“Bye Bye Miss American Pie…”
We were singing because it was a wake and this was HIS favorite song. It was night, and still almost 100 degrees because we were in the tropical Philippines. As is the custom when a loved one dies in the Philippines, we were all there for the duration of the night. It is traditional for everyone to stay with the family through the night – the hardest part of mourning, making it through the night. The body was in the house, sealed in the casket. We were outside, in front of the home, singing at the top of our lungs,
“took the chevy to the levy but the levy was dry”.
Tears, sweat, and laughter.
The dead man was Fortuna Diosdado (1954-2005), the president of the Nestle workers union. He was assassinated on Sept 22, 2005. Men on Motorcycles wearing ski masks shot him in the head. The Nestle workers were on strike because the company wanted to take away retirement benefits in their collective bargaining agreement. He was also a father and a husband and he loved Don Mclean songs.
“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day”
I met him once, I remember his smile and warm greeting. We were all laughing in the back of the jeepney – going home after a rally. He was loved. Loved by workers and his family. His nickname was Ka. Fort. (Ka. is an abbreviation for kasama, which means “to go with.” There is no real English translation, comrade is the closest but kasama doesn’t have to be political. It means someone who walks “with you”.)
Ka. Fort’s death, his murder, shook us all. We were not going to only mourn in the darkness. We were going to keen and gnash our teeth and shake our fists in the day.
We took his body 100 miles from his home to Manila. His casket on a flatbed truck covered in flowers. We followed, in jeepneys and on foot. Hundreds of us, we brought his body to the doors of the Commission of Human rights who had so clearly failed to stop the murder of labor leaders in the Philippines. We took his body to the front of the Nestle HQ in Manila. There, men all in black with large guns greeted us, Nestlé private Security. Standing faceless, with automatic weapons in front, guarding the modern office building of a worldwide corporation.
All along our pilgrimage of rage and grief, police and military followed us, sometimes stopping us for hours, blocking traffic. I rodein the jeepney with Ka Fort’s older brother. A man in his 60’s yelling out the windows at the military, you are all murderers!
It was hot. It was humid. We were dripping in sweat. We were exhausted and angry and covered in grime and dirt. We were stopped again, the police and military blocking the highway. Cars and busses that were not part of our caravan jumped the median to get out of the blockade. We poured out of vehicles and moved towards Ka. Fort’s casket. The police had water cannons pointed at us and at his casket. His sister was screaming at police in riot gear. I began sobbing uncontrollably, overcome from days of no sleep, from special security precautions, from the reality of a dead labor leader’s body so threatened by water cannons.
“With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land”
Finally, the police turned around and let us leave Manila. We began a long journey back to Ka Fort’s hometown, back to the gates of the Neslte factory where he had spent more than 2 decades working. Back to the strike line. As we entered the barangay(town) we all got out and walked behind his body. People lined the streets. It was dark by the time we arrived, but still steaming hot. Children, women and men all stood on the side of the road, fists raised high to honor Ka Fort’s commitment to the rights of workers. Many held candles, their faces lit and glowing in the darkness as we all walked forward carried by our mission.
“Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They did not listen, They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now”
Suddenly we saw the darkened, locked gates of the Nestle factory and our mood changed and fury swept over the crowd. We rushed the gates and shook the bars and screamed “murderers!” We shook and shook the bars, the sound of metal scraping against concrete, the angry words, the sweat, the smell of fear, all washed up over the concrete the way heat rises from pavement. Then suddenly from behind the storage containers that were lined up behind the gates of the factory – more men in black. They scurried out into positions, automatic weapons trained on us – unarmed civilians. The organizers, realizing the imminent danger, began shouting “peace brothers and sisters” and “ move away from the gates” so we did, and we began our final vigil. After a long day, the next day we had to bury our friend, labor leader, father, brother, husband – but tonite we sang our final songs on the strike line. The men with guns in the shadows, watching and guarding their corporate masters.