I was born on 2 February 1936 in Binghamton, New York, the middle child between an older brother and a younger sister. My parents were both factory workers: my father working in a shoe factory for more than 50 years and my mother, in a children’s garment factory (before they all moved to China!). Neither factory was unionized. My brother and I began working at age 11 as newsboys, working later as janitors, construction workers and helpers on a beer truck in order to pay for our tuition.
My brother entered the secular priest seminary after high school—and a year later, I entered Maryknoll, a missionary society. I was ordained with a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Master’s Degree in Religious Education in 1962. One month after ordination, I was sent to the Philippines on a cargo ship that stopped at every point between San Francisco and Manila. We (classmates and myself) went directly to Davao to study Cebuano in the Maryknoll Language School in Sasa. Six months later, we were assigned to Maryknoll parishes in Davao and Davao Oriental.
After five years of parish work, I asked if I could take time off to study, and, granted permission, studied at a newly formed graduate school—the Asian Social Institute (ASI). I lived with the founder/director Fr. Francis Senden, a charismatic priest who was as much a lesson out of the classroom as inside. He made a deep impression on my life. My thesis was that ordinary people were perfectly capable of doing research and, oftentimes, embodied deeper insights into the workings of their environment than outside scholarly studies. The thesis was subsequently published by Rex Bookstore under the title “Mayukmok” (the little people) It was during this time at ASI that I came to know the late Senator Jose (Pepe) Diokno and family. I asked him to help me, at the time, to help acquire Filipino citizenship—which he promised to do.
On my return to Davao, Bishop Joseph Regan asked me if I would be willing to become the full time chaplain of a fast growing organization of farmers—the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) which I was happy to do. It was a time when there were many land cases with settlers and tribal communities against the multinational banana companies (Dole, Stanfilco, United Fruits). My role was to integrate religions Christianity and Islam with the struggle of the poor for justice. I travelled to the three Davao provinces, Cotabato, Bukidnon, Agusan and others. Tagum was the center of the farmers’ organization that grew to be the strongest in Mindanao.
On 23 September1972, the first day of the actual implementation of martial law, I was arrested while getting off a bus from Cotabato and was brought to the Philippine Constabulary Barracks in Tagum. It caused a stir in the town (Tagum was still a rural town at that time) to see a priest with armed guards walking to the PC barracks. There were long interrogations, four to five hours at a time, but eventually ended in house arrest for seven weeks. In the meantime, the Bishop appointed me as Social Action Director of the prelature of Tagum. One day, I came back to the Center to learn that the whole staff had been arrested. I went to the PC barracks—and they released the staff and kept me—but only for the day.
I slept in the convent on 31 October 1973 and when I awoke, saw that PC soldiers surrounded the whole convent. The parish priest was in the church celebrating mass and the soldiers were pounding on the door. I did not open until the parish priest finished the mass. I was told that I would be brought to Camp Crame in Manila—and I should pack whatever I needed. Though I was frightened, I received a warm welcome in Crame and made friends quickly especially with Visayan speaking detainees (including Dodong Nemenzo, past president of UP). The American Consul came to see me and told me, if I wanted to return to the US—it could be arranged quickly—but if I wanted to stay, “I will be on my own.” The Papal Nuncio came to see me and offered razor blades and a toothbrush but not much else. Through Nena Diokno, former Senator Lorenzo Tanada offered to defend me with another lawyer Sedfrey Ordonez from the office of Jovito Salonga.
One of the best days of my life was the day we entered the immigration court room. I saw the look on the face of Commissioner Edmundo Reyes when he saw our lawyers. It was like a basketball game between a professional team and a group of high school kids on the playground. A number of people, Bishop Regan and Claver, the Jesuit Superior Benigno Mayo and the Maryknoll Superior Jim Noonan and most telling of all, a fiscal from the Department of Justice Vidal Tombo testified on my behalf. Tañada said of Tombo: “I didn’t believe that there were still people like that in government.” I still have notes from the hearings which were not so much about me but the role of the Church in times of repression.
The trial dragged on for 13 months. The decision of the court in January 1975 was that I could stay but could no longer go back to Mindanao and had to report to Crame once a month.
I moved into a Visayan speaking urban poor area of Quezon City (Tatalon Estate) and became the dean of Sociology at ASI. On 18 November 1976, Colonel Rolando Abadilla and squad came to ASI and bodily carried me out of the building and out to the airport. (One note: I had hidden my passport under the mistaken notion that you cannot be deported without a passport. Abadilla looked at me and said: “If they allowed me, I would get that passport from you.” I had no doubt, he would).
I went around the US under the sponsorship of a Filipino group (KDP) giving talks on martial law in the Philippines. Eventually, I resigned from the priesthood and married the former registrar at ASI, Mercedes Verzosa, a woman I greatly admired. Though we were already old, we managed to have two children Alay (girl) and Laya (boy).
I asked Maryknoll if we can continue working with the poor even though I was no longer a priest. So we went to an urban poor area in Venezuela and worked there until, one day, I read in the local paper that Marcos was gone and the new Secretary of Justice was Sedfrey Ordonez! I sent him a telegram asking if we can come back and the very next day, received a reply: “Your sins are forgiven.”
One last note: I heard that human rights victims will file a case against the Marcoses. My case is far from being the most serious but when I asked, the group also included me. I resolved that any compensation I would personally receive would be for the peoples movement in the Philippines. So when I was included in the first group to receive the US$1,000 compensation, I gave it to the Confederation of Older People’s Associations of the Philippines, a confederation of poor older peoples organizations in the country.