It was a year ago when someone posted a link on my facebook about a desaparecido in Guatemala that was exhumed in a former military camp and was initially identified due to the pieces of Levi’s jeans that was worn by the victim more than 20 years ago. I found the story interesting. My father, Leo Velasco, is also a desaparecido since 2007.
Having read the article, I thought I should have remembered what my father wore on the day of his disappearance. But I didn’t see him that day. He was in Cagayan de Oro, I was in Manila. Then, I wished something like that could happen to me and to the other families of the disappeared– for the people who know where buried bodies are to be brave enough to talk; or that some kind of a military “black book” where assassinations and abductions are recorded will be exposed to the public. Yes, I know it is not going to happen anytime soon. Not here in the Philippines. I am cynical knowing how deeply rooted the culture of impunity is in our country.
It was far from my mind that one day I would meet, in person, one of the relatives of the desaparecido in Levis jeans. So, It took me by surprise to meet the desaparecidos’ son at the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines.
I was supposed to write an article about Samuel Villatoro, one of the delegates of the conference, who is a son of a desaparecido in Guatemala. As I was interviewing Samuel, who only speaks Spanish, I recognized the word “Levi’s” and the article i read a year ago flashed in my mind.
Was he your father?! The one who was wearing Levi’s jeans? I read that article! I told Samuel. The translator who was with us was trying hard to keep up with what I was saying.
Amancio Samuel Villatoro, 49 years old, disappeared on January 11, 1983. He was taken by the Guatemalan army during the civil war. His body was identified in 2012. His remains was the first to be identified, among the many desaparecidos in Guatemala, and brought back to his family.
My father, Leo Velasco, whom I call him Tatay, was disappeared by the Philippine military on February 19, 24 years after Villatoro disappeared. They never knew each; never even shared the same continent. But because they were both disappeared, everything else about them seems to be linked together.
For one, they both belonged to a movement that opposed the repressive systems in their own countries. Villatoro was the President of National Labor Union in Guatemala during the US-backed military dictatorship. Tatay was a member of a national liberation movement, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. And because of their political beliefs and affiliations they became desaparecidos.
Villatoro’s family may have a very different culture from the Filipinos families of desaparecidos, but the pain they went through in all the years of searching, or even waiting for Amancio is the same pain as mine, my family’s and other families of the disappeared.
So meeting Samuel felt like meeting a brother whom I shared a similar childhood, having activist parents; and a shared pain of losing them. But more than that, it felt like meeting a comrade from the different side of the world, which I shared the same struggle with –the struggle for justice.
Yes, I admit. I cried as we said goodnight at the end of our quick chat, giving our very gracious translator an emotionally hard time translating heartfelt words. I cried because every time I meet someone like Samuel, or other families of desaparecidos or other victims of rights abuses, I am reminded that I still bear the same pain I had six years ago when Tatay was abducted. I cried out of anger to the Philippine government, the Guatemalan government and other governments that continue to commit this heinous crime against more families.
And yes, I had a little bit of jealousy with Samuel for they were able to locate his father. But Samuel said, “That is why my family came out to the public and announced we were able to identify my father because we want to keep the hope for every family of the disappeared that they may someday find their missing loved ones. We just have to keep on looking.”
I give my respect for the Villatoro family as I realize this: The Villatoros could have chosen to live a quiet life after they found Amancio. It would have been enough for them to give Amancio proper burial, offered candles and flowers every Todos Los Santos. Finding Amancio brought closure to his wife and children. Yet, the Villatoros opted to speak out and expose this to the public to give a ray of hope to someone like me. Amancio’s remains are displayed in public for every Guatemala to see and remember Amancio Villatoro as a father who lived a life of principle and struggle; for every Guatemalan to remember all the other desaparecidos.
My yearning to find my Tatay grows as I get to know more Samuel. I, too, would not let someone like Leo Velasco be forgotten in the history of Philippine struggle. For to forget those who disappeared is not only to betray them but to surrender the struggle they belonged to and fought for. To forget my Tatay is to let those who took him think they succeeded with their evil intentions.
And even though I still haven’t found my Tatay and other desaparecidos, I owe it to him to keep the fire burning in my heart to achieve justice. As long I have love for my Tatay, as long as I miss him, which I doubt will ever go away from a daughter’s heart, I will be part of this struggle. It is through this that I feel I am closer to him.
daughter of missing NDFP consultant Leo Velasco
Secretary General, Families of Desaparecidos for Justice