This is a letter to Jose G. Burgos Jr., former publisher-editor of “WE Forum” and “Malaya” — pioneer of the so-called “mosquito press” in the Philippines — during the years of martial law under the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
Joe Burgos passed away in November 2003 at the age of 63. He was honored with the title “Press Freedom Hero of the World” by the International Press Institute along with 49 others on the 50th anniversary of the founding of IPI.
There are so many things happening now, things that would make you turn in your grave. Things that would rewrite and refute all that have happened when you were still with us. I treasure those days when as a family we lived history-in-the-making to the fullest.
As they say in Tagalog, “dugo, pawis, at buhay (blood, sweat, and life)” were your only capital. But now, as my years advance and as I dwell more and more on the joy of seeing you once again soon, I am afraid that the memories would fade into oblivion. My prayer tells me to set aside the fear that the memories would be desecrated if they are told.
I remember how in January of 1977, you gathered the family around the dining table, our place for a serious family council, and told us how you were afraid of being eaten up by the system. You were then the public relations officer of a big oil institution receiving a lucrative salary plus unlimited representation budget and slowly you were adopting a lifestyle that was not really you. You told us you wanted to leave PR work and to publish a newspaper that “reported the truth” not printed in the daily newspapers at that time. But you said it had to be legal and above ground.
It was the height of martial law and all the daily broadsheets and the tabloids were owned by either cronies or relatives of the dictator-president. I remember how you talked to the kids as if they were adults, explaining the consequences of giving up a good paying job and starting a new venture that could catch the ire of the dictatorship. Peachy, 11; Sonny, 10; Jay, 7; and JL, 3; (the youngest girl, Ann, came a few years after we started publishing) understood that if we voted yes to your proposal, all our small luxuries would be sacrificed.
I remember how both of us teared when they unanimously voted yes, with a resounding, “It is alright Dads, we can sacrifice for as long as we will be proud of you when we grow up.” You whispered “from the mouth of babes,” I knew you meant, innocent hearts and minds chose dignity over material comfort.
I remember how we went out on a weekend with all the young student-editors, school leaders, and budding photographers to orient them and introduce the “project.” That was the first salvo of a continuing teaching, learning and training of minds and hearts on how “to seek and live the truth and share a vision.”
I remember how we didn’t have an artist to draw and compose the masthead so we had to settle for a butt-like artwork of a brother of the most serious among the recruits. I remember the unending ribbing he got from the others. “WE for the Young Filipino” was published in the guise of a student paper catering to college students, a wise scheme to get permission to publish. Clearance from government was necessary to publish, and only cronies and relatives succeeded in getting permits. The scheme was successful.
The tabloid, now known as “WE Forum,” became the pioneer alternative newspaper that was above ground published with a permit.
I remember how when crunch time came, we transformed a mezzanine into an office with a borrowed table, and an old Underwood typewriter. Unknown to the veteran journalists who frequented the building, the young budding journalists, now multi-awarded truth seekers themselves, wrote their stories in longhand as they waited for their turn to use the typewriter. I felt their thrill at the thought that they would see their stories with their names printed in a “real” newspaper compared to before when their stories were censored in their school paper.
I remember how other offices generously allowed their phones to be used so that reporters could call in their stories and how the secretaries would run down to tell you that you had a call because the elevator was forever under repair.
I remember how, instead of eating at the restaurant at the top floor of the building, we indulged in banana cue on the sidewalk of the building. I remember pawning piece after piece of jewelry, which were gifts from you, so we could supplement meager supplies.
I remember serious talks with your Papa, a successful publisher and businessman, who thought yours was a losing venture, but realizing you were as stubborn as he was and was bent on printing the truth, whether “anyone liked it or not,” eventually threw his full support behind you and allowed us to use his printing press for free. He would dig into his pockets when funds were low.
I remember the hours in the printing press where we had to proofread the flats, with the inverted letters in lead, while the youngest boy was kept occupied and happy with the “dancing” lead shavings using a magnet.
I remember how your face would light up as you held each issue as if seeing your baby for the first time. You had to be the first to read and examine it.
I remember how the three older kids learned how to hold a two-inch thick bunch of newly printed newspapers over their shoulders with one hand and the other, counting the newspapers, and how they used combs held in a particular way to press the folds accurately.
I remember how the eldest, Peachy, learned how to proofread at 14. You would encourage them to read the newspaper from front page to the last page by giving them cash rewards if they saw a mistake or misprint. A detected headline mistake merited a whooping Php100. The eldest always got the biggest reward.
I remember the red china marker circles that dotted the pages, marks that said something was wrong, and it was for the concerned reporter, proofreader, artist or typesetter to figure out. How they nervously anticipated the red marks the next day.
I remember how the birth of the first issue of “WE Forum” was preceded by a funny yet chilling incident. Our reporter was hauled to jail for covering the labor rally on May 1, 1977, because the police did not believe there was such a newspaper as “We for the Young Filipino.” And you sent a lawyer who rushed to the police station to bail him out. It was a good thing that you, having been a former police reporter, were known to the police and the reporter was released eventually.
I remember the early days when hungry staff members had to content themselves with a can of mashed sardines turned into a dip for hot pan de sal. Snacks was always a contest on who could dip first.
I remember watching “WE Forum” grow from an innocent looking student paper to a credible and respected tabloid with no sacred cows. I remember how slowly we were getting noticed, such that hold-ups happened frequently to the production manager who had to surrender the newspaper flats he was supposed to bring to the printing press. The fact that the hold-upper would not ask for his wallet or watch was a cause for endless jokes in the pressroom.
I remember the mantra “verify, verify, verify” followed by “be fair, be fair, be fair,” get everybody’s side of the story.
I remember how often your loud voice would boom across the newsroom, “even the smallest compromise is a compromise.”
I remember how news dealers refused to sell our “WE Forum” because they were warned by men in uniform. And I remember how you and our eldest son, Sonny, then 13, would go out early morning when it was still dark to deliver the newspapers. Sonny, Jay, and some of their friends would sell the newspapers on Sundays in churchyards.
I remember when we had to move the office to our residence, an old school building. Our house echoed with the clicking sound of the typewriter at all hours.
I remember how on one occasion when the rains flooded our living room, a lady visitor could not stop laughing when she saw you perched on the chair and in squatting position vigorously pounding at the typewriter. Later when she learned you were rushing to meet a deadline, she treated you to lunch to atone for laughing so hard.
I remember, from a weekly, “WE Forum” became a twice weekly to a thrice weekly and to a daily tabloid because there were so many stories of corruption, abuses and scandals and people had the right to know. And we haven’t even reached the first anniversary of the founding of the newspaper.
“WE Forum” was born and slowly grew with the help of greenhorn reporters who learned the ropes as they covered critical and even dangerous issues. “WE Forum” became a part of history. Many of those who didn’t survive martial law are part of this story.
No one can take away these memories from anyone of the family. I was there, the family was there, our friends were there, and I remember.
Not a million stories to the contrary can erase these memories. But this is only about the start.
I remember much more. Would you want me to recall more sacred memories?
P.S. WE Forum should have turned 45 last May 1, but it’s life was temporarily cut short on Dec. 7, 1982 when it’s publisher-editor was arrested and jailed. That is another memory to tell.
Edita Burgos was general manager of the publications WE Forum and Malaya.