by Leon Ma. Guerrero
(Originally published in The Sentinel under the pen name Ignacio Javier on May 19, 1949; reprinted in his anthology, We Filipinos in 1953)
By some coincidence I got to know both Doña Aurora and Baby Quezon* well at about the same time, on Corregidor. I had met them before that, of course, but it was only during the first days of that historic siege that I had the privilege of more than a casual acquaintance. I was on Corregidor at that time awaiting an assignment from General (then Major) Romulo, and President Quezon was kind enough to give me a berth in his own tunnel. They were days of very great strain and tension. The enemy was bombing Corregidor continuously and the news from the front was bad. The enormous burden of responsibility, together with the dank air of the underground tunnel, made the President haggard and worn. But I never saw Doña Aurora lose her poise. She was a very pious lady, with a profound faith in God and His saints, and I daresay she found in religion a secure refuge that even the whine of enemy bombs could not penetrate. She had a small chapel put up at the end of the lateral tunnel where we were staying and there was Mass every day.
The last time I saw her before I left for Bataan, she was sitting serenely in the midst of the chatter and clatter of the hospital tunnel, reading the life of Saint Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary. She smiled when I said goodbye and told me to pray that God should keep and bless us all. I was very deeply moved because I suddenly remembered my mother in Manila; it was just exactly what she would have told me and my mind gave a start of recognition, made a brief but tender identification between my mother and this pious lady quietly reading the life of a saint.
Baby –she hated to be called Baby– was the child of her father, whom she adored. I have often thought that she never married because she never did find anyone who could measure up to that vivid and gallant genius. She was quarreling with him at that time. She wanted to go to the front. Baby hated hypocrisy and histrionics, and she meant what she said. “She should have been a man,” the President told me. I could see he was pleased with her. If it had been left to the two of them probably he would have let her go and he would have gone with her. But to headquarters it was unthinkable. Baby never did get to the front. I was fatuous enough to tell her once she had a masculine mind. She was frank, uncompromising, even ruthless. If she learned anything from her father, it was to have a mind of her own and to say it out loud.
In Bataan I shared the same tent with Philip Buencamino, who was later to marry Nini Quezon. He was the aide of General de Jesus, the chief of military intelligence, to which I had been assigned. I remember distinctly that one of the first things Philip and I ever did was to ride out in the general’s command car along the east coast out of pure curiosity. The enemy’s January offensive was turning the USAFFE flank and all along the highway we met retreating units. Then there was nothing: only the open road, the dry and brittle stubble of the abandoned fields, and in the distance the smoke of a burning town. We turned back hurriedly; we had gone too far. I am afraid we never got any closer to the front lines. Our duties were behind the lines. We were quite close during the entire campaign until I was evacuated to the Corregidor hospital, and I developed a sincere admiration for Philip. He was a passionate nationalist who could not stomach racial discrimination, and I remember him best in a violent quarrel with an American non-commissioned officer whom he considered insolent toward his Filipino superiors.
Nationalism was a trait of all the Quezons; it was the secret of their greatness. There was nothing personal in the feeling for they themselves were never in a position where they might be subject to discrimination. But for them it was a matter of principle that the Filipino was just as good as anybody else. Even the serene and gentle Doña Aurora had an intense feeling for the dignity of the race. She insisted for instance on the independence of the Philippine Red Cross.
That was a great part of the tragedy of her death, and of the deaths of Baby and Philip**. Surely it is a bitter and shameful irony that they should have died at the hands of their own countrymen, whom they loved so uncompromisingly. But their death is also tragic because it was dealt to them by those who considered themselves victims of social injustice. For the administration of Manuel Quezon as first President of the Commonwealth was devoted precisely to the cause of social justice. There is in every man a secret and obscure instinct that gives him a warning of his fate, and it is possible Quezon had a premonition of tragedy that intensified his great crusade. He came from the poor and he knew the blind rage that can blaze in the dry and shriveled hearts of the dispossessed. Perhaps, in the stately halls of Malacañan, he foresaw in a flash of prophecy that bend in a narrow road, the cruel talahib*** tall as a man, the thorny forest, the sombre mountains, and then suddenly the ripping slash of a machine-gun.
There are still many things we do not understand about the tragedy of the Quezons. Was the ambush intended for them or for another? If for them, to what purpose? Was it to shock the country into remembrance that it was still at war, civil war? Was it to complete the discredit of the administration? Was it purely robbery or indiscriminate reprisal?
Luis Taruc**** was a frequent visitor in the Quezon house before he took to the field. He had long hours of conversation with Baby, who admired his mind and his inflexible will, so rare among the men she knew. Taruc denied that the Huk high command had any designs against the Quezons and pledged the punishment of those who had broken their “iron discipline”. The local Huk commander, for his part, declared that the ambush was only an ordinary hold-up and that he would have stopped the massacre, if he could.
One thing was sure. We could no longer under-estimate the emotional drive behind the peasant rebellion. Most people, when they heard of the Baler murders, asked themselves in sincere confusion: “But why? How could they do such a thing? How could they shoot down a lady like Doña Aurora and rob her lifeless corpse? She never did them any harm. On the contrary, she tended to their needs. She begged for them. She fought for them. How could they do it?”
People who has this have never been hunted. They have never starved and shivered in hiding. They have never felt that the hand of every man was turned against them. But the outcasts of society, or those whom society has made outcasts, no longer recognizes any duties to it. Humanity is their enemy. All those who have homes while they lack a roof over their heads; who have food on their tables while they must pick the fruits and berries of the forest; who have clothes on their backs while their own rags are torn in the underbrush; who can sleep secure while they must start with panic at the sound of every twig breaking in the night -all these are their enemies. And they watch for the time when they can hit back, briefly, blindly, but enough to soothe their wild envy and humbled pride; they watch the laborers clearing the winding road; they watch the bright banners of welcome waving in the forbidden towns -an enemy comes, one of the happy and secure- they watch the long rich plumes of dust sweeping across the gorges from the road –their hand is eager on the smooth barrel of the gun– one more chance to get back at them, no matter who, no matter if the gentle lady in the official car is a friend, for they have no friends, and so they press the trigger.
*Aurora Aragon was the widow of Manuel Luis Quezon, elected first President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935, and re-elected in 1941. The Quezons had three children, Maria Aurora (Baby), Zeneida (Nini) and Manuel, Jr. (Nonong).
** Mrs. Quezon, her daughter Baby, and Philip Buencamino III were ambushed and murdered by the Huks (Communist-led peasant partisans) on a trip to the Quezon’s native village of Baler.
*** Wild grass
**** The commander of the Huk guerrillas.