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UPSIDE (Cherie M. Querol Moreno): ‘Friends of friends’ prove Ninoy Aquino is unforgotten

AUGUST 21, 1983 is a date few Filipinos will forget for having changed the course of their country’s history.  That day Sen. Benigno S. Aquino was assassinated shortly after landing in Manila from political exile in the United States, an act that emboldened Filipinos everywhere to demand justice for the martyred defender of democracy.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Aquino’s younger sister Lupita Kashiwahara began gathering confidantes and allies to mourn the loss of her brother and celebrate his life with a holy Mass followed by recollections and a reception.  She called it “Friends Meeting Friends of Ninoy.”  The tradition was honored for the 40th year this week at Our Lady of Mercy Church Hall in Daly City.

Turnout at the event elated the retired film and TV director.  People from every generation – leaders of the People Power movement and their families, Filipino Americans who have brought pride to the community for their advocacies and achievements, and diverse attendees who care about Filipinos and the Philippines – filled the venue, exchanging hugs, many seeing each other for the first time in decades.

“This year has sparked extremely high interest among those who remember Ninoy and what he stood for,” Aquino Kashiwahara told Inquirer.net.  “Ninoy believed the Filipino is worth fighting for.  Four decades later, this is our way of proving he was right by honoring his sacrifice that freed our country from the oppression of dictatorship.”

Fr. Rey Culaba, officiant of the first Mass at the first anniversary of the assassination, presided at the milestone liturgy.  Community advocates Cynthia Bonta and Rodel Rodis presented the offering.  Philippine News Today publisher Francis Espiritu read the prayers of the faithful.  Former KTVU News South Bay bureau chief Lloyd Lacuesta subbed for his wife philanthropist-publisher Lisa Yuchengco, who had to fly to Manila and was unable to introduce speaker whose reflection culminated every program all these years.

Lupita’s husband and retired ABC news reporter Ken Kashiwahara’s compelling “Letter to Ninoy” brought attendees along on that flight with Ninoy.  He was the last family member to see Ninoy alive.  (Full text in this issue.)

Manzel dela Cruz designed the programme and Jeannette Vivez produced the video tribute. Members of Akbayan, Filipino American Human Rights Alliance and Concepcion Community USA reunited at the event. Ninoy Aquino movement founding member Goya Navarrete coordinated refreshments. Overseeing the milestone event was the one Filipino American who has adulated Ninoy the longest.

“I could think of no one better to lead our annual gatherings commemorating Ninoy’s assassination,” the retired film director lauded event chair Donny de Leon.

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SOME Filipinos who lived through the years their country was under military rule seem to have forgotten about Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., named the Philippines’ only other National Hero after Jose Rizal.

But not Donny de Leon, a Californian since 1979.

Every year around this time, the US Navy veteran reverts to the eight-year-old Barrio Balutu, Tarlac, schoolboy stretching his neck toward the sky, eyes squinting at the blazing sun while watching a helicopter touch down to deliver in person the man he had long revered, whose hand he craved to shake, whose “courage and selflessness” he sought to emulate.

Now retired and living in San Francisco, de Leon led “Friends Meeting Friends of Ninoy,” the annual event culminating this year to commemorate the 40th death anniversary of his hero “Ninoy” Aquino, who was shot dead Aug. 21, 1983 upon his return home from political exile in the US.

Ninoy’s sister and event mastermind Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara shared her choice for event chair.

“Donny and Ninoy were townmates, both calling Concepcion, Tarlac home. Donny still remembers first seeing Ninoy arriving at his hometown in a helicopter  while campaigning for the Senate.  He was only 8 years old but ever since has considered Ninoy his hero.  Today Donny has become a real people gatherer.  He could be our next great elected official,” she praised the activist whose community engagement began in 1983 while still with the USN.

CHILDHOOD HERO

The young Donny had heard stories of Aquino’s remarkable qualities from his father Pol de Leon, who was Rice & Corn Administrator in Mountain Province and a barrio captain with the Liberal Party.

The senior de Leon habitually called his 12 children “around the transistor radio at 2 in the morning,” Donny told Inquirer.net, to listen to Aquino’s speeches typically aired last as representative of the opposition party.

Donny was mesmerized by Aquino’s eloquence and even more by his fearless condemnation of what he saw as the abuses of the administration.

Coming face to face with then-Governor Aquino in 1967 is seared in de Leon’s psyche, inspiring him to become a community organizer and political activist.

Sixteen years later on August 21, de Leon’s paragon landed yet again on another flight, this time from exile in Boston. No sooner had the China Airlines jet’s door opened and men in military uniform entered the aircraft when shots rang out, screams filled the air and confusion erupted.

The worst-case scenario occurred: Aquino knew an assassination was possible and that it also would be the greatest mistake of those to whom he posted the gravest threat.  He left his chances to fate.

Aquino was effectively executed and left lifeless for hours in the scorching Manila sun.  Who actually fired at him and who had ordered the hit is still a matter of debate for many.

“I was at home in Daly City, with my family, when the news reached me,” de Leon told Inquirer.net.  “My initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief. Then my family gathered together, mourning as if we had lost a member of our own family. We cried.”

Their incredulity escalated to “deep-seated anger at the murder carried out brazenly” on the airport tarmac, de Leon said, punctuating his recollection with an emphatic: “I will never forget that day.”

De Leon revisited that day four decades later when he opened the brief program following Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Daly City with his loving recollection of how his hero influenced his and his family.  On behalf of Positively Filipino publisher Mona Lisa Yuchengco, her husband retired broadcast journalist Lloyd LaCuesta introduced former colleague Ken Kashiwahara who recalled the final flight he shared with Ninoy, his brother-in-law.

Father Rey Culaba officiated the Mass with Deputy Consul General Raquel Solano and Aquino cousin Ching Falcon, longtime community advocates Rodel Rodis and Cynthia Bonta presenting the offerings.

“I attended a Free Political Prisoners event at the United Methodist Church in Berkeley and feared for my many outspoken church leaders in Manila. I felt very protective of them,” Bonta revealed her entry into the anti-martial law movement.  “I joined the KDP (Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino).  The violation of human rights angered me!”

– Adapted from the original reprinted with permission from INQUIRER.NET

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HUNDREDS of relatives, admirers and friends of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. reunited last month to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his assassination.  The shots that killed Aquino on his return from political exile in the United States shook millions to take to the streets demanding justice for the assassination of the man who had declared “the Filipino is worth dying for.”

August 21, 1983 remains in the minds of countless Filipinos grateful for Aquino’s sacrifice so they could live in freedom.  In return they took to the streets, eventually forcing out the perpetrators of martial law.

Many who had lived through the repressive period and the ensuing restoration of democracy reunited Aug. 21, 2023 at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Daly City to honor Aquino and assure his family that they are not alone.

After four decades some martial law adversaries have passed on like Philippine News publisher Alex Esclamado, Steve Psinakis and Presy Lopez Psinakis, but Aquino cousins Gang A. Cheong and Joy A. Valdes sat on the front row with their families. Right behind them were Chita Lopez Taylor, her husband Dick Taylor and Aida Barrios, who was longtime secretary to the late envoy to Tokyo Manolo Lopez.  Ninoy Aquin Movement co-founder Goya Navarrete coordinated the buffet dinner.

The occasion brought together retired family violence prevention pioneer Leni Marin and ACLU stalwart Mila de Guzman, culture maven Malou Babilonia, realtor Susan Po Rufino, retired SF attorney Ernie and banker Mila Llorente, Inquirer.net chief consultant in North America Rene Ciria Cruz and Katipunan Ng Mga Demokratikong Pilipino comrades including Cynthia Bonta to the occasion.  Former Hercules Mayor Andy Paras, Tourism official Rene Santiago, newspaper publisher Fely Santiago made sure to greet Ninoy’s younger sister film and TV director Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara and her husband retired ABS News SF bureau chief Ken Kashiwahara and former KTVU South Bay bureau chief Lloyd LaCuesta, the event speakers.  Attorney Gen. Rob Bonta paid respects to the Aquino family.

Event chair Donny de Leon welcomed attendees with the story of how he met his hero, in hopes of inspiring the values Ninoy Aquino instilled in him and building a connection with the new generation he believes owes the Philippines’ second national hero a debt of gratitude.

The Tarlac native was a hospital corpsman with the United States Navy at Vallejo’s now defunct Mare Island, fulfilling his aspiration to live like his hero Ninoy Aquino – purposeful, bravely, selflessly – always giving his best.

A radiologic technology supervisor, he worked in the Kaiser Permanente system for 29 years and retired as assistant director of imaging services.

His community engagement began when he sat on the board of the Filipino American Political Association – San Mateo County upon invitation of community leader Alice Bulos.

San Francisco Chronicle captured him in an evocative February 1986 photo denouncing Pres. Ferdinand Marcos on a bullhorn at a demonstration outside the Philippine Consulate General.

At age 30, he was elected president of the Filipino American Youth Involvement of San Mateo County. Politics, economics and education topped their agenda, but the new leader stretched his advocacy mantle by attending the “Aryan Woodstock” in Napa to confront racism.

With his cohort Akbayan and Filipino American Human Rights Alliance, he roared back to the PH Consulate General in San Francisco to decry the extra judicial killings in Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.  (The anti-immigrant pronouncements of former President) Trump, he said, “reawakened” his activism.

Never too far from home in his heart, he is active with Concepcion Community USA and Saup Saup Scholarship Foundation, providing scholarships for the town high school students in need and outstanding college students.

Ninoy would have been impressed, even without knowing of de Leon’s bout with stage 2 cancer and ensuing procedures he says “nearly killed” him but which he has overcome with early detection, faith, and a loving family including David Swanson, his husband of 33 years.

– Adapted from the original reprinted with permission from INQUIRER.NET