LEAN ALEJANDRO | 10 things that made this UP student an iconic leader of his generation
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Had he not been killed 25 years ago, Lean Alejandro would have been 52 by now.
Lean was a slippers-wearing student activist who helped create (in the late 1970s at the height of Martial Law) and rode (until a year after the EDSA People’s Revolt) the tumultuous waves of protests of the era that defined his generation.
Tall and thin, Lean was a heavyweight in his time, sparring in political and philosophical debates—or chess—with the best of them: Senators Jose “Pepe” Diokno and Lorenzo “Ka Tanny” Tanada, Profs. Alex Magno and Randy David, and UP President Dodong Nemenzo.
He was gone too soon, at 27, the age when the best rock stars die. Fellow student leader of his era Raffy Aquino waxes nostalgic about the "meteor that, for a brief moment, (marked) the dark heavens and (made) the night memorable. By his luminescence, he (gave) us a rare glimpse of dawn. He was a thunderbolt rebelling against the darkness, a spark that denied night monopoly over our collective sensibility.
"In life, Lean gave us a fine example of humanity: of commitment to grand principles, of selflessness in its heroic proportion, of courage in such surfeit it becomes contagious. He gave us a standard of passion and enthusiasm to live by; taught us how to love a cause so deeply, and feel do much for so many, that even death could not eradicate the afterglow of such love and such feeling…A meteor of great intensity has passed," he says in a past tribute to Lean.
Here, Lean’s traits that substantiate what Aquino glowingly said of him:
1. He stood in ‘the line of fire.’
“The line of fire is a place of honor” is one of Lean’s famous quotes.
In 1985, Lean was already a national figure, slowly letting go of student organizing work. But when a UP rally to Mendiola was dispersed by gunfire at Welcome Rotonda, he told Gonzalo “Bong” Bongolan Jr. and those he was leaving at UP: “I cannot assure you your safety. I can only assure you that I will be there and I will be shot first.”
Lean’s courage in the face of danger was inspiring. Senator Francis Pangilinan, who also became UP-Diliman Student Council chairman, says Lean “was always at the forefront of mobilizations, in mass actions and rallies.”
And remember, he says, “We were under a dictatorship then. He was one of those who stood up against the dictatorship.” And after the assassination of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, “he was also one of those who actively urged students to engage society and persevere” even as the Marcos regime was trying to tighten its grip on power.
“Because of his conviction, at some point, he was jailed. He was apprehended and detained for his principle,” Pangilinan says. Lean was arrested and jailed for a couple of months for trying to negotiate in behalf of student marchers on their way to the Ministry of National Defense.
2. He relished ‘the struggle to be free.’
“The next best thing to being free is the struggle to be free” is another favorite Lean quote among his fans.
And the struggle entailed some sacrifices, Pangilinan says. There were times when they couldn’t be home for Christmas “because there was a crackdown on activists…We were told not to go home, two to three months (at a time). We were moving from one safehouse to the next. Hindi kami puwedeng umuwi…kasi nga nagtatago sa mga ahente ng diktadura (We could not go home…because we were hiding from agents of the dictatorship).”
Ironically, “I’ll be home for Christmas” was Lean’s favorite carol, the senator says.
Bongolan, the former head of the Home Guarantee Corp. and now an investment banker, remembers one Christmas Eve that Lean spent with them in Proj. 4. His family had finished their Yuletide rituals at around 3 a.m. when they noticed that Lean had slept in the garage.
Another Christmas, Ruben "Benrubs" Felipe, a friend, says, he and Lean were wandering the streets. Lean asked why they weren’t with their families. Despite his self-doubts, he remained steadfast in his commitment.
To those who won’t make a stand, Pangilinan says, Lean would quote Dante Alighieri: The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of crisis, chose to remain neutral.
3. He created alliances among those with opposing views.
Or great at alliance work, as another Lean colleague Felipe calls it. He was friends with all the organizations and fraternities (League of Filipino Students, Pi Sigma, Alpha Sigma, etc.) of the UP Palma Hall “Second Floor Republic,” the area of most org tambayans.
Lean had declined the invitation of Felipe, a Pi Sigman, to be frat brods. “I think he preferred that he be one with all the fraternities.”
This compulsion to unite people worked well for him outside UP, when he sought to get peasants and proletariats together with professionals and even politicians in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.
“He was always looking for commonality,” Felipe says. “Magaling sa (Great at) relationship.”
“Pati socdem, tradpol, hinaharap nya (He engaged even socialist democrats, traditional politicians),” he adds.
4. He had charisma. ‘Mapipilitan kang makinig kasi magaling ang sinasabi.’
This, from Senator Edgardo Angara, who was President of the University of the Philippines when Alejandro was elected University Student Council chairman in 1983. At that time, student activists, Lean included, were suspicious of him and called him a “stooge” of his Sigma Rho fraternity brother, then Minister of National Defense and now Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile.
“But later on, we came to know each other and he became one of the closest student leaders to me. And up to the time he died, we were very close. So I remember him very fondly,” Angara says.
At the ceremony of incoming Lean’s batch of USC members, Angara was so impressed by Lean’s acceptance speech that he chose not read his own speech. He says he did not have anything else to add to what Lean said.
“Magaling na bata, very articulate, very fluent, and may tinatawag na stage presence. At kapag tumayo siya at nagsalita, mapipilitan kang makinig kasi magaling ang mga sinasabi (Very good kid…he has what you call stage presence. And when he stood and spoke, you will be forced to listen because he had something to say),” Angara says.
5. He was inspired and inspiring. He made it easy for others to make a stand.
Rowena Paraan, secretary general of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, did not work with him in college. But in a symposium at the AS Theater, she remembers Lean speaking of activism as consistent daily task.
Paraan says activists should be like the “youth missionaries of the Campus Crusade for Christ.” Activism, Lean advised, must be “integral” to the activist, like a body function. When she herself started organizing journalists, she remembered the truth in his statement.
“Lean made it easy to make a stand. Parang di mahirap makibaka pagkatapos ka nyang kausapin (It doesn’t seem difficult to be an activist after he’s talked to you),” Paraan says. “Magaan sya (He’s easy to get along with).”
Bongolan was training in soccer to join the UP varsity team but became an activist at Lean’s “invitation.”
Lean’s drawing power was made manifest in his congressional run in 1987. Powered mostly by volunteers—his campaign parades and post-election protests included a long line of tricycle drivers. The people’s support was so strong that the policeman who talked to Felipe could not believe Lean could lose the elections.
Felipe to policeman at the Mendiola rally protesting the vote count: “Ano’ng pambayad namin sa kanila? Volunteer lahat yan (What will we pay them? They are all volunteers).”
“Kung ganyan ang suporta nya, hindi sya pwedeng natalo (If that is the kind of support he has, he could not have lost),” the riot cop told Felipe.
6. He was a multi-tasker, even before the term was coined.
“Ang swerte ng ND sa kanya (The national democratic movement was lucky to have had him),” Bongolan says of Lean the ND workhorse.
“Pag inako mo ang trabaho, gampanan mo, yan ang prinsipyo nya (If you take on the job, you work it, that’s his work ethic),” Felipe says.
For a long time, while he held positions in student organizations in UP, Lean was also an official of the Kasama sa UP, the organization of all UP university student councils nationwide, and with the national-in-scope Youth for Nationalism and Democracy.
7. He read a lot.
He never forgot to feed his mind, and to convince his comrades to read.
“Mahilig magbasa,” said Felipe, who admitted to being Lean’s political officer at one time.
At the risk of being branded a Trotskyite, Lean read books critical of the Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong line of thought of the ND leadership. He devoured The Lord of the Rings, perhaps taking inspiration from the fellowship.
Pangilinan says Lean was “very analytical and very sharp,” and he got it from reading a lot.
“Di pwedeng di ka nagbabasa. Di dahil comrades tayo, di tayo scientific (It cannot be that you don’t read. Our being comrades does not excuse you to be not scientific). Substance has to be complemented with skills,” Bongolan says, quoting Lean.
“You cannot come to him with a bad plan,” he adds.
8. Despite his obvious intelligence, he was not arrogant. ‘Nakikitagay, nakiki- level, not condescending.’
“Hindi sya mapagmata in the intellectual sense (He’s not an intellectual snob),” Felipe says. “Ang tyagang magpaliwanag (He was patient at explaining).”
He was tolerant of different views, but his pet peeve was people with closed minds.
If he was with men who were drinking, he’d have his share of tagay (shot), Felipe says.
“Walang ka-ere-ere (He did not have airs),” he says, but his unusual approach to the normally rigid schoolmarmish standards of the ND movement got him in trouble. But he’d explain his actions.
Lean blazed a trail, organizationally, politically, and ideologically, Felipe says.
9. He was well rounded. He was not above ‘burgis’ activities.
He was the face of the scholar activist, a true revolutionary, a Renaissance man. He was “versatile.” He knew how to cook (his favorite was sinigang or sour pork stew). He played the guitar, singing “bourgeois irresponsible songs” like “I have to say I love you in a song” and other songs by either Jim Croce or James Taylor.
“He was the one who taught me the differences in alcohol. He was a wine connoisseur. He could imbibe Ginebra San Miguel as much as he could Johnny Walker. He smoked blue-seal cigarettes. His father was an OFW who sent them these imported items,” Felipe says.
He also had a passion for chess. He had dreamed of teaching his child the games of kings.
Once, he was seen driving a BMW motorbike on University Avenue with Lidy Nacpil, his girlfriend and later his wife, riding tandem.
“He was not the typical G&D (grim and determined) activist. He enjoyed banned burgis activities.
10. He never compromised.
When the underground’s so-called Higher Organ ordered him to use the USC in the campaign against the US-Marcos dictatorship, Lean argued his case: We are the council. We are not the LFS (the militant League of Filipino Students). We all have roles to play. That role is not the USC’s, Felipe says.
Regardless of the battle—whether he was fighting against tuition increases, campaigning for the boycott of the 1984 Batasan elections, or the financial impositions of the International Monetary Fund, Lean always trusted the people, Bongolan says. “That was his true north. He was not corruptible.”
What would he have been if Lean did not die 25 years ago? How would the Left been different with him actively participating in the debate on its actions?
Invariably, the interiewees all thought he would have been a prominent figure in Philippine politics—as congressman, senator, or even president of the Philippines. Or he would have been in the movement— some say with the RAs (reaffirming Prof. Jose Ma. Sison’s position), others with the RJs (rejecting).
Felipe says: “We can’t really say (where he would be now) because of the split of the Left. He was killed before the split became apparent.”
Before Lean, the standard of your commitment to the cause was joining the armed struggle, he says. But Lean believed that regardless of where you are or what you’re doing, you can still serve the people.
And that’s true now, says Bongolan, listing the many brilliant former student leaders who now serve inside and outside government: Pangilinan, LFS’s Nat Santiago, migrant workers rights’ advocate Rex Varona, Congressman Miro Quimbo, and lawyer Prof. Dan Calica.
Bongolan says, Lean lives on in us. With Karl John Reyes, InterAksyon.com