Before Sept. 11 was abbreviated to “9/11,” to refer to the coordinated terrorist attacks launched by the al-Qaida terror group against the United States of America in 2001, the date had been associated in the Philippines with the birthday of Ferdinand Marcos. Born on Sept. 11, 1917, he had always thought of this day as special not just for himself but for the whole nation. In a moment of conceit in 1975, Marcos issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 11 as “Special Barangay Day,” a day devoted to civic duty.
In Chile, in 1973, the military under the command of the notorious Gen. Augusto Pinochet trained its tanks at the presidential palace where the duly elected Marxist President Salvador Allende held office. Rather than flee or surrender to the tyrants, Allende chose to face the assault. He was later found dead with an AK-47 assault rifle beside him. That day of infamy was Sept. 11.
The date is memorable to me for quite another, deeply personal, reason. That same evening in 1973, just before we sat down for supper, my wife Karina told me that her contractions had begun and were becoming more intense. I remember her saying, “Oh no, our poor baby can’t have the same birthday as the dictator!”
As we drove toward the Capitol Medical Center in Quezon City, she wrapped her arms around her womb and whispered to the baby inside: “Please wait for just a few hours, and we’ll both be fine.” That baby, born on the first hour of Sept. 12, was a girl, our second child. We named her Kara Patria, for “beloved country.”
Kara was conceived just a few months after Marcos declared martial law. It was a period of fear and uncertainty. Many of our colleagues in the University of the Philippines had either been arrested or gone underground. The university itself canceled all classes for the rest of the semester. The community was rife with rumors that military agents were conducting surprise visits looking for certain individuals. Karina, who had been active in organizing the faculty, was believed to be on the military’s arrest list.
When classes in UP reopened, we were all required to report for work. Failure to do so, we were warned, could be construed as signifying that we had gone into hiding and were no longer interested in coming back. My wife and I were both young instructors at the Department of Sociology, and losing our jobs was something we could not afford. I was in England for my graduate studies and had come home just before the declaration of martial law to do field work for my dissertation. I was confident the military had nothing on me. But Karina and I were certain she was being watched.
Having made up our minds not to join the underground, which had greatly swollen after martial law, we nonetheless tried to make ourselves scarce. As required by UP, however, we had to report to work after the brief semestral break. The campus was not the same. The eerie silence in the classrooms and corridors only magnified our fears that we were all under surveillance.
By internal arrangement with the department, I took over the classes assigned to Karina so she would not have to go to school except during faculty meetings. Our hope was that, if she became pregnant, she would later be allowed to go on an early maternity leave. But, as things turned out, this became possible only around July 1973, in the middle of what was then the old school year. Even when she was already heavy with Kara, she continued reporting to work like the rest of us.
During that initial year of martial law, when the regime needed to show it was in full control, we took it for granted that the clean-cut young men in well-pressed clothes who appeared on campus quietly eating lunch in our cafeterias were not our students. Or maybe some of them were. In any case, it was a time of paranoia, but also of daring and romanticism. As the Marcos regime became more confident, our classrooms gradually became cauldrons of dissent.
Fast forward to 2005, the baby that Karina was carrying was now a fully grown young woman, a broadcast journalist at the GMA-7 television network. Our friends like to say that Kara is a photocopy of her mother. On Sept. 12 that year, she found herself marking her 32nd birthday in Kalayaan Island in the Spratlys. She was doing a documentary on the hardy folks of the island who were being resupplied by a Navy boat from Palawan.
Aboard the boat, on the way to Kalayaan, she noticed a senior officer staring at her. She felt spooked and uncomfortable, but she did not make a fuss about it. She was with other journalists. But, on the way back, the same man inched closer and looked at her more intently in the fading light of dusk. Distressed, Kara decided to ask him if there was anything wrong.
“Karina? Are you Karina?” he asked tentatively. “No sir, my name is Kara David. Karina is my mother’s name. Did you know her?” Kara replied with some relief. The man shook his head and shyly apologized. He said he thought he was seeing a ghost. “You look exactly like your mother, with her dangling earrings and ponytail.”
He said he was a young officer fresh from the academy, and one of his first assignments had been to tail the lady professor from UP and to report everything about herʍwhere she went, what she did, whom she met. He said he remembered her being pregnant at the time. “Were you that baby?” Kara nodded with some amusement. “That was 32 years ago, sir.”
“Please tell your mother how sorry I am to have intruded into her life even if she might not have been aware of it. I was a new military graduate thrust into the system of martial law. I was just following orders.”