Nelson Navarro: the journalist and social commentator

Boo Chanco

Posted at Sep 23 2019 01:28 PM

Veteran opinion columnist and author Nelson Navarro. Photo from Navarro's Facebook page

“The past is never past,” Nelson Navarro wrote in the prologue of his last book, “it lingers in the labyrinth of memory, ephemeral but always intrusive, stalking the ever demanding present which rules the senses like a jealous lover.”

When I got the call early Sunday morning that Nelson had passed away, I had this sense of time closing down the curtains on a generation of Filipinos who bore the brunt of martial law.

Nelson and I were contemporaries during those troubled times in the late 60s and early 70s. We are often called the First Quarter Storm (FQS) generation, with reference to that turning point in our history when youthful idealism and love of country clashed with a regime marked by greed and corruption.

The brutality of martial law left generational scars as young people were tortured and murdered and others forced into exile. Nelson was lucky to have been abroad when the hell of martial law was unleashed, or he would have had no chance to tell his many wonderful stories later in his life. There was a warrant of arrest for him.

I didn’t get to know Nelson until much later. Even if we were both active student leaders at the State University at about the same time, we just knew each other by name.

Looking back at those years after he returned from exile, Nelson had no illusions what it was all about, what animated us in those times. 

“Having studied and lived in Diliman during the gloriously liberal Carlos Romulo-SP Lopez [Salvador P. Lopez] regimes, I had a grand time and I left with golden memories to last three lifetimes.

“I entered freshman year crusading against the compulsory teaching of the Spanish language, fought against American intervention in Vietnam, and capped it all by storming the gates of Malacañang and joining the Diliman Commune (The first liberated zone of the Philippines) at the height of the First Quarter Storm in the early 1970s.

“It was the best of times in the late Sixties. That old UP conceit, nationalism, was on everybody's lips. The siren song of revolution ala Mao Zedong and Che Guevarra was in the air. Student Power was on the march from Berkeley to Paris, and UP's brand of illustrado activism was political chic.

“We were spoiled brats in the high summer of the Filipino ruling class, before everything turned sour, recalls one critical writer who came of age in those magical years… We were curious and we kept asking embarrassing questions. We couldn't fathom why this elite could spawn or tolerate so much poverty and corruption in our country.

“But how were we to know? We were young, we were having fun, we were playing revolution, and we wanted to have it all.”

As he wrote his memoirs, Nelson talked about this crucial crossroad in his and his country’s life. 

“FQS turned me into an exile. It forced me to the kind of life I wanted—to remain true to my values and to be a man of the 20th and 21st centuries. I was a concerned individual who would fight for a good cause but who also loved life.

“(In America), I fell in love with music and literature. For the first time, I was free. I felt good about Marcos and reviled him at the same time. Accidentally, he gave me my freedom from my own country and its parochialism.

“Living in New York, earning a living, spending money, making choices and mistakes, I moved on. How could have I gotten this education? I met wonderful people and went to wonderful places. Those have forever changed me.”

But after 15 years of living in America, Nelson returned home after the EDSA Revolution in 1986. He knew nothing had changed; social transformation promised by EDSA wasn’t happening. Yet, he was full of hope. He told me he was giving back his US immigrant green card. He was home at last and he intended to pick up from where he left off.

“What mattered most was that my heart still resided in the old country. It was not enough to visit from time to time or keep fires burning from the distance of a safe and comfortable country. Either I was a Filipino in the Philippines of real risks and turbulence or a pseudo-American clinging to Filipino identity out of guilt and convenience." 

Nelson started to write for a number of newspapers, Malaya and the Philippine Star, among others. When I returned to ABS-CBN as News Director, I worked with him on some programs. One New Year’s Eve, I had him having a conversation with Max Soliven discussing the year that was and where the new year was headed.

Nelson spent a good amount of time writing biographies of prominent Filipinos. He enjoyed getting into their inner selves, learning about unwritten snatches of history in the process.

Nelson had a close relationship with Max Soliven, and he was eventually asked to write his biography that was published after Max died.

“Max was like my father. He taught me about the world. He wasn’t afraid of controversy. He was the most widely read columnist of his day. (Fidel) Ramos said the first column he would read was Soliven’s, even if he always attacked the President.”

His most controversial work in this genre was Juan Ponce Enrile’s memoirs. Nelson was careful to say that he only edited it, made it easier to read but it was totally Enrile’s.

I know he completed the biography of Jojo Binay but Jojo chose not to release the book. “Maverick: the Story of Jejomar Binay” chronicles the man’s rise from UP law student to human rights lawyer, on to long-time Makati mayor and then defeating Mar Roxas to become vice president of the Philippines. Of course, Binay and Nelson were contemporaries in UP campus politics.

Nelson also wrote the biography of producer and singer Armida Siguion-Reyna, which captured the musical life of the Philippines in the early 20th century.

Nelson’s other passion was travel. He was just recovering from his first stroke and still moving around in his “scooter” and he was off traveling again. He loved telling us stories of the many places he had visited, from Machu Picchu in Peru to every major destination in Europe and Asia.

He also loved the opera and the arts.

“The purpose of art is to elevate you from the prosaicness of life. There is something more that we humans are capable of. There is beauty in life and we must share it." 

Nelson wrote as if he was telling you a story face-to-face. His memoir is fascinating as he talked about how he had lived his life and his insights about it all. He wrote his memoirs six years ago because as he put it, “age has finally caught up with me and it was time to look back to what I now call my half-remembered past… why I have become the person I am today.”

Nelson explained the title of his memoirs: “It is titled ‘The Half-Remembered Past’ because you think of the happy things, but you also edit the events that made you cry.

“Every autobiography is bittersweet. You take the pain with the joy. You affirm what is valid and human.

“I chose to deal head on with the past because I am getting on in years and most of my life is embedded there… the best years may be behind me and the end can come swiftly and at any time, like a thief in the night.”

And it did. But Nelson will be difficult if not impossible to forget. As a friend and as a writer and a most engaging and enjoyable raconteur, Nelson will forever be top of mind for those who had the good fortune to know him well.

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Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.