Memory and Resistance: The Desaparecidos Monument in Oton, Iloilo

2I wrote this commentary for the Philippine Online Chronicles.

Seemingly out of nowhere, motorists travelling along the Iloilo-Antique National Highway pass by a striking concrete monument in Barangay Cabanbanan, Municipality of Oton.

The signage beside the road reads: “Mag-ingat sa mandurukot. Dito dinukot ng mga militar si Nilo Arado at Maria Luisa Posa-Dominado.”

The sculpted marker consists of 3 poles that are about 3 meters tall and 50 centimetres wide. These are shaped like torches rising above the ground with the flames taking the form of faces and raised fists painted in fiery red and orange.

The sculpture stands on the spot where the two progressive leaders were abducted by alleged military agents about 8 kilometres from Iloilo City.

The faces evoke pain and rage while slogans carved on the monument echo the calls to have the desaparecidos surfaced and reunited with their relatives and comrades.

Just below the faces, the names of 202 activists abducted under the 9-year rule of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are etched on the body of the poles which are coated in yellow paint.

Last April 12, the family, friends, and colleagues of Arado, Dominado, and other missing activists held a program beside the marker to remember their abduction in 2007.

The families, friends and colleagues of the missing activists carry this torch as a symbol of the continuing struggle for justice and freedom passed on to them by their missing loved ones.

They paid for the construction of the monument which was unveiled to the public last August 30 alongside the International Day of the Disappeared.

They also commissioned Oton-based sculptor Gregorio “Boy” Masculino to conceptualize and erect the shrine which was then completed in two weeks with the help of seven craftsmen.

An Act of Courage

For the German literary critic Walter Benjamin, artworks in the ancient and medieval eras were mainly embedded in the fabric of traditional rites.

The purpose of artistic production began to assume a different form with the advent of capitalism when artworks inevitably became commodities for exchange in the market.

The value of a work of art to a specific history and location, its authenticity which had its basis in ritual, and consequently its aura began to fade.

But artworks like the desaparecidos monument in Oton, Iloilo resist this logic of capital and instead move in the opposite direction.

It has an aura that radiates “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” [1]

“As an artist, I put myself in the position of the families to understand how they feel,” said Masculino, explaining his creation’s belongingness to history.

Not only is the marker firmly rooted in social reality, it also unflinchingly resists the forgetting of the missing activists and the struggles they fought for.

The erecting of the monument is an act of courage.

This must be pointed out in the context of its standing up against the reign of state terror that fully blossomed under Martial Law but failed to wither away even after the ouster of Marcos in 1986.

The marker also resists the way discourse is fashioned in such a way that the loss of some lives is recognized while the public mourning of others are discouraged.

We are now familiar with the way mass media trains its lenses on the passing away of the rich and famous or how losses of state forces are sanctified in public ceremonies and obituaries.

While victims like Arado and Dominado inevitably become reduced into mere statistics, thus reinforcing particular conceptions of what deaths are counted as worthy or undeserving of public grief.

All too often, activists victimized by state violence are regarded as eyesores that must be hidden from view and excluded from legitimate representation in spaces for public dialogue.

The sculpture goes against what cultural theorist Judith Butler points out as a “differential allocation of grief serving the aims of military violence.” [2]

Basis for Hope

Opposition to anti-people government policies that foster injustice, inequality, and poverty is neutralized through systematic and brutal campaigns of repression.

Arado was a peasant leader and the regional chairperson of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Panay. Dominado was the regional spokesperson of Selda, an organization of former political detainees. She survived being thrown to prison four times under the Marcos regime.

It is not without a touch of irony that the two disappeared two decades after the fall of the dictator, after the supposed restoration of “democratic space.”

Under the Arroyo regime’s Oplan Bantay Laya 1 and 2 and the present Aquino regime’s own Oplan Bayanihan counterinsurgency programs, civilian activists are targets of state terror including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The families of the disappeared suffer all the more because they do not know if their loved ones are already dead or if they will ever come back.

The Oton marker also embodies this ambiguity.

“It serves as a permanent mark of our loss, of sorrow, of pain. But at the same time it is also a constant reminder of our continuing search for justice and truth,” said May Wan who is the eldest daughter of Maria Luisa Posa-Dominado.

The monument’s production follows the Algerian radical intellectual Frantz Fanon’s injunction “to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope.” [3]

For in the end, not all who offered their lives for the greater cause of serving the people are remembered in monuments. Many remain nameless and faceless.

Only in the collective struggle of a people united for social justice and national liberation can the lives of the disappeared and all the victims of human rights violation be completely redeemed.


Notes

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 220.

2. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 37.

3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Translated by Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1982) 232.

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