that
beefed up a strike in a Pasig factory. That was one of the last trade-union activities before
martial law. The strike was broken up by the police; and Eman—who at this time was
teaching Rizal’s Life and Works at the University of the Philippines—was among those
truncheoned, arrested, and locked up in the Pasig town jail. Thanks to human-rights
lawyer Rene Saguisag, then a Pasig resident, Eman and the others were released. A
couple of days after their release, martial law was declared, and strikes were banned.

Eman’s involvement in the strike, plus his brief incarceration, may have been one
reason why his contract as a state university lecturer was not renewed. And it may have
been at this time, when he had two children of his own and no regular job, that Eman
decided he had nowhere to go but the countryside, no option but to “take to the hills.”

The next thing I heard, after Eman had lost his UP job, was that he was appearing
as stage actor for the Philippine Educational Theater Association, he was writing plays,
he was studying martial arts, he was writing the lyrics of the theme song of the Lino
Brocka film Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, he was helping out in some film productions.
I thought he had found a new field of activity to which he would devote all his energies,
but toward the end of 1974, when I was already a political prisoner in Camp Crame, he
visited me to say goodbye. He was going to Mindanao.

Mindanao, specifically Cagayan de Oro City, is where Eman and I and all but one
of our siblings were born. Mindanao is where my parents met and married. Mindanao
is where my father served as a guerrilla in Fertig’s USAFFE unit during the Japanese
occupation. Mindanao is not alien territory for us.

After his brief visit, I heard nothing more from Eman, or about him. The next piece of
news I got was the one about his death. The day I was scheduled to be released was the
very day that papers came out with the news about “Manuel Lacaba.” I remember that
General Fidel Ramos, then chief of the Philippine Constabulary, when he handed me my
notice of temporary release, asked how I was related to the Lacaba who was front-page

I next saw Eman in a coffin, but from the stories of different people I have pieced
together the events in the last days of the poet-turned-warrior.

The first place Eman went to, as a member of what was called a semi-legal expansion
team, was the city of General Santos in North Cotabato. There were three of them on the
team. Two went ahead to the countryside to look for contacts; Eman remained in the city.
Because they needed money to survive, he was instructed to get a job and at the same
time study the ins and outs of the city. This may have been the reason why Eman worked
first as a conductor on a minibus.

Not long afterwards, Eman got work as a janitor in a karate club. Here, according to
a story that is beginning to be part of the Eman legend in Mindanao, a guy working in
the same club made life difficult for him. Eman took the guy aside and said: “Look, you
don’t know me, so don’t bully me around.” Eman then demonstrated what he knew of the
martial arts. It must have been a sufficiently impressive demonstration, because from that
time on the bully steered clear of Eman.

After a few months, Eman “went in”—or out, depending on your point of view—
to the countryside of North Cotabato. The nom de guerre he assumed was Popoy—an
allusion to a comic-book character, Popoy Dakuykoy, who was Eman’s persona in an
epic poem that Eman wrote in the Sixties.

Many stories are told of Popoy. The first places his team visited were part of Bilaan
territory. Because neither the Bilaan tribe nor the guerrilla unit spoke each other’s
language, Popoy would draw the natives and the things he wanted to identify. Through
his drawings he learned the Bilaan language in a month and a half.

He also learned to eat a Bilaan delicacy. When native hunters caught a wild boar, they
would store the meat in bamboo tubes covered with banana leaves. The meat would be
left to rot in the tubes for about two weeks, after which it would be crawling with worms
and smell to high heavens. It would then be cleaned, dewormed, and roasted. Popoy was
the only one in his group who had the stomach for it. The Bilaans loved him.

Another memory of Popoy is that he was endlessly writing. When there was no
more paper to write on, he would write on the backs of cigarette tinfoil. He wrote about
everything, and in great detail—his astigmatism, the difficulties he experience in the
bush, even the problem with moving his bowels. One day, according to his tinfoil diary,
the team had to stop because Eman needed to take a shit. When he had not returned after
twenty minutes, his comrades started to look for him. It turned out he had lost his way in
the dark.

When he learned to speak Visayan (or rather, relearned it, since it was the language
of the first seven years of his life), he put new revolutionary lyrics to some popular songs.
The lyrics he wrote are still being sung today.

It may have been from North Cotabato that Eman wrote to a college friend. In the
letter, he narrated how his team almost had an encounter with a much bigger group
composed of elements from the Lost Command and the Civilian Home Defense Forces
(CHDF). An indication of Eman’s background is his comment on the experience, a
comment one would not expect from the usual rebel: “As the Book of Changes says, our
minds are sharpened by the contact with danger.”

The next lines from the same letter are an indication of the changes that had occurred
in Eman’s consciousness: “I am very happy here, such experiences notwithstanding—
I think I belong here…. I feel no sadness anymore; I only remember … the world we
left behind, whose wiles of momentary farce and luxurious living we have to continue to
struggle against.

It was at this time that a new stage in Eman’s poetry began. His early poems were
highly complex, allusive, hermetic, obscure; we had, after all, nurtured our verse on
objective correlatives and the seven levels of ambiguity. In the English and Tagalog
poems that Eman wrote in Mindanao, you can feel the tension created by his attempt
to turn his back on his former style and to work for greater simplicity, directness, and
clarity. In “Open Letters to Filipino Artists,” for instance, you can feel this kind of
tension in his blending of “non-poetic” activist words and the metaphors and allusions
that do not reveal their meanings at first reading:

We are tribeless and all tribes are ours.
We are homeless and all homes are ours.
To the fascists we are the faceless enemy
Who come like thieves in the night, angels of death:
The ever moving, shining, secret eye of the storm.

Before the end of 1975, Eman was transferred to Davao del Norte. It was here that
death, a frequent subject of his poems, came for him.

According to the stories told of Eman, a comrade of his in the movement, a certain
Martin, was arrested by the military and “persuaded” to be a turncoat. He guided a PC-
CHDF unit toward a barrio that he knew to be one of the stops of Eman’s team.

There were three others with Eman; one was a pregnant eighteen-year-old woman.
They were not aware that Martin had fallen into enemy hands; and when they received
word by courier that an enemy unit was coming their way, they were not unduly alarmed.
It was just a unit on routine patrol, they reasoned. They did not bother to leave the
peasant house where they had spent the night. They did not even bring in their wet
clothes and shoes, which they had left outside to dry.

A bitter lesson was learned by the guerrillas who came after Eman: never leave your
clothes outside the house. When Martin arrived with the PC-CHDF unit, he saw the
clothes and shoes left out to dry, and immediately recognized them.

It was early dawn, before six in the morning. Eman’s group was having coffee when
they learned that the enemy unit was already inside the barrio. The news didn’t bother
them. There was still time for them to make a getaway, but they were confident that
the PC-CHDF team was just passing through and did not have a specific mission. They
simply kept their senses and their trigger fingers alert, ready for any eventuality. They did
not know that Martin had been caught and was no longer on their side.

When Martin pointed to the house where Eman’s team was quartered—“Those are
their clothes, they’re in there”—the military immediately opened fire. There was no
call for surrender, no warning shot. The people in the house took cover and deployed
themselves in battle positions. The commanding officer (CO) of Eman’s team positioned
himself by the door and shot it out with his AK-47. It is not clear from the stories of the
villagers whether Eman was armed. At that time, he was scheduled to “go down” to the
city for a new assignment—a task that would have made use of his writing skills.

When the shooting stopped, the CO and one other comrade lay dead. Eman himself
and the pregnant teenager were wounded but alive. The military ordered the barrio folk
to carry the corpses to Tagum town. Eman, hit in the thigh and limping, was helped along
by Martin.

A few kilometers outside the barrio, the group paused. “Let’s not bring back anyone
alive,” the sergeant commanding the PC-CHDF unit is supposed to have said. The
pregnant woman was first to be shot dead. Eman was seated on a rock. The sergeant
handed a .45 to Martin and said, “Okay, shoot him.”

At first Martin hesitated. But the sergeant was insistent, and in the end, according to
the story, Eman himself said: “Go ahead, Martin, finish me off.”

Martin put the .45 in Eman’s mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet on exit
shattered the back of Eman’s skull. When he fell, he was shot once more. The second
bullet hit him in the chest.

When the PC-CHDF unit reached Tagum, the four dissidents were thrown into a mass
grave. When the grave was dug up a few weeks later in my mother’s presence, a rope was
still tied around Eman’s ankles—a sign that his body had been dragged like an animal’s
carcass along the road. Eman’s face and hands had begun to decompose, but the part of
his body covered by clothes was still intact. My mother recognized him by the distinct
configuration of moles on his body; and a few peasants confirmed, on the basis of the
clothes he wore, that it was indeed the body of the young man who wrote endlessly on
tinfoil, who could write and recite poetry, who taught them new lyrics for their old tunes,
who told of his experiences as a striker at the picketline, an instructor in college, an actor
on stage.

There was no reason to doubt that it was the body of Popoy Dakuykoy, the “shy
young poet forever writing last poem after last poem,” the “brown Rimbaud” who had
been transformed into a “people’s warrior.” (Jose F. Lacaba, 1985)

By apol1972

2 comments on “Emmanuel F. Lacaba

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Salvaged Poems, Open Letters to the Filipino Artists – Barbara Jane Reyes

  2. Pingback: Salvaged Poems: Open Letters to the Filipino Artists – Barbara Jane Reyes

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