A fixture in Philippine politics for six decades, Senator Heherson Alvarez faced many battles and showed a wide range of political colors. This was attested by friends and cohorts in virtual memorials held several days after his death from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. Sonny, as he is called, was a leftist leader in his time at the University of the Philippines, a re-writer of the 1983 Constitution, a street parliamentarian opposing then President Ferdinand Marcos, a congressman, senator, and a cabinet member. His death came two days ahead of Earth Day in the Philippines, which he authored in a senate resolution.
“He was personally close to me as a youth leader, an opposition leader, and thereafter,” New Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People’s Army founder Jose Maria Sison says in a statement received by Diliman Book Club, a group of UP philosophy majors.
In college, Alvarez “excelled in leadership whether it was in student councils, overseas debating tilts, fraternity leadership, oratorical contests, and the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) of UP Vanguard,” says leftist writer Dick Malay. “He was a dashing Lothario to a number of admiring co-eds (in UP).” Others described him as God’s gift to growing leftist groups at the university in the 60s.
Alvarez remained a warrior for the common good whichever group he joined. “He was always for the marginalized. And he never stopped dreaming of a better Philippines,” says his wife Cecile Guidote, founder of the 53-year old Philippine Education Theater Association (PETA), and a COVID-19 survivor. “Personally he was my soulmate, guru, and cheerleader.”
As president of the radical Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP), he organized a “pay later” convoy of buses for 5,000 students who protested in Congress. The Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities (CAFA) of allegedly “subversive” articles published in UP, on March 15, 1961. This included a Philippine Collegian piece written under Sison’s pen name Andres Gregorio, which CAFA insisted violated the Anti-Subversion Law.
“The students stormed the halls of Congress. Sonny Alvarez was apprehended for leading the mass action, but was soon released,” recalled the late geologist-rebel Rolando Pena in his memoir, Crossings: Portrait of a Revolutionary. Unfazed, Alvarez and other student leaders formed study groups that discussed Philippine-American war, US imperialism, colonial mentality, academic freedom, and the importance of Andres Bonifacio, along Manila’s university belt.
From the 60s to the 70s, SCAUP was one of 14 members of the radical national democratic (“Natdem”) movement. Seven other groups were under the milder “Socdem” umbrella. They united when they launched seven protest rallies, the First Quarter Storm, that almost toppled Marcos in 1970. After CPP started in the late 1960s, Alvarez “became known as a (conservative) Socdem,” says Dr. Edd Clemente of Capitol Medical Center and SCAUP president in 1971.
In 1966, Alvarez and Malay organized a free trip to China with a group of nine UP Student Council members, courtesy of the All China Youth Federation. But when this group arrived in Hong Kong on December 5, 1966, Alvarez was nowhere to be found.
“Our hosts who billeted us at the Golden Gate Hotel told us that Sonny met immigration glitches at the airport. Everyone agreed to wait for him. After two days, Sonny showed up at the hotel, Malay recounted. Apparently, Alvarez was blocked at the airport because of one name—Henderson Alvarez—on the embargo list. After he was cleared, Alvarez then rushed to the Port Area to catch a boat to Hong Kong, buying a ticket with his own money. “Ma-abilidad was our description of Sonny’s creative feat,” added Malay.
In Beijing, they interacted with Red Guards, and were hosted by Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi at the Great Hall of the People.
Comrades and rivals
Although comrades, Alvarez and Malay were also rivals. “Once, when we were alone in our room in Peking Hotel, Sonny took me aside and, in his sonorous tone, remarked, ‘Ikaw, Dick, hindi ka (talaga) komunista ha, nationalist ka lang, tulad ng Tatay mo,’” recalled Malay. (Alvarez referred to Dick’s father, UP Professor Armando Malay who was popular among activists.) “I began to sense that Sonny wasn’t happy that the Red Guards were friendlier to me than him despite his senior position in our assembly,” Malay explained. “I knew why: our hosts knew me as a founding member of Kabataang Makabayan (KM), and chair of the Vietnam Support, a group in the Philippines.” The groups were “Natdems.”
Alvarez and Malay, a “Socdem” and a “Natdem,” bonded and toured the industrial center of Liaoning in northeast China for two more weeks. “China sealed our camaraderie with such steely elegance that’s rare to find, much less define till this day,” Malay said of their friendship.
An art lover, Alvarez initially pursued Evelyn Mandac, a famous soprano opera singer in UP. But she left to study at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Julliard School of Music in New York, said historian Fe Buenaventura Mangahas, a classmate.
“I saw Sonny and Cecile Guidote together for the first time in Fort Santiago in early 1967,” said Nick Lizaso, former TV director, current president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and chair of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA). “She was showing to architect Lindy Locsin, playwright Alberto Florentino, and me the place where she wanted to put up a theater in Fort Santiagos’ ruins.” Guidote established PETA in April 1967. It produced Filipino plays and translated plays written in English by Filipinos and other international playwrights.
“Cecile was also producer of Balintataw, a TV drama that I directed with camera-director Lupita Aquino for Channel 5,” recalled Lizaso. At 25, Guidote was done with her Masters in theater at the State University of New York and the Dallas Theater Center. Before she studied abroad, she was the star actress of Fr. James Reuter in St. Paul College.
Change of heart
As his former comrades mounted more street rallies against Marcos, Alvarez was elected as one of 315 members of the Constitutional Convention on November 17, 1970. They began rewriting the 1935 Constitution on June 1, 1971.
Instead of political mobilization, which was Alavarez's expertise, "he wanted to work within the system, thus he took the Constitutional Convention route,” Clemente said, explaining Alvarez’ change of heart. Later, Alvarez did not sign the draft of the new constitution. And there was a shoot- to-kill order for him when Marcos announced his declaration of Martial Law on September 23, 1972. Coincidentally, two days before on Martial Law’s official date, Alvarez and former Senator Benigno Aquino exposed “Oplan Sagittarius” in UP as Marcos’ master plan for military rule.
When arrests began, Alvarez managed to hide in the office of fellow Con-Con delegate Sotero Laurel. “Sonny said his heart was beating so fast when he heard soldiers going up the stairs [of the Con-Con office in Quezon City] and banging on his door,” Guidote told the Inquirer in 2015.
Alvarez was “Father Joseph” and Guidote was “Sister Carolina” when they talked on the phone. “We deciphered messages within a conversation ostensibly about religion,” said Guidote in the same article. When they met, she would use one car to enter a building to change clothes, put on a wig, and board a second vehicle that waited in another exit door.
When he attended a secret meeting at the house of former President Diosdado Macapagal in Forbes Park, Alvarez hid on the floor of a big van, under chairs that were covered with black cloth and a box of books, recalled Guidote, adding that Alvarez’ marching order was to organize an anti-Marcos movement in Hong Kong, and in the US where Raul Manglapus was stranded.
Alvarez’s friend Ricky Delgado, whose family was in shipping, persuaded a Greek national, Capt. Stephanos Livanos, to help out. He was to take Alvarez in his ship when it refueled in Manila, before going to Hong Kong, on November 17, 1972, Guidote narrated.
Before it happened, Alvarez’ father Capt. Marcelo Alvarez, and his mother, Juanita Turingan, a teacher, visited Guidote, hoping to see their son. “They were being pressured constantly in Santiago, Isabela, to reveal where their son was,” explained Guidote.
During the family’s secret meeting, the father advised his son: “Bend like a bamboo.” But the mother said: “Follow your conscience.” When they said goodbye, “Sonny hugged his parents who were also crying. His mother uttered a wail: ‘Ay anak ko, agingat ka kuma (My son, please take care!),’ as she kissed and blessed him. His father, after a tight embrace, in a soldier’s fashion, gave him a salute with these words: ‘Vaya con Dios (God be with you),” recalled Guidote.
Because of their impending separation, Alvarez and Guidote decided to get married on November 15, 1972. In a sacristy in Imus, Cavite, Father Reuter officiated the couple’s Matrimonia Conciensia: there was no prior public notice in a church and the marriage contract they signed would be filed later at the Civil Registry’s office.
They had a two-day honeymoon at Hilton Hotel in Manila where they were booked under a different name. “We had room service until the time when he was scheduled to leave as a stowaway in the ship. For 48 hours, we were locked in each other’s arms. (In one tender moment), he kissed me passionately yet so tenderly and whispered: ‘This is a promise, Mrs. Cecileia Guidote-Alvarez: for the rest of my life, I will be kissing you,’” recalled Guidote.
Escape and reunion
Before boarding his ship, PETA’s makeup artist Len Santos made Alvarez look like a cargo man. After leaving him, Guidote left and went to Malate Church, and prayed on her knees for almost two hours until his ship was far out in the middle of the sea. His two passports had the names of PETA actors Eduardo Pescador and Eduardo Purisima. After Alvarez was declared as one of two missing Con-con delegate, Delgado said he was picked up by the military and held for questioning for two days.
Guidote received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in August 1972, but awarding ceremonies were postponed to March 1973, because of a flood that hit Manila. Preparing to escape in February 1973, she requested movie director Lino Brocka to take over PETA and decided to accept the invitation of UNESCO International Theater Institute (ITI) to become a consultant on ethnic minorities. She got the endorsement of CPP president Lucresia Kasilag for her travel abroad, as suggested by former defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile. Despite her compliance, Enrile refused to lift her travel ban as authorities wanted to trap Alvarez through her. The second time around, on February 27, 1973, she went to the airport and told immigration officials that she was allowed to travel; that the government’s list of travel ban was old. Her evidences: a photo of her, Enrile, and Singapore’s defense minister (also a Ramon Magsaysay awardee) in a newspaper; Kasilag’s endorsement; and a memorandum about her travel plan, addressed to Marcos. “When I was not allowed to leave. I stayed in the toilet and prayed.” When she went back to the immigration area, she found only one official who turned out to be her friend. The official asked her to leave her documents and let her go. (The official was suspended and jailed for three months, said Guidote.)
Alvarez and Guidote met in Hong Kong, then she went to the US, and he, to Paris where he briefly stayed with the Peter Brooks Theater Workshop. Members of the group were eventually invited to a theatrical event in the US. Alvarez eventually became secretary general of the Movement for Free Philippines in Washington DC. Joining the camp of Sen. Aquino, Alvarez and Guidote marshalled protest rallies and theater presentations that lobbied for cuts in economic and military aid to Marcos. It marked Alvarez’ transition as a non-leftist anti-Marcos campaigner abroad.
In June 1974, tragedy struck. The body of Alvarez’s brother Marsman was displayed in Isabela’s town plaza: his skull was broken, his teeth were gone, his nose was clipped, his eyes were plucked out, and his tongue was cut. Alvarez’s father died of heart attack in October of the same year.
When Aquino was assassinated by government escorts at the service stairway of the China Airlines during his homecoming in Manila on August 21, 1983, Alvarez and other overseas Filipino activists founded the Ninoy Aquino Movement. During their self-imposed exile in the US, Alvarez and Guidote had two children: Hexilon and Herxilia, born in 1975 and 1980, respectively.
After Mrs. Aquino restored the bicameral Congress and the country’s democratic process in 1987, he was environment secretary from Feb to March 1987, and agrarian reform secretary, for nine months, from May 1986 to Feb 1987. Alvarez was elected to the senate. He was a Senator until 1998, and authored the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) during Aquino’s time. He also authored the law that created the Energy Department, which helped President Fidel Ramos solve the energy crisis in 1993.
Alvarez then became a representative of Isabela’s fourth district from 1998 to 2001, and filed an impeachment complaint against former President Joseph Estrada for alleged corruption. It was elevated to the senate following an approval by House Speaker Manny Villar, and Estrada was ousted in 2001.
During his time in the Senate, Alvarez was praised for a number of environment-related bills that he filed. He then served briefly as environment secretary from 2001-2002, during the time of former President Gloria Arroyo.
Environment activists criticized Alvarez when he was commissioner of Climate Change Commission from 2009 to 2016. He believed that the Philippines, a developing country, should fight climate change with mitigation and adaptation measures, that developed countries should radically alter their carbon footprints.
There were other mistakes, too: he proposed explosives to carve canals on Mount Pinatubo’s flanks, for managed lahar-flow, in 1991; he was for commercial logging instead of total log ban (for sustainable forest management) when he was chair of the senate environment committee.
Click here for more of Alvarez's storied life:
Alvarez, Commissioner of Climate Change Commission from 2009 to 2015.
Alvarez, third from left, with fellow UP debaters.
A nine-student delegation to China in December 1966, organized by Alvarez and Ricardo Malay, leftmost and second from left, first row, respectively. Companions include Ben Pires, rightmost, first row; left to right, second row: David Ramos, Editor Nacpil, Imelda Sabelino, Reynaldo Alejandro, Ruben Cusipag, and Danny Nacpil.
China's Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi, fifth from left, first row, hosts Filipino student delegates at the Great Hall of the People in Dec 1966.
Filipino student delegates in a meeting with China's Harvard graduate-interpreter Ji Chao Zhu, fourth from left; and China's Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi, sixth from left, at the Great Hall of the People; Alvarez, third from right, died at 80, of corona virus complications on March 20, raising to five the number of dead Filipino student delegates to China in 1966.
Alvarez, third from left, joins human rights lawyer Jose Diokno, fourth from left, in a march against Martial Law declaration of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972.
Raul Manglapus, second from left, and Alvarez establish an opposition group to resist Ferdinand Marcos, while in exile in the United States starting 1972.
Marsman Alvarez, younger brother of Heherson, tortured to death at 27 in northern Isabela, in 1974.
Captain Marcelo Alvarez, a soldier, died of a heart attack following the death of his son Marsman.
Baptism of baby Herxilia Guidote Alvarez, November 1980, at the Church of the Nativity, 2nd Street, New York, carried by Aida.
Opposition leaders hold mass in the US after the assassination of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino in Manila in August 1983. Photo shows Eugenio Lopez, left, Steve Psinakis, second from left, and Heherson Alvarez, rightmost.
Anti-Marcos opposition leaders: from left to right, first row, Pepe Calderon, President Diosdado Macapagal, Gerry Roxas, Jovito Salonga; Heherson Alvarez, at the back.
Alvarez, during a concert entitled "Chirac-i-Roll,"! organized with Earthsavers Movement, to entice young people to protest the French government's nuclear testing in Muroroa Atoll, South Pacific, in 1995.
Alvarez during a 40-day movement against the French government's nuclear testing in Muroroa Atolls, South Pacific in 1995.
Alvarez, happy with the legislation for Clean Air he authored (Healthy Air Pact) which paves way for the use of unleaded gas, in 1993.
Alvarez, left, congressman from 1998 to 2001, during the filing of impeachment complaint against President Joseph Estrada, in late 2000.
Photographs courtesy of Xilca A. Protacio