Nestor Bugayong was born in 1953, the sixth of 10 children who all had to work as soon as they could walk. At around eight or nine, Nes sold bibingka around Sta. Mesa in the vast city of Manila. Home was in the slums of Altura along the railroad tracks, and this proximity to trains was another means of earning a living for Nes – that of being a “taxi boy.”
The boys in Altura operated in twos, teams which raced stopping trains. Nes’ bigger and stronger partner would harangue a passenger with much luggage; Nes’ role was to run for a taxi. Eventually, though, the boys learned to run off, instead, with the passenger’s belongings including choice items such as the chickens of visiting provincianos.
Transferring to the outskirts of the city, in San Mateo, Rizal, posed the practical problem of increased transportation costs if Nes was to continue in his old school. His parents decided that he and a sister would live with an uncle until both finished high school. Life became worse. In Nes’ own words, his was a buhay-alipin, alilang-kanin existence. School was the only time not spent on household chores. And while Nes was consistently among the top five or ten in the class, he was never in the honor roll because then as now, receiving honors depended a great deal on a crisp uniform, a scrubbed appearance, orderly conduct – all of which were in stark contrast to Nes’ circumstances and demeanor.
Nes was embittered by this and many other forms of discrimination he had to suffer because of poverty. An experience that especially rankled was the inability to afford, in his freshman year, trousers or “long pants.” A classmate aimed for his short pants with a rubber band slingshot and hit his balls. Nes beat him up. He also beat up another student for taunting him about the lunch he had brought from home – dog liver.
By his junior year, however, Nes was indeed, finally in Section I – the honors section. This was 1970, and the school was V. Mapa, located on Mendiola Street, center of the student protests of the First Quarter Storm.
By that time he had also become an active member of the Malayang Kilusang Kabataan (MKK). They staged their battles against the government’s anti-riot squads from the fourth floor of their high school building, throwing bottles, stones, broken chairs, trash and trash cans. At times, they went down to actually join the rallies. The violence grew and during one dispersal operation, four students around him were killed.
Nes passed the entrance exams at the prestigious University of the Philippines but his parents said there was no way they could finance his college education. Nes submerged himself in a drum of water, threatening to drown himself if he wasn’t allowed to attend college. After half a day inside the drum, his teeth chattering and his lips violet, his mother relented and promised to come up with the money somehow.
In UP, other things occupied Nes besides his chemical engineering course. It was the height of political unrest in the country and he had joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK). Political involvement overshadowed formal education and Nes dropped out in the summer of 1971.
With other members of the SDK’s theater arm, the Dulaang Sadeka, Nes joined an immersion program that introduced them to the oppressive living conditions of the farmers. He, of course, was not new to poverty, but what was instructive for him was the comradeship forged by the shared adherence to democracy, equality and justice. He learned the value of being part of an underground National Democratic collective.
Revolution in Everyday Terms
The next five years Nes spent in the fishing towns of Navotas and Malabon as a community organizer. He helped build fishermen’s associations, trade unions and community-based theater groups among the youth. Nes became one with the community. He lived their lives, sharing in both their burdens and dreams. For a while, he lived with the septuagenarian Ka Kiko, the magsasaging (banana dealer) who trusted him with unlimited access to fruits stacked under their cots. Nes learned much about being a revolutionary from Ka Kiko, who had been one during the Japanese Occupation.
Nes also lived in Navotas with Ka Peping, a father of four children. He worked odd jobs, including a stint as a pedicab driver, to help support Ka Peping’s family. He was the nanny to Ka Peping’s kids when the latter was called for odd carpentry jobs.
Nes had melded into the landscape of Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan, Tondo, conducting political teach-ins, attending mass meetings and getting acquainted with new contacts. It was this oneness with the community that allowed him to elude arrest numerous times after Martial Law was declared. While the raiding teams scoured the area in search of him and other dissidents, Nes was able to weave his way in and out of the maze of alleys, shacks and dumpsites because people gave him sanctuary. “It was a little bit surreal, watching from a neighbor while the military raided the house of a family that had taken me in,” he recalled.
Nes began assuming other – more daring – duties for the underground protest movement including that of a courier. In June 1975, the State finally caught up with him. He and three companions were arrested by elements of the 5th CSU (Constabulary Security Unit) while resting in a safehouse in Novaliches.
Scars of Torture
This was the seventies – a time when brutal torture was standard operating procedure of the Marcos dictatorship. Nes went through unforgettable and unforgivable suffering during detention.
Upon arrest, he was brutalized for hours – basically hit, punched, kicked and slapped around until he was black and blue. Then, he was stripped naked and tied up with steel wire, his back slammed against a full-blast air conditioner. Ice water was poured over his shaking, withering body in intervals. This kind of water torture, while leaving no visible scars, was what damaged his already weak lungs beyond repair.
With the brutality Nes suffered at the hands of his captors, by his second day in custody, Nes was running a high fever. By the third, he started spitting blood.
Several times, Nes was brought out of the military camp and driven through areas in Paco, La Loma, Caloocan to force him to point out the safehouses of comrades and contacts. Failing to elicit a response, his captors dragged him to a burial ditch in La Loma cemetery. He was ordered to run. Nes knew instinctively: “salvage.” (The term coined to refer to the military’s extra-judicial killings – the indiscriminate, illegal and often brutal assassination of Marcos’ perceived enemies by his minions.) If he ran, Nes knew, his corpse would be branded that of a subversive who tried to escape the authorities. Nes didn’t budge. He was ordered to kneel. The barrel of a .45 caliber gun was pushed inside his mouth. At that point, Nes closed his eyes and had accepted death, he recalls. But this was still just another form of torture for the fascist Marcos machinery – another mind trick.
One of the torturers was a dark, medium-built but muscular lieutenant, a man whose red eyes bulged with manic anger. Nes later learned his name was Rodolfo Aguinaldo – the dreaded “Agi,” considered one of the Marcos regime’s most cold-blooded and efficient killing machines.
Nes found a window out of solitary confinement. He could join other political prisoners in a regular stockade, provided he signed a waiver that he was in perfect health. Even though for months, his fever refused to relent.
Detention: The Medium as Message
In Stockade 4 at Camp Crame, Nes learned pottery painting. Initially, handicrafts production was used to augment the prisoners’ allowance, especially for those inmates whose families could not provide for their basic necessities. Later, the detainees realized the value of their products as a vehicle for the messages of the anti-dictatorship movement. It was during this period that the symbols of birds in flight, prison towers and rising suns against red backgrounds became iconic.
In 1977, majority of the political prisoners detained in Fort Bonifacio and Camp Crame were transferred to the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center. There, Nes introduced a new line that was to become the most profitable of all detainee products – silkscreened T-shirts.
Nes was released in 1978. Within the three years he was detained, not a single hearing on the State’s charge of gunrunning against him took place.
In a sense, living in prison with other detainees gave Nes his moorings. The political agenda remained clear cut. After his release, though exhilarated, Nes was confused. He had been severed from the mainstream of the underground movement for a long time. Although he wanted to return to this, he feared becoming a “tracer” that the State could use to track his comrades.
In addition, in prison, Nes’ engagement in various arts and crafts actually sustained his family. Out of it, there was no source of income.
Nes began hanging out with boheme artists. Soon, he was downing prodigious amounts of alcohol, marijuana and more dangerous drugs. Nes’ appearance and lifestyle became no different from a vagabond’s. His already frail health worsened.
Aboveground Political Work
In 1981, Nes joined a non-government organization focused on consumer rights. He had found a legal and legitimate venue for his creative energy. He became the group’s artist, producing the drawings, illustrations and lay-out designs of the organization’s publications, posters and other collaterals. Banking on previous experience, he established a youth mobile theater group that helped popularize the issues of the protest movement.
Nes had recovered, psychologically.
Physically, Nes’ health problems were irreparable. By 1983, he was almost completely bedridden. He was often confined at the Philippine General Hospital. He suffered asthma, persistent pulmonary tuberculosis that was resistant to the usual chemotherapy protocols, and advanced emphysema. Nes had become a “lunger” – or in today’s parlance, a COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) patient. Breathing was such an effort every gasp was like struggling from drowning. Doctors considered surgery but decided he could not survive the demands of a major surgery.
Nes was married in 1983 – a marriage founded on a commitment to each other and the people’s revolution. With this union, Nes found extra support to parlay immobility into the creative process. He died in 1988, shortly after the publication of an anthology of his protest art works. (Kristina Gaerlan)