Heherson 'Sonny' Alvarez: Keeper of the flame

Gerry Lirio, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 20 2020 03:29 PM

Former Senator Heherson Alvarez during the necrological services for the late former Senate President Nene Pimentel at the Philippine Senate in Pasay City on October 23, 2019. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

(Editor's note: Former Senator Heherson Alvarez has passed away after contracting the coronavirus disease, multiple sources said on Monday.) 

He walked out of the improvised session hall the moment he saw then-President Ferdinand Marcos inching his way to the podium. Tailed behind by a group of able supporters, Marcos showed up to deliver the opening remarks at the 1971 Constitutional Convention (ConCon) at the Manila Hotel.

It was June 1, 1971, and the 31-year-old Heherson “Sonny” Alvarez, elected convention delegate from Isabela, supposedly a part of Marcos-stronghold Ilocano-speaking bloc, joined a group of oppositionists who refused to listen and endure what they called a dictator's pro-democracy rhetoric.

He walked back to the convention after the president’s speech, but that set the tone Alvarez would take at the convention whose members had assembled at the Manila Hotel to change the historic 1935 Constitution, relentlessly opposing a Palace order to pass laws seeking to extend Marcos term and various controversies, including a bribery scandal involving First Lady Imelda Marcos and 14 other people in exchange for favorable legislation.

Heherson Alvarez, eventually a senator (3rd from left) and Jose W. Diokno (4th from left) lead protesters against the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus on August 1971. Photograph courtesy of Bantayog ng mga Bayani Museum

Marcos declared martial law more than a year later in September 1972 and had 11 opposition delegates arrested, mostly in their own houses. He padlocked Congress and took over several private businesses.

Night of terror

Government agents failed to locate Alvarez who went back to his office in Quezon City, according to his then-girlfriend Cecile Guidote in an article she wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer in September 2015. She recalled her conversation with film director Lupita Aquino-Kashiwara the night the military arrested her brother Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. upon the declaration of martial law at the Manila Hilton: “Everybody in the opposition is being jailed.”

From his office, Alvarez hurriedly moved to the office of a woman colleague at the Batasan, then later at the office of another ConCon delegate, Sotero Laurel, brother of Salvador Laurel who would later become vice president.

Life on the run

“Sonny said his heart was beating so fast when he heard soldiers going up the stairs and banging on his office door. They found no one in his office but took documents. He was safe for the moment. It was an act of Divine Providence,” she said.

After sometime, Alvarez called her. They talked on the phone as if they were detectives on a secret mission. Their conversations were coded. They later met disguising themselves.

“Sonny had to go underground and it was a more nerve-wracking experience because I could not call unless a number was left for ‘Sister Carolina’ to return the call. It was always a number that changed. ‘Father Joseph’, there were a series of different names he would use as we deciphered messages within a conversation ostensibly about religion,” she recalled.

After several weeks of hide-and-seek with the military, Alvarez got word to see the ConCon head, former President Diosdado Macapagal at his house in Forbes Park. Macapagal had decided to send Alvarez to the US to help Marcos’ 1965 presidential opponent Raul Manglapus change public opinion in the US by exposing corruption and human rights violation in the Philippines. He was chosen among other individuals because he was a young bachelor and considered competent enough to undertake what they called mission impossible. He agreed.

Tearful goodbyes

His trip had been carefully planned. But before leaving, Alvarez met for the last time with his parents, Capt. Marcelo Alvarez and Juanita Turingan, a public school teacher. Both had repeatedly faced soldiers inquiring about his whereabouts. He revealed his trip to his parents and apologized for all the troubles he caused them. His father, a guerrilla fighter during the Japanese Occupation, asked the young man to reconsider his plans. He said no. He hugged him tightly and later gave him a proud salute. His mother told Alvarez: “Do what you believe is right. Always follow your conscience. And don’t forget to pray.” He was in tears walking away.

That was the last time Alvarez saw his father, according to Cecile. The old man eventually died of a heart attack after Sonny’s brother was “brutally tortured, his eyes gouged out, his tongue cut and his head bashed.” They found his body in the churchyard of Santiago, Isabela.

Restless, sleepless

Cecile would receive word later straight from Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile who asked her to tell Alvarez to surrender. “(We) have accounted for all the (oppositionist ConCon) delegates except Alvarez and (Bonifacio) Gillego. You better tell Alvarez to surrender or he’ll be shot on sight.”

Alvarez’s trip to the States looked like a scene straight from a James Bond movie. He boarded incognito a ship of a Greek captain bound for Hong Kong enroute to other Asian countries, according to Cecile. Throughout the trip, he was holding his breath, restless, sleepless, until he set foot on American soil.

Life in exile

While in the States, Alvarez linked at once with Manglapus and Gillego, a soldier-turned-human rights advocate who repeatedly challenged Marcos’s war records. Manglapus was on speaking tour, and martial law had forced him to stay put. While in exile, Manglapus put up the Movement for Free Philippines to consolidate all anti-Marcos Filipinos in the States.

But it wasn’t an easy life for Alvarez. The opposition leaders in the Philippines were disunited, so were the Filipino opposition leaders in the States, he would later learn. He would go from house to house to campaign on a shoestring budget.

Alvarez would admit later in an interview that he, Manglapus and Gillego had difficulty gathering support from Filipinos in the US, because the early US immigrants had Ilocano roots and a natural fondness for Marcos. It was nearly impossible to plant the seeds of discontent. They made progress only after two years.

Not all Ilocanos

“Not all Ilocanos supported Marcos,” Alvarez said in an interview held decades after Marcos was deposed in a military-backed "People Power" uprising in February 1986.

Indeed, apart from Alvarez and Manglapus, whose father hailed from Ilocos Sur, there were others like Jose Maria Sison, also of Ilocos Sur, and Conrad Balweg, of the Cordilleras, and a host of prolific writers and newsmen who went against the dictatorship, in and out of the Philippines.

When Senator Aquino Jr decided to leave the States and come home, Alvarez was there the night Aquino said goodbye to his wife Corazon and their children. He tried to dissuade Aquino from returning to the Philippines, but nothing stopped him. The rest is history.

Keepers of the flame

Heherson Alvarez (C), then Agrarian Reform Minister, accompanied Corazon Aquino as she gives land titles to representatives of 5,999 peasant-beneficiaries of the government land reform program on January 10, 1987. Romeo Gacad, AFP

Shortly after Aquino was murdered, Alvarez formed the Ninoy Aquino Movement seeking to harness Aquino’s sacrifice and convince the US to cut military aid to the Philippines, and seek US help to pressure Marcos to call for a snap presidential election. Marcos did and that began the countdown to his fall.

The military-backed people power revolt in February 1986 deposed Marcos, and Alvarez gleefully returned to the Philippines. Aquino’s widow Corazon rose to power and appointed him agrarian reform secretary.

Along with Manglapus, Alvarez was elected senator when Congress resumed session in July 1987. Gillego got elected congressman of Sorsogon. Manglapus died in July 1999, and Gillego died in August 2002.

Death of a freedom fighter

We last saw Senator Alvarez and his wife at the wake of former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. at the Heritage Memorial Park in Taguig City in October 2019. Alvarez, former Inquirer political columnist Belinda Olivarez-Cunanan, and this newsman talked about the death of a great freedom fighter in the years of living dangerously.

Walking his way to the exit, the 80-year-old Alvarez told this newsman who covered him when he was still a senator that people should learn how to appreciate the freedom they enjoy by remembering those who fought for it in the darkest episodes of Philippine history. They might lose it, if they would never care for it, he said.

We remember Alvarez’s words, but we didn’t realize that we would be reminded of it next by his own death. Rest in peace, Senator Alvarez.