Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lito Aquino Interview Part I: Escaping Marcos, Martial Law, and Possible Death

Julio “Lito” Aquino, Pilipino immigrant and first cousin of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, sat down to talk with me in his modest home in central Los Angeles. Sitting in a cramped kitchen elbow to elbow with Lito, his 11-year-old son, adult daughter from his second wife, and son-in-law we begin to dig into a heaping pile of pancit (Pilipino noodles) and a large pot of chicken stew prepared by his third (and current) wife, who sits close by in case any of their guests need anything. As we eat, Lito coaches me on how to season my pancit with fish sauce and Pilipino limes that look like miniture round oranges. Barely touching his plate, he excitedly shares a memory from childhood; a memory it is clear his children have heard many time before.

"We Aquino's were society, but we weren't treated like rich kids. No way," he tells me. Though they lived a hacienda livelihood, his father demanded the children spoke to everyone, especially the servants, with respect. "We had to call them sir or ma'am. And if we didn't," he shakes his hand and scrunches up his face as if to say it meant trouble.

“’Julio!’ my father yelled. I knew I was in trouble when he called me Julio. ‘Bring the barracuda.’” He informs me that his father kept a stuffed barracuda tail above the doorframe of his office that was used for punishing major infractions. This time, it was a maid who accused Lito of not speaking to her with respect. “I don’t know if I did, but he took that barracuda in his hands” he pantomimes stretching a long object between his hands and bringing it down, “Kha! Kha! With the barracuda, and woo, it hurt.” He laughs and pretends to rub his bottom as he might have as a small child.

Lito in September 2009 holding a childhood picture of himself

Memories like these bring joy to Lito. These are the stories he tells his children over and over again in hopes to instill some of sense old country respect in American children, but not all memories are so warm.

We move from the kitchen to living room, where a popular Pilipino talk show, hosted by Kris Aquino--daughter of Ninoy and Corazon Aquino--plays on a large T.V. that takes up most of north wall of the room. He points out that the host is his niece, and this is the gateway needed for Lito to begin a story where the villains are much more dangerous than a stuffed barracuda.

IP: Why did you leave the Philippines in April 1977?

Lito Aquino: I had a warrant of arrest. Being the first cousin of Benigno Aquino during Marcos' martial law [was dangerous]. Marcos was looking for close relatives of Ninoy because at that time they accused him of being a Communist. And when they imprisoned him they wanted a close relative associated with him [to find] reasons to keep him there.

I was working at the Philippine National Bank [at the time]. I was one of the top executives, but because of intrigues, because people wanted my position, because I was the first cousin of Ninoy Aquino they started putting out news and gossips about me that I am trying to sabotage a program of Marcos. I had the privilege [in my state position] to run three provinces—[The government program] subsidized farmers and the land, and the government would buy fertilizer and things like that for the farmers. People who were trying to bring me down started telling that I was trying to sabotage that program. But because I’m an extrovert people would tell me things, even those who were in the opposite camp. They would say, “you better be careful. There are people who want your position. Anything can happen.”

This photo captures Lito receiving an award from the National Bank in 1971

Then a connected friend in the government told me that I have to be aware because a warrant was being issued on my name. Then a runner came to my house to tell me the warrant was issued and said, “If you want to leave or hide, you should do it.” But by that time, I was already prepared. I was ready to leave, and I had a visa because my mom and my grandma were already gone.

I was [snuck] out of the airport because a General in charge of the airport was a friend of mine. He let me sit in his office, and when the plane was about to take off they brought me to the plane.
[By the time they] sent the warrant of arrest, I was not at home. I was already on my way out. And all my clearances were Okayed because I had friends [in government] who got clearances for me. That was the only way you could get out. All I had to do was board the plane.

IP: This was during Marcos’ martial law?

LA: You know, the first year, people like me, and people in society appreciated martial law because it turned out that martial law educated and disciplined the waywards. People would rather not commit corruption because they would be jailed. But then after the first year, when relatives and friends of the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, started wanting to eat a part of the pie that’s when corruption started again. And the poor got poorer, and the sick— You know. And we were back at the same ol’ thing. And there was no democracy, no liberty now. They were free to get you, pick you up, put you in jail, kill you, or what they called—we have a term—salvaged.

IP: They would salvage people? What does that mean?

LA: You’re salvaged. You’re cut. They kill you. They bring you somewhere in a remote area, and no one finds you anymore. You’re dead. You are disappeared and no one knows where to find you, so they said you were salvaged. Gone.

The worst part is that they would go to your house, and they would do anything. Threaten your whole family. And if you didn’t go with them, they would shoot you. Literally shoot you, take you, or torture you. Before you get salvaged they want to get any information. They torture you to the max, and then after getting the information, if they think you need to be salvaged, they salvage you.

IP: And no one knows what happens to you?

LA: Sometimes there are graves, but even now, they don’t know where they are. They are still missing. But some were not salvaged, but kept as prisoners. They were kept in prisons for a long time.

IP: Might this have happened to you, had you stayed?

LA: I would have been [interrogated] to make a case against Ninoy. Maybe, if I was tortured that much— I really don’t know. It only takes so much, as much as you can handle. But if maybe—God—maybe I would have said anything they wanted just to get them off me, and they would have used it. And then, maybe, I would be salvaged.

IP: Knowing all this, what was it like when you left?

LA: When the plane took off [that day] I was still in Philippine territory. If they find out that I am on that plane they could have told the pilot, “Bring it back.” So until I left the Philippine territory my heart was like this (Lito pounds his hand against his heart). Because as soon as they find out that I disappeared—

It was only two/three hour difference from when they went to my house, and maybe the people who went to my house thought I went into hiding. They didn’t know I was leaving. So instead of going to the airport they sent people out to look for me. As a matter of fact, two days after I left I was in the newspaper. It said, “Julio Aquino in Canada.” They didn’t know I was here.

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