Last Saturday, fans of Filipino literature were treated to a glimpse of a memoir by detained Philippine Senator Leila de Lima. The piece was read, nay “performed,” by award-winning actress Angel Aquino who made the senator’s poignant words even more powerful with her impassioned delivery.
The performance, which can be viewed at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Facebook page, took place in an online event called “Free the Word!” It was hosted by the CCP and organized by the Philippine PEN, a group of Filipino poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists. The presentation featured literary readings and performances by writers and artists from here and abroad. Among those who read/performed were Palanca winner Ian Rosales Casocot, award-winning playwright Rody Vera, and Philippine theater titan Anton Juan.
Senator de Lima’s piece centered around her life inside Camp Crame, giving audiences a detailed picture of her day, her situation, and what she’s missed most for the past “four years, two months and 27 days” in detention—among them her mother, grandchildren, and son whom De Lima calls “Kuya Israel.”
“Around 5 x 8 square meters. Spartan by standard, with a single bed and a ceiling fan. My entire world pretty much consisted of that limited physical space the last four years,” wrote the Senator. “Not even a gateway to the infinity of cyberspace was made available to me. Everything that almost every person takes for granted has been denied to me.”
Through Aquino’s voice, the Senator then went into a list of things her situation has deprived her of. “The ability to say ‘Good morning’ to my loved ones the moment I wake up,” she began. “The ability to walk out the door unhindered. The ability to go to the market and haggle goodnaturedly with the vendors. The ability to open a stove and cook. The ability to hold my grandchildren. The ability to kiss my mom on the cheeks. The ability, simple ability, to praise my son Kuya Israel, who has autism, on his latest beautiful artwork. Even the ability to feed and walk my dogs.”
The Senator said her early days in detention were marked by indignation and disbelief. “I recall being sleepless on my first nights inside Camp Crame thinking of my children and grandchildren whom I wasn’t able to see before my arrest. And my mother, whose dementia shielded her from knowing the cruel fate that has befallen her eldest daughter.”
Later on, the Senator would establish a routine, waking up at 4:30 in the morning, going to bed by 10 or 11 in the evening; beginning her days with prayers and ending them with a book. In between, there’s senate work: writing instructions for her staff, drafting bills, and so on, even as she remains barred from participating in house deliberations even through teleconferencing.
“I also attend to some chores such as sweeping my quarters,” the piece continued, “feeding my adopted stray cats roaming the facility, and watering my plants. By 8:30 AM I’ve already exercised and taken a bath. By 5PM I pray the Holy Rosary, read the Bible and write in my journal.”
In other parts of the excerpt, the former Chair of the Commission on Human Rights talked about being raised “and molded into principled public service” by her lawyer father. She also wrote about her achievements over the years, and how, to some, her life may seem like it was following a path “destined for greatness”—until she was pulled out of it, “politically persecuted” and thrown to jail in February 2017. The Senator was detained at the PNP headquarters in Camp Crame following allegations that while she was Secretary of Justice, she received drug payoffs from prisoners at the national penitentiary. The Senator has repeatedly denied her involvement in the drug trade. Last February 17, she was acquitted in one of three drug cases.
Aquino’s performance of the De Lima memoir closed the online event Saturday afternoon. De Lima, via Aquino, left the audience with this message, likely directed to those who continue to root for her: “My faith has never faltered. Surrendering our fears, our doubts, our anger, to God does not mean consenting to the abuse and suffering, no. Never. Rather, it’s accepting the painful struggle in the promise that nothing lasts forever, and that good will always prevail.”