“Ka Bel: The Life and Struggles of Crispin Beltran” is a book to cherish, its 156 pages as precious and epic as the man whose biography they narrate.
It took all of three years to write but is undoubtedly the product of 12 years of the author and subject’s having worked closely together. The author, Ina Alleco Silverio, attested to how the book was in fact still a work in progress up to when Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) Chairman Emeritus and Anakpawis Rep. Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran met his untimely demise on May 20, 2008.
Silverio first broached the topic of writing the biography to Ka Bel himself while he was incarcerated by the Arroyo administration on rebellion charges at the Philippine Heart Center in 2007. “This book was very easy to write. When I started it in March 2007, its subject was literally captive, so it was not at all a problem to schedule interviews. We spent two to four hours almost daily sifting through his memories, and on the days when we didn’t meet, I wrote.”
During the book launch last June 4, Silverio, Ka Bel’s former chief-of-staff, recounted how she was “pressured” into finishing the book when publishers from Southern Voices Printing Press informed her of their interest to print it. “Naku, wala pang ending! (Oh no, it has no ending yet!)” was her retort, admitting that she did not have the heart to continue writing it after Ka Bel’s death.
“I was resolved to just let the unfinished manuscript sit within the recesses of my laptop. I thought that maybe after five years or so I would be able to muster the courage to look at it again and possibly finish it,” she said.
If the ending of the biography is any indication, it is that Silverio was not yet ready put into ink the end of Ka Bel’s life. It is widely-known how he died, he accidentally fell off the roof of their house while he was repairing a leak after one stormy night. The final pages of the book were obviously hastily-written, the unfortunate incident leading to his death and events thereafter not as intricately told and detailed as the previous chapters.
It was not a secret how Silverio mourned Ka Bel’s passing. Her blog post written immediately after the his accident was telling, “I suppose my grief is more personal than political — I salute Ka Bel as an activist, revolutionary, a legendary labor leader, a great internationalist, exemplary congressional representative and steadfast servant of the people: all these labels are his and will remain his for posterity. But the fact is, I loved Ka Bel like my father, or grandfather – someone I respected personally because he was really a good person, a caring human being, someone of flesh and blood, someone so very dear, with or without the labels.”
Now, two years after Ka Bel died, it is obvious that she still grieves. But friends, colleagues, comrades, Ka Bel’s family and all those who bore witness to the greatness of his life and genuine service to the people were done waiting. The book, despite its author’s reluctance, was itching to be finished.
Silverio had no other choice. Ka Bel’s life had become her story to tell.
Ka Bel could not have chosen a better writer to pass on his story. In his letter to Silverio dated March 6, 2006, when she took a short journalistic stint in Hongkong, he wrote, “Oo, ikaw ang dakilang propagandista ng kilusan at epektibo kahit saan at kailan. Ikaw ang may likha sa aking pagiging “most consistent outstanding congressman” for 5 years, nag-elevate sa akin bilang “Congressional Hall of Famer”. Atin ito, yours and mine! (Yes, you are the great propagandist of the [national democratic] movement, effective wherever and whenever [you may be]. You are responsible for my being ‘most consistent outstanding congressman’ for five years, for elevating me to the position of ‘Congressional Hall of Famer’. This [honor] is ours, yours and mine!)”
Ka Bel may as well have been referring to the book when he wrote those words because it indisputably bears the legacy of both subject and author.
After reading the book, what struck me most was how it is different from other biographies of known martyrs and heroes of the kilusan.
Yes, the book is a straight biography and a more-than-truthful testament of Ka Bel’s life from his childhood days to his triumphs and struggles as a great labor leader-turned-legislator, and a spectacularly written one to boot. But what makes it different from others, such as “Edjop, The Unusual Journey of Edgar Jopson”, (I was able to read the original version by Benjamin Pimentel and, for political reasons, refused to read the edited second edition by the same author) and “Armando”, bio of the late great revolutionary leader Armando Teng (written by Prof. Jun Cruz Reyes), for instance, is that the author did not write it “from the outside looking in”, so to speak.
This is perhaps because it is not based mainly on ‘outside’ sources and references but is a direct product of the author’s interviews with the subject himself. In fact, Ka Bel himself was able to edit the first three chapters before he died. Or perhaps because it was technically not a “commissioned” project but was borne out of the author’s sole initiative and motivation.
Suffice to say, it is by far the most ‘involved and un-detached’ biography that I have read. Indeed and without doubt, the book is a labor of love.
Sometimes poignant, sometimes cheeky and funny, full of surprises and tidbits that up until now were not public knowledge, sometimes serious and a lot educational and informative, there is a general sense of fondness and personal familiarity in the language used and the story-telling that makes it distinct from other biographies before it.
Whether it be Pin, the very young but courageous revolutionary courier for the Hukbalahap (Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon; or Crispin, the hardworking student who washed other people’s clothes to sustain himself, or the accidental groom who turned into a loving, responsible and patient husband and father; or Ka Bel, the self-taught labor leader who valiantly fought years and years of tyranny and political persecution, or the congressman who only had one pair of shoes, Silverio lovingly depicted and brought to life the great man and servant of the people that his comrades and enemies alike salute and admired.
His widow, Ka Osang, aptly voiced everyone’s sentiment when she said, “Maraming salamat, Ina. Wala man si Ka Bel ngayon, nandito naman siya sa libro (Thank you, Ina. Ka Bel may not be here with us anymore but he is here in this book).”
Another good trait of the book is that it chronicles historic socio-political events within and outside of the kilusan parallel to Ka Bel’s life.
I will admit that I was more than surprised and delighted to have learned that Ka Bel had a brief brush with the likes of infamous Tondo ganglords Asiong Salonga, Berting Langit and Pepeng Hapon. It also made me appreciate more how the national labor movement, particularly the KMU, came to be against all odds and amid repression during the dark days of the dictatorship. It was also the first time that I have heard of a standing order for the New People’s Army in Central Luzon during the EDSA People Power I uprising to march to Manila and “defend civilians against any and all attacks AFP troops loyal to the dictatorship would launch” as recounted by Ka Anto (Ka Bel’s nom de guerre when he fled to the countryside after his escape from prison in 1984).
It also provided its readers, especially its younger audience, a brief glimpse into the lives of likewise legendary labor leaders Ka Bert and Ka Lando Olalia, and the heroism and commitment to the struggle of Ka Osang herself.
Many more will probably write about the life and struggles of Ka Bel, but Silverio’s offering, her first ever full-fledged book, is as good as gold. ###