Martial law was personal

Literary godfather Nick Joaquin

By Ninotchka Rosca

An early morning phone call, a voice saying, “A Manny Lacaba was killed in Davao. Please contact his family.” Emmanuel Lacaba, young and handsome and a zinger of a poet, had gone underground upon the declaration of martial law, as had his brother, Jose F. Lacaba. Since our first acquaintance, they’d been Pete and Emman, or Eman.

I called Nick Joaquin, who was our literary godfather. Nick was adamant my information was wrong. I said mildly, “Hey, this is me. My sources are usually impeccable.”

Nick: If you must know, he’s not there. He’s in Cagayan de Oro.

Me: Just get in touch with someone in his family.

So it went; Emman had been murdered. I can’t recall if Pete had already been captured but by the time of the second phone call, he was already in a military detention camp, reportedly pissing blood from torture. This time the caller was Adrian Cristobal, one of Marcos’s speechwriters, head of the Social Security Administration, and reputed to be one of Imelda’s favorites. He was also partial to poets and writers.

Adrian: The First Lady wants to name Nick National Artist.

Me: Oh.

Marcos speechwriter Adrian Cristobal. Photo:

Adrian: But she wants to be sure first that he will accept.

Me: (mindgearsworking) Let me ask him.

So I called Nick again at his home (clan privilege, as his brother had been married to my mother’s cousin, Sarah).

Nick went into a rage.

Nick: How can I do that? Emman’s killed and Pete’s in prison. WTF, that blankety blank woman and that hijo de… man, etcetera, etcetera…

I rode it out and when he paused for breath, said: That’s what I’m thinking of, Nick. You can tell them you’ll accept if they release Pete.

Nick: (after long silence) You think they’ll go for it?

Me: 90 percent sure. She wants you. Her underlings will make it happen.

Long, long pause.

Nick: Andiyan ka na naman, lintak ka. (There you go again, you… reference to time I demanded he join the union at the Free Press and all hell broke loose) Oh, all right. Give Adrian my number and tell him to call me.

And that was how it was arranged. Looking back now, I’m almost sure that Adrian knew that was the way I’d work it out with Nick. Otherwise, he would’ve just ordered the telephone company for Nick’s unlisted number.

This was the way it was: everyone with even a little bit of conscience tried to help friends who were in trouble.

This essay — posted on Facebook and being reprinted with permission — is fourth in a series of Ninotchka Rosca’s wall by wall recollection of martial law 40 years ago. This is the author’s memory of how Nick Joaquin became the first National Artist of the Philippines.


  1. RobDH wrote:

    During ML, the communist ‘circled the wagons’,but were routed by the true patriots.

    • Gerry wrote:

      True patriots who looted the nation’s coffers dry and imprisoned or killed those who refused to look the other way, eh?

    • Name * wrote:

      I hope we will never meet,..otherwise..

      • RobDH wrote:

        To “no name”,
        To whom were you referring to, “Rob” or “Gerry” concerning you not want to meet? If it me, then be advised I live in the Philippines half of the year, and in America the other half I the year. I would be happy to meet you anytime. As one who lived in the Philippines during the Marcos years, as well as the eras of dictators since his time, I can say with conviction I have witness just as much corruption, fraud, graft, and human-right violations as they were during President Marcos years. During the past 20 years, BILLIONS of dollars have been grafted from the pockets of the Philippine people. Be honest with yourself and stop trying to rewrite history to fit what the administration wants to hear. You are sad, so sad!

  2. Tony Joaquin wrote:

    Thanks a lot Ninotchka for this valuable and authentic report on how my uncle Nick got his National Artist for Literature Award. I think it needs to be read by as many Filipinos as poossible, and I thank Crien for havig posted it in her THE FILAM blogsite.

  3. […] In 1976, President Marcos named Nick Joaquin National Artist, but the latter laid down one condition for his acceptance of the award—the release of his friend and fellow journalist Pete Lacaba. Read Ninotchka Rosca’s account of the incident here. […]

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