With a deft stroke of the machete, the kid cut the sugarcane and split it lengthwise. With a few more strokes, the segment was split into fibers which he handed to us. Pantawid-gutom, tanggal pagod na rin. We were on our way to some of the shanties that stood between the farmers of Hacienda Luisita and the soldiers from nearby Camp Aquino. For the lot of us, it was two things: basic masses integration, and gathering facts for a news story.
I’ve only had fresh sugarcane once before, and my gums bled from a day of not brushing and smoking cheap Champion cigarettes. My unwashed hair whipped into my mouth, smelling of the Sun and the sweat that built up from the trek. It was a rather telling – chilling – metaphor that I can still remember years after we helped cover the story of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre: the sweetness of the sugar was only made possible by the blood of workers and farmers.
The guns and stones, the truncheons and the two-by-fours, have all but left a trail of blood in a place that once bore the oil-stains from the trucks that shuttled the cut cane into the giant processing plant: Central Azucarera de Tarlac. From the road leading into the Luisita compound, the Azucarera stood like a rusting juggernaut. It moved the farmers and the workers, and yet it squashed them underneath the machines that made sugar and Ginebra possible.
The protesters’ camp was covered in a humongous multi-colored tent, tattered in many places. Defiance was written in placards, streamers, flags that fluttered in the wind, and improvised stanchions and barricades made from scrap wood and rusting barbed wire. The small shanties were made of salvaged sacks and scrap GI sheets, where small kitchens tended with salvaged firewood prepared what was staple fare for the next few days: rice, munggo, and ampalaya.
At night we listened to speeches, watched plays, and listened to testaments commemorating not only the martyrs of Luisita, but the very struggle they fought for. Land to own, land for them to till, land beholden to them by God and Nature, and not by landowners who have never turned the soil, much less chopped the cane. Land that didn’t became stock by virtue of a pathetic P9.50 payslip that people queued up the offices of the Azucarera for. Land that gave life; not destroyed it. Land that was bequeathed, not ransomed.
By day, by the bloodstains, my friends manned the chalkboards and taught the farmers all they knew of the struggle for rights. The land was theirs; not owned by the comprador bourgeoisie. To each according to his needs. They explained to them, in lay language, the basic problems that confronted the nation, Luisita being a microcosm of it. Some of my friends played with the children, and still others gathered about the stories of the organizers who told of everything. Negotiations that failed, unions that were forcibly busted, families torn at the very foundations that made them. One-sided collective bargaining agreements. Sham agrarian reform.
Water cannons. Tear gas. Armored personnel carriers. Bullets. Blood. Fourteen dead on November 2004, when the farmers and the workers faced the Azucarera, and fought for the very land they stood on, tilled, turned over, lived, died, breathed, and worked for.
All that violence and grief, in the name of sugarcane. I joined in the rounds of the organizers, checking on outposts, learning their stories, listening to their dreams. All the while, Azucarera stood looming in the horizon: a rusting oppressor, the witness to the struggle of farmers and workers for justice, fairness, and freedom from serfdom. Sweet promise paid in blood. Sweet promises, sugarcoated. Now about to be taken away. Again.
That night, at a cultural presentation, I screamed my lungs out for everything I saw and everything I heard. With the same bloody gums, raspy voice, and matted hair of a kid who, five years after the Massacre, won’t find himself in the lines.
– Photo by Chris Pforr