Growing up, I didn’t think of Nick Joaquin as this great writer. To me he was Ninong Nick, Saint Nicolas bearing gifts at Christmas, the jolly uncle who never forgot a birthday.
I do remember that one of the first stories that filled me with horror and wonder was the Hamiling Mystery, Ninong Nick’s retelling of the Pied Piper where a mysterious exterminator makes all but one of the kids in the village disappear.
I learned years later his part in the release from detention of my father, journalist Jose F. Lacaba. As the story goes, before Ninong Nick agreed to accept the National Artist Award, he demanded that Ferdinand Marcos release my father from Camp Crame.
The full story goes farther back, and sounds less like that of a proud David conquering Goliath and more like Quixote running against forces despotic and brutal beyond comprehension.
Ninong Nick and my father were colleagues in the Philippines Free Press magazine. Even before martial law, Ninong Nick and my father witnessed the violence that the government was capable of. My father, then the youngest member of the Free Press staff, reported on the demonstrations of the First Quarter Storm of 1970, where police officers killed at least four students and clubbed many more.
In the Free Press under Teodoro Locsin Sr., and later as editor of the Asia-Philippines Leader, Joaquin published stories and cartoons (by artist Danilo Dalena) critical of Marcos’ economic policies, the rising prices of commodities, and the violent treatment of workers and farmers by the military.
When Marcos declared martial law on September 23, 1972, he attacked the country’s democratic institutions even more aggressively: he padlocked Congress, shut down TV and radio stations and print publications, and arrested activists, political opponents, and journalists. He even closed down newsstands and confiscated foreign magazines that published articles critical of him.
The Free Press and the Leader were among weekly magazines Marcos shut down. I was just a toddler when my father, who had eluded the first wave of arrests, went into hiding.
My father worked with student journalists on an underground paper for a time, the Taliba ng Bayan, which opposed the deprivation of civil liberties under martial law. On April 25, 1974, the military arrested my father, along with playwright Bonifacio Ilagan and university professor Dolores Stephens Feria, in Caloocan.
After my father’s arrest, Ninong Nick joined my mother, the writer Marra PL. Lanot, and my grandparents in trying to locate my father.
For two months the authorities gave them the runaround. Even after they had located my father, they had to go from one office to another to get permission to visit him. My mother hid her agony but Ninong Nick understood what she was going through.
The soldiers barred Ninong Nick from seeing my father. The only guests my father was allowed to have were cockroaches and lizards. The soldiers barred my mother too at first, questioned her before letting her see my father.
When she was finally able to see him in Camp Crame, he showed signs of torture.
Members of the 5th Constabulary Security Unit tortured Ilagan and my father repeatedly from the time of their arrest. They punched Ilagan and my father, kicked them, struck them with karate chops, and hit their heads with rifle butts. Ilagan and my father were made to do the San Juanico Bridge, where they were forced to “lie on air” while their head and feet lay on separate cots. My father was made to squat while soldiers beat his shins with a rattan stick. This went on for months. From January 1975, the beatings became less severe.
In 1976, the Marcos regime wanted to give the national artist award for literature to Nick Joaquin. Ninong Nick had been for some time the country’s most accomplished and celebrated poet and fictionist, and Marcos and his advisers believed he was the logical choice to be a National Artist. His association with the award would lend the dictatorship an air of prestige.
Ninong Nick had no interest in recognition or literary awards, especially from a regime that sought to suppress by violent means every person’s right to free expression. But he thought there was a slight chance that he could get Marcos to agree to his demand: the release of my father.
“I tried to make your release a condition for my accepting the national artist award,” Ninong Nick would later tell my father. “Chitang [referring to Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, a fellow writer close to the Marcoses] said to me, ‘First, accept the award and then ask for Pete’s release.'”
Ninong Nick’s request was audacious in that he was risking his own safety in wanting to make such a request. If public records are anything to go by, the harassment, torture, rape, and execution of fellow Filipinos—journalists included—had by this time become the military’s favorite pastime.
By Ninong Nick’s account to my father, Ninong Nick talked to defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile at the Cultural Center of the Philippines right after the national artist awards ceremony. Ninong Nick brought up the case of my father, who had never been charged but was nevertheless kept imprisoned by the Philippine Constabulary.
At this point Marcos approached them and overheard the conversation. “Okay, Nick. Lacaba’s release will be part of your prize,” Marcos said.
A few days later, Philippine Constabulary chief Fidel V. Ramos signed my father’s papers for conditional release.
Ninong Nick’s actions were unknown to me for a long time. Even after I learned of what he did I never got to talk to him about it or got the chance to thank him. But maybe it is just as well. Ninong Nick was never one to grow sentimental over martial law.
Dahling Nick, a docudrama on the life and works of National Artist Nick Joaquin, premieres this week at the Cinema One Originals Festival 2015. The festival will run until Tuesday next week, November 17.