Pete Lacaba: 2013 Gawad Plaridel Awardee
By Matthew Reysio-Cruz
The night of January 30, 1970 was a long and dark one. It was a night punctuated by brutal force from the military—molotov cocktails and pillbox bombs, tear gas and rifle butts, and rocks set skyward that put out the lights of street lamps—which plunged the great mass of students gathered at the gates of Malacañang into pitch black.
It was the taste of violence, chaos and hostility that had come to characterize Martial Law, two years before it was even proclaimed.
That night of protest, the evenings leading up to it and the series of protests that followed over the next two months came to be known as the First Quarter Storm.
One startling and remarkable thing to come out of those three months of violence was a series of on-the-spot reports, coming from a young but brave journalist who was himself a part of the movement. In fact, he had been present that first long night, and was even injured on the chest by loose shrapnel after troopers fired their guns at the cement.
He, along with another injured student who had fallen into his arms, found someone willing to take them to the UE Memorial Hospital. After his injury had been treated, the young man, undeterred, returned to the battlefield where he had been hurt just hours earlier.
This young, uncompromising and courageous journalist was Jose Maria Flores Lacaba, Jr.
Pete Lacaba is this year’s recipient of the Gawad Plaridel, an annual award given by the UP College of Mass Communication (CMC) to media practitioners who have excelled in their respective fields.
“Walang takot siya na magsiwalat ng mga nakikita niya. Matapang [siya]. At hindi lang siya nakakulong sa isang kategorya, hindi lang siya nag-eexcel sa isang form of media (He has no fear in exposing what he sees. Also, he does not limit himself to just one category and form of media),” said Regina Mendes of CMC’s Office of Extension and External Relations, tasked with organizing this year’s Gawad Plaridel.
When asked about her experience working with Lacaba on the preparations for the July 24 awarding ceremony, Mendes recalled being struck by the fact that despite being an accomplished journalist, Lacaba remained humble.
“Very approachable siya and very down to earth. Madali siyang kausap,” she said.
Lacaba’s reports on the protest actions during the ‘60s and ‘70s, which would later be compiled in his book Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage, were widely celebrated and brought him national recognition. His literary style of journalism was both compelling and ground-breaking.
“It was well-written and it did bring out the disquiet and the rage,” said Oscar Evangelista, a former Chairperson of the UP Department of History who did a review on Lacaba’s best-selling compilation.
“He was in the middle of it, and that made it even more personalized because he saw what happened. He saw the brutalities of the police and how the students responded. He had the bird’s eye view of the events. That in itself was already quite different from the ordinary news reporting during that time,” said Evangelista.
Born in 1945 in Cagayan de Oro, Jose Lacaba was given the nickname Pepito, the nickname Pepe already being taken by his father. Pepito was shortened to Pito in college, then even further to Pit.
The decision to respell Pit to Pete, giving rise to the name he is now popularly and affectionately called by, was driven by the inevitable armpit jokes that the name ‘Pit’ inspired.
It was apparent early in his life, however, that Pete Lacaba was someone to be taken seriously. Lacaba proved that he, with the sharpness of his pen, was a force to be reckoned with.
The Marcoses had him arrested in April 1974 and detained for almost two years.
In those two years, he was brutally and routinely interrogated and tortured for hours on end. This included being kicked in the chest and stomach and hit in the face and nape repeatedly, as well as being made to lie down with the back of his head on the edge of one bed and his feet on the edge of another, his body left suspended in between.
Lacaba was forced to wash cars and clean dirty communal toilets. He had to be confined at the Quezon Institute for almost a month, where he was heavily guarded, after a recurrence of the pulmonary tuberculosis that had already gone away prior to his imprisonment.
Lacaba would prove, as he did time and time again, that no amount of suffering would kill his desire to expose and put to end the suffering of others. He chose to be one with the struggles of the Filipino people.
In addition to his news reports, Lacaba also expressed anti-Marcos sentiments through poetry, such as in Prometheus Unbound, a poem he had published in Focus Magazine under the pen name Ruben Cuevas. He exposed social unrest in his screenplays as well, such as in Sister Stella L. and Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim, which were movies that came out under Marcos’ rule.
Due to financial constraints, Lacaba had dropped out of Ateneo de Manila University, where he was taking up a degree in English, in his third year. He used this as an opportunity to develop his illustrious writing career, where he amassed an illustrious body of work – news articles, poems, screenplays and essays.
He has also taught both in the University of the Philippines and the Ateneo de Manila University. Currently, he is the executive editor of Summit Media’s YES! Magazine, where he writes a column entitled Showbiz Lengua, which tackles language in show business.
Lacaba is a strong advocate of the Filipino language, having translated many poems and songs from English to the native tongue. In addition, he prides his generation of writers in being the ones to make language in Filipino poems more conversational.
He has been recognized several times for his work, including winning the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Cinemanila International Film Festival and the CCP Centennial Honors of the Arts. He has also won the Gawad Urian for Best Screenplay four times.
Like Marcelo H. del Pilar, Lacaba used his great skill and passion for writing to promote a free and progressive media. He proved that a writer’s pen can be as hard as steel that refuses to break or bend.