“Freedom was won with the efforts of foreign exiles who were consistently and systematically trying to change policy makers’ opinions,” said former Senator Heherson ‘Sonny’ Alvarez who died of Covid-19 at 80 on April 20, 2020.

He was a ‘freedom fighter’a pioneer, a climate change campaigner, an environmentalist..”

Teodoro ‘Ted’ Alcuitas

Editor, Philippine Canadian News.com

He was no typical Filipino politician, certainly not a ‘trapo’, the pejorative word Filipinos call their corrupt politicians.

Former Senator Heherson Alvarez, more popularly known as ‘Sonny’, died of Covid-19 on April 20,2020 in the Philippines, three weeks after he and his wife Cecile Guidote were being tested positive of the virus.

He was 80 years old.

Heherson Alvarez, eventually a senator (3rd from left) and Jose W. Diokno (4th from left) lead protesters against the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus on August 1971. Photograph courtesy of Bantayog ng mga Bayani Museum. (ABS/CBN)

Back in the 80s, he was in the bustling metropolis of New York. I was in the prairie town of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which a former New Yorker friend, Fr. Sam Argenziano, called a “God-forsaken country” for its long, deep winters.

But our worlds met in the common struggle to fight the Marcos dictatorship.

He was one of the leading anti-Marcos opposition groups in the U.S. with his Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM) formed to rally support against the dictatorship.

In Winnipeg, I was trying to understand the situation in the Philippines which I left in 1968 immigrating to Canada with my wife and 8-month old daughter.

Back then when there was no internet. I relied on a San Francisco-based Filipino newspaper – Philippine News published by anti-Marcos  campaigner Alex Esclamado. That’s where I found out about NAM and Alvarez.

As we tried to make Filipinos in Winnipeg aware of the dictatorship, I used reports from Philippines News as props in our meetings. Sonny augmented materials with whatever resources he had and sent it to me.

In the aftermath of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on August 21, 1983, NAM and other opposition groups in the U.S. gathered in San Francisco to decide strategies.

Heherson Alvarez (C), then Agrarian Reform Minister, accompanied Corazon Aquino as she gives land titles to representatives of 5,999 peasant-beneficiaries of the government land reform program on January 10, 1987. Romeo Gacad, AFP(ABS/CBN)

Sonny invited me to the meeting. I initially hesitated as I did not have the money to go to San Francisco but the ever-supportive Fr. Sam Argenziano offered to fund my trip.

That is where I first met two activists from Canada – the late Fely Villasin and Cenen Bagon of CAMD, the Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship. 

The meeting was addressed by the late senator’s brother,Paul Aquino, who exhorted the groups to rally behind the candidacy of Corazon Aquino to oppose Marcos in the snap election. After a long-tortuous debate, it was decided to support Cory Aquino.

I returned to Winnipeg and continued my work in the anti-Marcos struggle with the group which I helped organize – the August Twenty One Movement (ATOM).

As part of our advocacy, we invited speakers to Winnipeg and Sonny was of the first we invited together with Ruben Cusipag, editor of Balita from Toronto. I had the privilege to billet the two of them and  was mesmerized listening to the tales of two of Marcos’ harshest critics meeting for the first time after their escape.

Sonny was retelling how he escaped through Hong Kong and to the U.S., Ruben revealing that he took the so-called ‘back door’ via the southern Philippines to Canada.

Sonny and Ruben’s visit was just part of the scores of visitors from the Philippines that landed in our house during the Marcos era.

Among them: Butz Aquino of ATOM Philippines, labour leaders Norma Binas and Menardo, peasant leader Jaime Tadeo, student leader Liddy Nakpil of SCM.

Our group also was involved in the visit to Winnipeg of the dance troupe Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), founded by Sonny’s wife, Cecile Guidote.

PETA’s Panata sa Kalayaan (Ode to Freedom) performed to a capacity crowd at a high school auditorium.

After the fall of Marcos and the election of Cory Aquino, Sonny returned to the Philippines and worked with the Aquino administration in different capacities.

I saw him at the old Senate building in Padre Faura in 1989 just months before President Corazon Aquino was to visit Canada, the first president to do so. 

Sonny was the man in charge of planning for the visit and immediately offered to have me included in the 100 people that would be in the president’s entourage to Ottawa if I wanted.

I respectfully declined the offer and was impressed by his genuine gesture.

In my subsequent trip to the Philippines, I tried to see him out at this office of Secretary of Agriculture but was unsuccessful.

My Senate encounter with him was our last meeting.

Highlights:

Heherson Alvarez was the youngest Constitutuonal Convention delegate in 1971 at the age of 31.

Because of his opposition to Marcos, he was targeted together with his family, prompting him him to escape the Philippines. His younger brother Marsman was found brutally murdered – his skull broken, eyes gouged out and tongue cut. His body was found in the churchyard of Santiago, Isabela. His father died of a heart attack shortly after the body of Marsman was found.

After the fall of Marcos and the ascension to power of Corazon Aquino, Alvarez was appointed Agrarian Reform Secretary. He was the principal author of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

He was elected to the Senate in 1987.

In the words of columnist Red Constantino, ABS/CBN:

“Sonny Alvarez should not be remembered as a victim of the pandemic. In ICSC, beyond the recognition bestowed by official titles, we choose to remember him instead as a pioneer, a climate change campaigner, an environmentalist who blazed a path that has allowed many advocates today to more easily gain greater influence and deeper, further inroads towards the ultimate social transformation and decarbonization he had fought for.

By many accounts the country should weigh less because of his passing, but in truth the nation is more because of the legacy he leaves behind.”