Dear Susan: a tribute to my cousin Susan Quimpo

Susan Quimpo was my cousin but she was also one of my best friends. She died yesterday after a long illness. I want to share the story of our friendship so that not just my children but other young Filipinos will know of her and her struggle. The darkness gathering in the Philippines right now feels so bleak and reminiscent of the Martial Law years that Susan's family endured and fought. I would like to believe that everywhere there are people like Susan who take action, wasting no time on the inertia (and empty performance) of outrage. Through her work, I'm sure Susan touched the hearts of many. Here is how she touched mine.


Dear Susan


When we first met, I was a teenage intern at the Philippine Sesame Street Project, making props, clay models and looking after the head of Pong Pagong  the giant turtle equivalent for Big Bird who had tofrequently take off his head because of the heat.


Your job at Sesame Street was so cool: you travelled through the provinces, collecting folk stories. Still in the midst of discovering my future self as a children’s book writer, I was instantly drawn to you and delighted to discover that we were distant cousins. 


But though we shared a surname and relatives and both grew up in large families, our lives were a contrast. 


You were the youngest of a family coming of age in a time of resistance – the 1970s – which began with what was called the First Quarter Storm – when students rose up in protest and the government of Ferdinand Marcos responded with a calculated brutality that drove young people underground, including many of your siblings.


I on the other hand was one of the oldest in a family that came of age in a time of apathy – when the activism had been driven underground and  the Marcos dictatorship had already silenced the media, killed its enemies, and stolen the wealth of its people. 


This was not an era of fight but of flight, when leaving the Philippines in search of a better life became the norm.


I spent my childhood in a typical, middle class Filipino household with too many children and financial struggles.


Yours was a childhood that was first shattered by the death of your mother. She pushed you out of the way but then herself was struck down by a jeepney. Then as the Marcos dictatorship cracked down on young activiists, the rest of your childhood was spent wondering when you would see your siblings again. Visiting morgues to identify bodies that might possibly be your next of kin. Packing food parcels to take to your brothers in Marcos detention centres.


When a short film I directed won fourth place in an ECP – Experimental Cinema of the Philippines – competition, the prize was the chance to have a short film funded and mentored by the vast resources of the ECP. 


Excitedly,  you and I decided to write a film together. Having no privacy, and no money to sit in cafes, we sat in car parks planning a short film about the torture of a political detainee.  We pitched the idea, to the ECP and then … nothing. We were so naïve to think a Marcos-created organization would be interested in our film. 


Your activism was intense during the years running up to the 1986 revolution. I know because in those years I became a reporter for the Opposition press and how I  looked forward to running into you at those rallies, a chance to chika chika with my favourite cousin. 


You were performing with a street theatre group called Peryante … singing and dancing in the middle of slums, inviting slum dwellers to sing and dance with you, to tell their stories. I loved coming along, watching you rehearse. The cover of your family memoir, Subversive Lives shows you at one of those gigs –  I remember taking the photo. You told me it would be too dark so I gathered up all my loose change and bought some really expensive film rated at 1600 iso! I took many terrible photos that night but this one came out almost okay. I was pleased to see it on the cover of your book.


In 1984, you and I had an idea to shoot a small documentary about a strike by steelworkers at a company called Globe Steel. We began visiting the strikers, getting to know them, taking photographs. You wrote about the story of the strike in your family memoir. It amazed me because I had forgotten all those details. Unlike me, you had kept a diary through the years. You remember more about what happened to me in my youth than I do.


We never made that documentary but we were there to witness men and women lie down in front of trucks bringing scabs into the factory. We were there to see men in Philippine Constabulary uniform use cattle prods to try to disperse them. We were there to see them drag the women away and we were there to see them beating up the men. We were there to see one policeman pull his gun out and shoot at the men who tried to run away.


I was supposed to be the better photographer, but it was your photo, of the truck with the bodies piled in front of it, that made the cover of my magazine. I still see those photos now being used in documentaries and stories about police brutality and the Marcos dictatorship. But I wonder what happened to those poor people. Sometimes I feel guilt and I wonder if their resistance became performative, because we were there to take photos.


Two days after Globe Steel we met again at a rally by the Welcome Rotonda monument. We greeted each other and chattered away until the megaphones started to call the rallyists into position. I said, ‘See you later!’ and withdrew with the other journalists behind the lines of the riot police with their shields. Because it was safer therealthough we claimed that it was just the better place to take photographs.


When the rallyists wouldn’t budge, the police took out water cannons and hosed everyone down, firing tear gas for good measure. I remember 80 year old Lorenzo Tanada and 71 year old Chino Roces, publisher of the Manila Times, two old activists, standing up to the water with their eyes shut titght.


And then ...  the police began to fire their guns.


There was pandemonium. I ran into the lines of the rallyists calling your name but I couldn’t see you thorugh all the tear gas and the running and the screaming. Later, after phoning all the hospitals to get a casualty count for our news stories, we all met up in Chinatown and there, one of the other reporters told me you were okay. It felt like a brush with death.


After the fall of the Marcos Dictatorship we found ourselves in different parts of the world. I married Richard Gourlay, a British foreign correspondent, we left Manila to began to make a life here in London. And you became a teacher and pursued masters in Southeast Asian Studies in the United States where you fell in love with George Chiu. You told me how your heart ached for Filipino Americans who yearned to learn about their Filipino heritage, which was like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece to their identity. 


So of course you had to do something about it. So with George, you created Tagalog On Site, to introduce Filipino Americans to the Philippines. 


But you being you, it was not enough to teach them how to speak Tagalog and take them to tourist sites. You took them to meet shamans in the Cordilleras. You introduced them to the indigenous people of Mindanao. And movingly, you orchestrated a meeting between Filipino Americans and the Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen with Filipino women whom they squired then left behind, like many thousands of madame butterflies.


On one of my visits home,you took me to San Pablo, to scout another experience for these young people. We visited a group that supported Filipino overseas workers in Hong Kong, mostly women working as maids.


 The group had several big beige computers that the families left behind used to use new-fangled Skype to visit with their mums. 

Do you remember how we were moved to tears by the stories of children embracing the computers, trying to get closer to their missing mothers. 


Later, I made a Radio 4 Documentary called Motherless Nation, about the children left behind by the Philippines’ migration phenomenon that started during the Marcos regime that is now such a massive industry that 11 percent of the population working abroad.


Susan, even as your illness worsened you continued to travel all over the country, campaigning to include Martial Law in our history education in the Philippines as well as telling your own story.  You were so tired and yet you were tireless, and everything you do, you do for others.


Your life has been so full of meaning and compassion and I feel so lucky to have had a small role in it.


You wrote me at the start of the lockdown to tell me you were dying. You said a lot of activists from our generation have been dying. “I wonder,” you said, “if I am part of that harvest. If so , it would be an honour to join them. I’ve had peace with my version of God and I am quite ready.”


And when I burst into tears and wondered what I would do without you, you wrote:


“Haha! I will creep into your dreams!”


Oh I hope so. Knowing you makes me a better person and I will miss you forever.


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