‘Sonny’ Alvarez -- Keeper of the flame
FORMER Sen. Heherson “Sonny” Alvarez succumbed Monday at age 80 to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). He was one of the freedom fighters tearing at the wall that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos erected around his martial law redoubt in the 1970-80s.
Alvarez was survived by his wife the former Cecile Guidote, founder of the Philippine Educational Theater Association, and their children Hexilon and Xilca. Cecile also contracted the disease, but has recovered.
In the 1970s, I was mostly watching from a distance the opposition hounding Marcos. I got to know Sonny and his cohorts better only when I myself went on self-exile in the US, where I published a Fil-Am newspaper and covered the Ninoy Aquino Movement there.
For a capsule flashback on Sonny’s oppositionist activities and his escape to America, I turn you over to Gerry Lirio, an Inquirer reporter when I was the paper’s editor-in-chief and who is now with the ABS-CBN.
In his piece on the TV network’s webpage that tags Sonny as a “Keeper of the Flame,” Gerry starts with the first day of the 1971 Constitutional Convention called by Marcos at the Manila Hotel to draft a new charter tailored to his authoritarian designs. The account below is culled from his article, edited to fit space:
It was June 1, 1971, and the 31-year-old Heherson “Sonny” Alvarez, delegate from Isabela, supposedly a part of the Ilocano stronghold, joined a bloc that refused to listen. They walked out and went back only after Marcos’ speech.
Marcos declared martial law in September 1972 and had 11 opposition ConCon delegates arrested, padlocked the Congress and took control of several private businesses.
Government agents failed to locate Alvarez who had gone back to his office in Quezon City, according to his then-girlfriend Cecile in an article she wrote for the Inquirer in September 2015.
She recalled TV-film director Lupita Aquino (now Kashiwahara) telling her that night when the military arrested her brother Sen. Ninoy Aquino in a meeting at the Manila Hilton: “Everybody in the opposition is being jailed!”
From his office, Alvarez hurried to the office of a colleague at the Batasan, later to the office of another ConCon delegate, Sotero Laurel, brother of Salvador Laurel who would later become vice president.
“Sonny said his heart was beating so fast when he heard soldiers going up the stairs and banging on his office door,” Cecile said. “They found no one in his office but took documents. He was safe for the moment. It was an act of Divine Providence.”
Sometime later, Sonny called her, wrapping their conversation in codes. And when they rendezvoused, they did so in disguise.
She recalled: “Sonny had to go underground and it was a more nerve-wracking experience because I could not call unless a number was left for ‘Sister Carolina’ to return the call. It was always a number that changed. ‘Father Joseph’… there were different names he would use as we deciphered messages within a conversation ostensibly about religion.”
After weeks of hide-and-seek with the military, Sonny got word to see the ConCon head, former President Diosdado Macapagal, at his house in Forbes Park. He wanted to send Sonny to the US to help Raul Manglapus (Marcos’ opponent in the 1965 presidential election) influence public opinion there by exposing corruption and human rights violations in the Philippines.
Sonny was chosen because he was a young bachelor and considered competent enough to undertake what they called “mission impossible.” He agreed.
Before leaving, Sonny went to his parents, Capt. Marcelo Alvarez and Juanita Turingan, a public school teacher. Both had been harassed by soldiers inquiring about his whereabouts.
He told his parents about his coming trip and apologized for the troubles he had caused them. His father, a guerrilla during the Japanese Occupation, asked him to reconsider. When Sonny said no, his father hugged and saluted him. His mother told him: “Do what you believe is right. Always follow your conscience. And don’t forget to pray.” He was in tears when he walked away.
That was the last time Sonny saw his father, who had a heart attack after learning that Sonny’s brother was “brutally tortured, his eyes gouged out, his tongue cut and his head bashed.” They found his body in the churchyard of Santiago, Isabela.
Then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile told Cecile to tell Sonny to surrender. “(We) have accounted for all the (opposition ConCon) delegates except Alvarez and (Bonifacio) Gillego,” he said. “You better tell Alvarez to surrender or he’ll be shot on sight.”
Sonny boarded incognito a ship of a Greek captain bound for Hong Kong, according to Cecile. Throughout the trip, he was restless and sleepless until he set foot on American soil.
In the US, Sonny linked up with Manglapus and Gillego, a soldier-turned-human rights advocate who challenged Marcos’s war records. Manglapus was on a speaking tour when the declaration of martial law forced him to stay. He organized the Movement for Free Philippines to consolidate the opposition in the US.
But it was not easy for Sonny. He learned that as the opposition leaders back home were not united, so were they also in the US. He had to go from house to house to campaign for unity on a shoestring budget.
Sonny admitted later in an interview that he, Manglapus and Gillego had difficulty mustering the support of Filipinos in the US, because the early immigrants had Ilocano roots and a natural affinity with Marcos. He said they made progress only after two years.
(By the time in the 1980s when I was residing in San Francisco, publishing The Filipino Times in the Bay Area, I had more or less the same assessment of the political opposition in the West Coast.)