Introduction: People We Trust examines the lives of three young people who come of age during the early years of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines: Carlos, a young lieutenant in the Army who defects to the Communist New People’s Army, Gabriel, his younger brother who falls prey to the dictatorship’s propaganda aimed at the youth, and Paulette, Carlos’s young wife, who disappears under mysterious circumstances.
In my novel, I wanted to explore the very personal effects of authoritarian violence by looking at one particular family whose lives are torn apart when a family member, Carlos, defies the dictatorship by defecting from its army. I wanted to understand how families and individuals living under authoritarian rule cope with the state’s intimidations and curtailments of their basic freedoms, and how authoritarianism can alter people’s definitions of morally acceptable behavior. Both Gabriel and Carlos succumb to political dogma as a means of coping with the psychic wounds inflicted upon them by the dictatorship, leading them to take steps that result in Paulette's mysterious disappearance.
From People We Trust
A Makeshift Family
Whenever Gabriel and Sam walked into “Ricky’s house”, which was what they now called the old American’s house as it slowly lost the traces of its previous occupant, they never knew what to expect: an afternoon of fun and games, or an impromptu “conversation”. Ricky managed to keep these “conversations” light despite their content, and he brought food, attracting even more kids from the barangay to the center. Every lecture was an occasion to eat, and Gabriel’s guess was that Ricky was aware that some of them weren’t eating well at home, which was why every conversation became an event, a party where snacks, along with knowledge, was shared.
Though Gabriel was ashamed to admit that he visited the center more frequently because of the food, Ricky seemed pleased that he was coming in on a regular basis, which gave him a strange surge of pride. Ricky was beginning to depend on Gabriel to speak up during the conversations, and even if Gabriel wasn’t convinced by everything Ricky said, he enjoyed being dependable, and being able to understand the ideas Ricky tried hard to explain.
“The Americans taught us that we cannot live authentic lives without freedom. They claimed that they had to colonize us in order to liberate us, and that to live truly authentic lives, we’d have to assert ourselves as individuals who had our own capacity for choice, our own unique ability to shape the direction of our lives whichever way we want. You’re all familiar with American movies, how one hero faces poverty and bullying and other obstacles, and can only surmount these by rebelling against authority,” Ricky said, pacing in circles within the larger circle they had formed around him. “And in American movies, rebelling against the police is a good thing, in the same way that rebelling against one’s elders is a good thing. It’s great to be disrespectful, according to them!” he exclaimed, raising his palms in the air as he beamed. “It’s a story that appeals to us all, because we all want to be heroes of our own stories. We want to break free from authority. But honestly,” he said, pausing in the center of the room, “As a farm boy in Isabela, that narrative did not appeal to me at all. And as Filipinos, it’s a story that we’ve been trained to embrace, even if it does not exactly reflect our values. Would you agree with me?”
Some of them in the circle nodded, while the dimmer ones among them stared in bewilderment at the emptiness before them, too afraid of being caught dozing off.
“Mark, it looks like you want to say something,” he said, turning to a tall, lanky boy who had just begun attending the Kabataang Barangay. Mark had moved with his mother from Manila, people said; no one knew where his father was. Mark was a know-it-all who agreed with Ricky at times, and challenged him when he disagreed with Ricky’s points. Ricky seemed to enjoy engaging with this intense, thoughtful teenager, but what Gabriel saw was a new kid who wanted the spotlight trained solely on him.
“Is it because in Filipino culture, we respect our mother and father?” Mark asked, his voice trembling with hesitation. Ricky’s lecture had stumped him, and it showed.
“Yes, that’s a good observation. Disrespecting our nanay and tatay isn’t part of our culture,” Ricky said, nodding in agreement. “And maybe this notion of freedom may work for Americans, but when they colonized us and imposed the idea on us, we took it to mean we can do whatever we like, which resulted in our present disorder.”
“I don’t quite understand,” Sam said, looking just as confused as Mark. Gabriel glanced at him. Sam normally didn’t challenge Ricky during conversations; it was Mark’s role in this circle to be the contrarian, not Sam’s.
Ricky laughed. “I know, I know. When I was thinking of what to talk about with you today, I expected you to be a little more confused than usual. Because freedom is supposed to be a good thing, right? Without freedom, we cannot take charge of our lives. Without freedom, our lives wouldn’t be of our choosing, but that of our parents. You all exercised your right to be free, for instance, by coming to this center today.” He lingered on this pause, allowing these thoughts to sink in. “Who here asked for their parents’ permission before coming here today?”
They exchanged looks, but no one raised their hand. Gabriel had the feeling that his parents knew where he was, but they never told him not to come here, even when his initial visits to the center felt like a violation of an unspoken rule. It was a rule whose parameters were indeterminate, whose prohibitions were unclear because they never once told him who the enemy was, and who he was supposed to guard himself against. Was Marcos the real enemy, or was it Carlos, who had broken the rules and had set the PCs against them? These days, his mother came home from work too exhausted to ask him where he had been after school, while his father rarely ventured outside his room, making their home feel emptier, and more unwelcoming, than the one in which Gabriel sat on this fine afternoon. Inside Ricky’s house, Gabriel had nothing to fear, even if Marcos presided over them from a picture frame, flashing at them his movie star smile.
“The problem is that we took our particular notion of freedom from the Americans, and their interpretation of freedom is a foreign concept which isn’t part of our culture. We took it to mean that we can do whatever we want, which goes against our culture of respecting our elders, and respecting the rights of people in our community.” Ricky glanced at Gabriel, and then turned to look at everyone. “And that is what happened, before Marcos imposed Martial Law. It wasn’t his purpose to take away our freedoms, as your parents have been made to believe by tabloid journalists. It was this shallow understanding of freedom that gave criminals and communists the right to violate the rights of others by sowing violence on the streets.” Ricky stopped in the middle of the circle. “Who here feels safer at night while walking around Baguio?”
They all raised their hands; some, like Sam and Mark, held back at first, but seeing that everyone had their hands up, they, too, raised theirs.
“Who here feels free to roam the streets at night, without getting robbed or beaten up?”
“We’re all at home before curfew,” Mark said, eliciting some laughs.
Ricky frowned as he turned to Mark. Mark had gone too far this time, and lowered his eyes in embarrassment as Ricky allowed a strained silence to fall between them.
“Mark, do you want to be out after ten?” Ricky asked, his voice playful and chiding.
“No, kuya,” Mark said, suppressing a laugh. “I don’t go to bars.”
“There’s a reason why our parents told us, before Martial Law was imposed, not to stay out late,” Ricky said, pivoting towards the opposite side of the circle. “It’s because criminals take advantage of the darkness to commit crimes while no one’s looking. And now, because Marcos imposed a curfew, even the criminals have to stay home at night. They can’t come to your houses to rob us after ten, because our hardworking PCs would catch them in the streets while they’re on our way to robbing us.” Ricky smiled. “That curfew takes away our freedom to be at night, yes, but did that freedom really protect us?”
Everyone shook their heads, including Mark, who stared at the floorboards in confusion.
“We felt we were free before Marcos declared Martial Law, when we weren’t free at all. We were enslaved by our fears, and for good reason because there were criminals and communists out there, violating our freedom to just live and enjoy life. Freedom is a basic human right. But there comes a point when our freedom to live without fear becomes violated by our freedom to do whatever we want and say what we want. The freedom to gossip about others, for instance, and spread malicious lies, not only curtails our freedom to live in peace, but also sows divisiveness in our communities that leads to violence. Imagine if I allowed you to gossip about other members here or bully them with malicious lies.” Turning to Gabriel, he said, “Imagine if I allowed a malicious rumor about a member of this group to spread like wildfire. Imagine if it was about you.”
Some looked at Gabriel, while some shifted in their seats.
“You probably wouldn’t want to come here again, would you? Because the trust established between you and the rest of the group would’ve been violated by that single lie. And naturally, people would also take sides. We’d be fighting here, and we’d never be able to get along or work together. Now, imagine the same thing happening in our society, with one person spreading a malicious lie about the government, or a public official. What if that public official, let’s say an assemblyman, or even our president, wanted to start a project for the common good, let’s say education reform, but some people decided to spread a lie so malicious about this project that people started turning against this public official?”
“Then the reforms wouldn’t happen,” Mark said, in a tired monotone.
“That’s right, Mark. But it’s not just that. People could turn against this public official, and bad elements like the communists could take advantage of the disorder and the enmity spreading in our society to sow the seeds of a civil war. And that’s exactly what happened, before Martial Law,” Ricky said, his voice turning somber. “The media had spread so many malicious rumors about our President that our nation was divided, and the communists came in, setting young people like you against the government, planting bombs and blaming Marcos for the violence.”
“I don’t know,” Sam said, gripping the straps of his backpack as he and Gabriel trudged uphill towards the jeepney stop. “Ricky’s great, but these lectures are cutting into my study time.”
“I’m learning more from him.” Up to this point, Gabriel had merely been fond of Ricky, but today the urge to defend Ricky came rising up from within him, like a wildflower pushing through the wet ground and into the light.
“Yeah, and maybe he’s helping me with my Civics homework, but we also have Trigonometry this semester and I’m falling behind.”
“Life isn’t just about getting good grades. It’s also about living, and learning from life.”
Sam sighed. “Yeah, but we hear the same things from Mrs. Stevia.”
“Ricky’s way better than Mrs. Stevia.”
Sam rolled his eyes with impatience. “Did you see my score on our Math test on Monday? I did terribly, and that’s because I’ve been spending so much time listening to Ricky’s lectures. Conversations, my ass.”
“Could you keep your voice down?” Gabriel hissed. There were kids from the center trailing them, and though they were a good block away, Gabriel couldn’t be so sure that they weren’t listening in, preparing to report anything suspicious back to Ricky.
“Anyway, I have fun at the center, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not even my barangay, and I spend too much time there,” Sam said. “And my parents don’t like me getting home just before dinnertime.”
If Sam dropped out from the group right when Ricky was becoming more impassioned in his speeches, it would mean that Sam didn’t believe in the group’s main teachings at all, and it would say something about Gabriel too, even if it meant nothing at all. A rift with Sam was the last thing he wanted—he didn’t want to take sides, and hoped to remain friends with both.
Monica Macansantos holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has been recognized with residencies from Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Storyknife Writers Retreat, the I-Park Foundation, and Moriumius. Excerpts from her unpublished novel, People We Trust, have appeared or are forthcoming in Anomaly, WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, TAYO, and Oyster River Pages, while her nonfiction has recently appeared in Vol.1 Brooklyn, Lunch Ticket, The Pantograph Punch, Another Chicago Magazine, SBS Voices, and VICE.