Elisa Tita Lubi remembers as if her life depended on it. At 80 years old, she could recount the details of how she was first introduced to activism more than 50 years ago and how this would eventually lead to her many arrests under a state that fears women who speak up and fight back.
She remembers the names and stories of those at the receiving end of human rights violations as if they were hers. How could she not, she told me. She had to fight for them, and with that came the need to know and learn how to best campaign for justice. It was exactly this determination of hers that made her the chairperson of Karapatan, an alliance for the advancement of people’s rights.
Over our hour-long conversation, I realized, perhaps, like Tita, our lives depended on remembering. At a time when history is so easily erased, to not forget is requisite. At a time when the state could so easily arrest, kidnap, or even murder you for merely speaking up, memory becomes key to survival.
Being an activist is a constant revisiting of ideas—those that got you started, and those that keep you going. Tita remembers what sparked her political agitation more than five decades ago.
Unlike others who joined the movement in their student days, it was only in 1972, when Tita was a junior executive at an American company that she was introduced to activism.
Although she studied at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), first as an engineering major and then as a journalism student, her life then revolved around her sorority where she became the grand archon. “Before my activism, I was [in] sorority. Naglalakwatsa ako, hindi ko masyadong iniintindi ang aking mga subjects because I was busy with our cultural events and performances.”
In 1972, Central Luzon was struck by four consecutive typhoons that lasted for a month, bringing massive floods in the region and killing 700 people. Student activists visited Tita’s company, soliciting donations to help the affected. They carried with them short comic books entitled “Bakit May Baha?” detailing how the carbon emissions of big foreign oil companies affect the climate situation in the country.
It was then that she realized how our realities connected with politics. She became more involved with the students aiding Central Luzon and became more familiar with activism.
But that was not the turning point yet for Tita. It came when Ferdinand Marcos Sr. declared Martial Law very shortly after. News outfits were filled with stories of student activists being arrested, forcibly disappeared, or even murdered, including Tita’s friends.
“I decided na hindi pwedeng galit lang ako kapag may nangyayaring injustice. I have to do something about it,” she said. This would then be part of what she always comes back to in her over 50 years of relentless pursuit for justice.
A year into Tita’s activism, she would come to experience the dangers that came with the lifestyle. Tita remembers and shares each of the state’s rights violations against her, especially now that narratives like hers are being swept under the rug by an administration that profits on twisting the past.
In 1973, she and Nelia Sancho, founder of Gabriela and her sister in the sorority, provided shelter for three male student activists from UP Los Baños. On October 28 that same year, the house was raided by military personnel targeting the activists.
Tita recalls the events as if they just happened yesterday: First, they heard footsteps. Then, there was banging on the door. The army entered their room, grabbed their mosquito nets, and soon, Tita, Nelia, and two other women activists had armalites pointed at their faces.
One of the three male activists, Cesar Hecaro, was shot dead. Tita would pause for a bit before continuing with her story. “Ganun pala yun eh. Kapag namamatay ka, may gurgle,” she said, motioning at her right ear. “Ang tagal na pero naririnig ko pa rin yun palagi.”
The other activist, Vic Ladlad, jumped out of the window into the fish pond, and survived to be the peace consultant of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines 20 years later. The third one, Fred Malicay, was brought downstairs—then a gunshot was heard.
Tita, Nelia, and the other two women activists were brought to the headquarters of the Military Intelligence Group in Camp Aguinaldo where Tita would experience her first detention for 19 days. They were released because the general who arrested them was Nelia’s distant uncle.
Three years later, Tita was arrested for the second time under Marcos Sr.’s term. By that time, she had been working as an organizer of peasant women but came to Manila for an assignment. She was arrested by the same general who led the raid in 1972.
“Naalala niyo po ba ang mga mukha nila?” I asked her. “Of course. You never forget their faces,” she said.
Tita expected to see a better society when Marcos was toppled from his position. But what came was still far from what she had hoped. Despite the change in presidency, the majority of Filipinos still suffered under a system that only favored the rich.
In 1989, she was once again wrongfully arrested for subversion, and languished for a little more than six months in prison. It had been her longest imprisonment, but it was nothing compared to those who were jailed for years, she said. Members of Gabriela from all over the world campaigned for her release, and when she got out of prison, she joined the organization as head of its commission on Women’s Political Rights and later on as the founding vice chair of the Gabriela Women’s Party in 2000.
In all her life, Tita thought that Marcos Sr. would be the worst president—then came Rodrigo Duterte.
During Duterte’s crackdown on activists, Tita was charged for attempted murder for allegedly having been in a running gun battle with the military at 75 years old. The case is still currently ongoing.
In these four arrests and detainment of Tita, she had experienced psychological torture and sexual molestation. “I think in terms of torture, talagang nire-reserve nila ang rape para sa mga babae, pero syempre may mga lalaki din,” she told me. “Pero talagang kung kumilos ka na, syempre ay handa kang mapatay, handang mangyari ang kung ano-ano.”
Tita has lived to see another Marcos and Duterte in power, 51 years since she became an activist, and she is only bracing for the worst.
At present, the tandem is keen on erasing the crimes of their parents. The 2022 presidential election is proof of how far the Marcoses have gotten in distorting the events of the Martial Law era, and how Duterte has managed to paint those who struggle for justice as enemies of the state.
As perpetrators like Marcos and Duterte evade punishment, to resist and exact retribution is to continue remembering their atrocities—and Tita has been committing to memory every grave offense against the people.
Along with Karapatan, she sees to it that no human rights violations are unaccounted for and no political prisoner goes forgotten. The rights organization ceaselessly documents and reports any human rights violations, and strives to uphold the welfare and legal rights of political detainees. Tita has been a part of the alliance since its inception in 1995, and now, she has been its chairperson for five years already.
Currently, Tita shared that they were retracing all previous human rights cases after Gigi Reyes, former chief-of-staff of former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, was released from prison using the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Reyes, who was detained due to her involvement in the Pork Barrel scandal, argued that she deserved to be released after nine years of no progress in her case. It would hopefully serve as a precedent to release political prisoners who have been jailed for far too long.
Tita Lubi never wavered in defending human rights despite all odds. At 80 years old, she remains steadfast in fighting for the rights of the Filipino people, and her reason for doing so 50 years ago is unchanged: “We still have not reached the society that we want. We’re still in the struggle, and we can’t leave. Everyone counts.” ●
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