The (PIME) superiors in the Philippines assigned Gigi (Cocquio) to the PIME parish of San Pablo Apostol in Magsaysay Village, a shantytown for about 45,000 shack dwellers on the outskirts of Tondo, Manila bordering on Manila Bay. Magsaysay Village was part of the main squatter area of Tondo, also called Manila‟s hell‘ one of the largest squatter areas in Southeast Asia with over 300,000 inhabitants. The area was separated from Manila by a polluted river. The people living there were from all over the country and had come to the city seeking a better life, but either had no job or had fallen on hard times. Life was very difficult in the squatter village—no running water or electricity, dirt paths instead of streets, and no sewage. Malnourished children were everywhere and a lot of sickness and death. There was much disease and little money for doctors or medicine. Most of the shanties were shoddy wooden shacks with corrugated sheet roofing. Gangs and criminals were mixed among the good, poor people. And, there were the children — everywhere many, many children! (…)
Poverty in the Philippines was extreme. There were large plantations (some owned by Dole and Del Monte) on many of the islands with thousands of acres of land that paid meager wages to the peasant workers. Farmers worked for wealthy landowners and there was little private ownership of land. People from all over the islands flocked to Manila looking for work—but not much work was available. Moreover, most of the newcomers would end up living in a squatter area. Many young girls and boys worked for middle class and wealthy Filipinos as domestic servants–drivers, house cleaners, and laundry women, etc. Their wages were next to nothing. Most Filipinos wanted to go abroad and the lure of the United States was strong. The last years of the 1960s and the first two years of the 1970s witnessed the radicalization of the country’s student population. Students in various colleges and universities held massive rallies and demonstrations to express their frustrations and resentments. The country experienced the emergence of several mass organizations, among them most notably, a reorganized Communist Party and the NPA (New People‘s Army). The Philippines was in a climate of increasing opposition and civil unrest—there was an economic crisis brought on by external and internal forces, a restive and radicalized student population demanding reforms in the educational system, a rising tide of criminality, and a movement for secession in Mindanao (the southernmost and largest Muslim-dominated Island). Amidst a rising wave of lawlessness and the threat of Communist insurgency, President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972– Proclamation No. 1081. Marcos, ruling by decree, curtailed press freedoms and other civil liberties. He closed down Congress and media establishments, and ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists. Ferdinand Marcos was in power from 1965 until 1986.
In that climate, Magsaysay Village and Tondo came under the surveillance of the military, often undercover, and even attending Masses and religious celebrations. The PIME missionaries were organizing the squatters to speak out for their rights for water, electricity, better wages, and housing that is more decent. Parish leaders were formed and a parish council set-up along with community organizations to not only deepen the spiritual life and their faith but, also to approach the city and the government for their basic human needs (based on the process of conscientization of Paolo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Marches were organized to the Mayor‘s Office and to Manila city officials. Awakening the poor to realize their oppression and teaching for social justice were not very welcome actions in a dictatorship.
Many people in the squatter area began to be arrested and the work of Gigi and his PIME fellow-priests at San Pablo Apostol Parish came under suspicion. Not only were the priests foreigners (American and Italian) but, in addition to preaching the Gospel, they were training organizers to found community organizations–all in an effort to seek new ways to allow the poor and powerless to lift themselves up.
In a time of martial law, organizing the people was indeed suspect!
One of the songs that the people in the Tondo parish loved to sing, most often in the groups organized by Gigi and his companions, was Ang Bayan Ko (My Country) one of the most popular patriotic songs of the Philippines. The song was written as a protest song during the American occupation of the Philippines (1898 -1946) and was often sung in protest rallies and demonstrations. Due to the song being used against the Marcos dictatorship, during the Martial Law era (1972-1981), the Marcos government banned public performances of the piece; anyone who dared to sing or play it in public was deemed a dissident and could potentially have been incarcerated. In Tondo—small successes were happening—more and more people were coming to the parish, attendance at the Masses and liturgies increased, more children in religious education, more people received the sacraments, and small Christian community groups flourished. Gigi and groups from the parish marched to the mayor‘s office to demand that the city install some public water faucets and spray the area for mosquito control. The result was successful! However, Gigi and PIME in Tondo paid a bitter price—coming to the displeased attention of government officials.
The San Pablo Apostol parish groups began to organize a coalition of all the squatters from the wider Manila area. Many priests and religious sisters from around Manila joined them in order to show Church solidarity and to protect the people from the military.
One evening, after one of these meetings, a group of military and police were outside the San Pablo Apostol parish church and began to arrest some of the participants. Some people fled and others hurried into the PIME priests‘ rectory residence. A group of officers asked to enter the PIME residence to pursue the people, but they were not given permission. (…)
Two days later, Saturday, January 24, 1976 a group of officers accompanied by the Military Chaplain returned. Father Francis Alessi, the PIME Regional Superior, who happened to be visiting, opened the door to find the officers there. Gigi and Alessi were questioned and asked to show their passports. At that moment, the soldiers displayed an order of arrest for both Gigi and Alessi—both priests were accused of violating General Order # 2 –that is, subversive actions of protests and demonstrations against the government.
What occurred next seemed to have happened in a whirlwind, and would return hundreds of times to Gigi‘s mind. He would analyze the events and replay each moment repeatedly. Both priests were arrested immediately, put into separate cars, and taken to the Office of Immigration and Deportation where Commissioner Edmondo Reyes questioned them. They were interrogated about their presence in the Philippines, their missionary work and participation in marches and protests against the government. The Italian embassy was not allowed to intervene on their behalf. About four o‘clock in the afternoon both priests were driven to the airport and read a list of accusations against them:
– to have organized and participated in mass demonstrations against the government with the purpose to subvert the state;
– to have favored the formation of young people to join the NPA revolutionary movement;
– to have enjoined in a clear political action by a house-to-house campaign soliciting signatures for a petition requesting the release of Senator Aquino;
– to have supervised and controlled the printing of materials to incite people against their government;
– to have sent followers to the ecclesiastical provinces of Negros and Isabela to disseminate these seditious materials;
– to have organized a demonstration of workers.
Both Gigi and Francis Alessi were given a light jacket and some money because they had nothing but the shirts on their back when they were arrested. They were instructed to write a short farewell note to their fellow missionaries and a letter of thanks to Msgr. Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila. As soon as they completed the notes, they were taken to the airport and placed on the next flight – an Air France flight to Rome. Two Filipino military guards accompanied them on the trip.
The Philippine Customs never exit stamped their passports. However, Gigi‘s heart would be forever marked by this forced expulsion from the work that he believed in and loved. He began his missionary work to help others, now he was the one who needed to be helped. It was Gigi‘s belief that it is not so important how much one does for another, but how much one grows in a deep and profound way with the other.
The people of Tondo may have never read the whole Bible, but they knew parts by memory and lived it in practice every day of their lives spent in poverty and deprivation. Their life was like an unfolding of the events in Sacred Scripture, as they would have never been able to understand from a study of schoolbooks. Gigi had walked with the people of Tondo on a deep spiritual journey without once having intended to go against neither the institutions of government nor any doctrines.
And, this was now a bitter pill–to be accused of being a Communist. He barely knew what to say! He was thrown out of the country without the possibility to respond and he had to leave behind all those who were close to him on this journey of love and learning.
Many tears began to flow during the flight to Italy. Alessi said, ” Okay Gigi, let‘s cry for a few minutes and, then, think about what we are going to do”. They cried for more than a few minutes‘ and decided to try to escape wherever the plane first touched down before Rome. But that never happened! The plane landed in Rome and, then, the two guards handed them their passports. At the International exit, a PIME superior from Rome met them and asked where their baggage was. They stared at him without saying a word—all they had was what they were wearing!
It was winter in Italy and cold, and their hearts were further chilled by the icy reception they received from a few of the PIME fathers in Rome. Nevertheless, Gigi knew that the story was not yet over—neither his nor that of Tondo, because the sun shines on both good and bad.
The shepherd was stricken but the sheep would not be lost.
For the whole story go to http://www.hoaainaomakaha.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/The-Story-of-a-Pencil.pdf