Remembering Luis Taruc (June 21, 1913 – May 4, 2005)

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - October 12, 2020 - 12:00am

Writing last fortnight about the New People’s Army I brought to mind the Hukbalahap rebellion (1949-1953) and the outstanding leader of the uprising, Luis Taruc. I knew him well enough to have him as godfather of one of my sons, Alejo. I first met him around 1948 or thereabouts. I was then at the college of Liberal Arts at Santo Tomas, but I was also working as a staff writer of the National Catholic Weekly, the Philippines Commonweal. I covered Education and Labor, and every week, I visited the Congress of Labor Organization Office in Azcarraga and met Amado Hernandez, Mariano Balgos and Fred Saulo, all members of the old Communist Party. The Huk rebellion had started, and Luis Taruc and some of his men had come down and were billeted at the old Quirino Mansion on Dewey Boulevard. Luis Taruc did not recall our meeting, but he did recall that, indeed, he stayed briefly at the Quirino Mansion.

Given my village background, I have been interested in peasant movements, the Colorum Uprising in Tayug, Pangasinan in 1931, the Sakdal revolt in 1935. I had profound sympathies for the Huks, and as I told Ka Luis later, if I was approached in college at that time, I may have even joined them. Ka Luis eventually surrendered and was jailed. I visited him once at the Panopio Compound where I also met some of the young Huk cadres, all of them convinced that history was on their side and that their revolution was inevitable and righteous, their triumph certain. It was after Ka Luis was released from jail that I got to know him better. We had a continuing dialogue that sometimes became boring because he repeated so many times that he was not a Communist, but a Socialist – a devoted follower of the Pampanga Socialist patriarch, Pedro Abad Santos. This position defined him and created the chasm between him and the Lava brothers, who were the leaders of the old Communist Party. He professed belief in American democracy. He idolized Lincoln and Jefferson. It was indeed ironic that he became a victim of the Cold War paranoia.

I have a feeling that Magsaysay, his nemesis, was pressured by the Americans to jail him. I knew Magsaysay, too, and he said that he felt deeply what the Huks felt – their plea for agrarian reform, for at the root of the Huk uprising was the injustice and the tyranny heaped upon them by the landlords.

When Marcos appointed Conrado Estrella, my town mate, as agrarian reform minister, I asked him to take Ka Luis as a consultant. Ka Luis lived poorly. If Estrella did not give him a jeep, he didn’t have transport. His modest apartment was always filled with his followers for whom he worked. Many criticized him for kowtowing to Marcos; he did this so he could get benefits for the Huk veterans who, during the Japanese Occupation, formed the biggest and most formidable guerrilla group to fight the Japanese. They were, however, demonized by the landlords who dominated the government. On the many occasions that Ka Luis visited the barrios, I sometimes tagged along and saw how much the village folk adored and even worshipped him, kissing his hand and paying him the obeisance reserved for prelates and faith healers.

Seeing all these and basking in them, Ka Luis once told me that if he were a charlatan, he would have had a more comfortable life passing himself off as an oracle or faith healer. Knowing his simple lifestyle, every time I visited him, I always brought something good to eat. I must admit I took advantage of my friendship with him. He told me stories of the Huk battles with the Japanese and his miraculous escapes. He is in my novels as Commander Lapis in Viajero and as the retired guerrilla Ka Lucio in Mass.

Dik Trofeo, the filmmaker who was much favored by Ka Luis, made a documentary about him. It is rather long, but just the same, I hope more Filipinos, particularly the very young, will see it so that they will understand the sacrifices made by those who really love their country.

Whenever I could, I introduced Ka Luis to foreign writers. I also invited him to the bookshop for meetings with our writers. I introduced him to the late Edith Coliver, who was the Asia Foundation representative in Manila. At one time, Edith wanted to see the slums; Ka Luis was with us, and we went to Barrio Magsaysay in Tondo that I used as the setting of my novel Mass. Surrounded by those sorry shapes and sorry lives, Edith started to cry. Seeing this, Ka Luis said, “I’m sorry, Edith. I have no more tears to shed.”

Two books about Ka Luis have been written and a Japanese author also wrote about him. I was not in Manila when he died. A few years back, I visited his hometown, San Luis, Pampanga, where a small museum devoted to him was built. I don’t know how long that museum can be maintained.

I was never fully convinced that Magsaysay, by himself alone or even with American aid, was responsible for ending the Huk rebellion. Some years back, I invited the four surviving leaders of that rebellion to a closed seminar which I taped – Fred Saulo, Jose Lava, both Tagalog, Casto Alejandrino and Luis Taruc, both Kapampangan. All were jailed for ten years; they were meeting each other for the first time. They greeted each other warmly enough. My wife prepared a good lunch then after lunch, they started quarrelling, citing Marx to strengthen their positions. Knowing a bit about Marxism, I listened carefully to their arguments. It dawned on me that it was not the ethnic difference and the social origins of these tired old warriors that sundered the Huks. It was their vaulting egos and their incapacity to compromise that destroyed their organization. I asked Ka Luis much earlier if Joma Sison or any of the leaders of the new Communist Party had approached him for advice. Ka Luis said no one did. Thus ended the Huk rebellion, a heroic chapter in our history. But as Salud Algabre, a leader of the Sakdal uprising in 1935, exhorted, “No rebellion fails. Each is a step in the right direction.”

It is my hope that the future will yield great leaders like Ka Luis, brave and committed to this nation but willing to accommodate and be truly selfless in the end.

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