Emmanuel Lacaba Was the People's Poet


Ho Chi Minh once said that we should “make poems including iron and steel, that a poet must also learn how to lead an attack.”

None exemplified the image of a warrior-poet more than Eman Lacaba. He was a lot of things to a lot of people. In some circles, he was Pete’s brother. To others, he was the superstar writer of his generation. To some, he was a revolutionary who chose to take the path less traveled for his conviction.

Lacaba, the Bohemian Writer

He was often called a “brown Rimbaud,” an enfant terrible much like the French poet. In some ways, he embodied the freedom of the ’60s, disappearing for months at a time, always in search of something. His life was that of the stereotypical artist: fast-paced, impermanent, always exciting.

But beyond the glamorous descriptions, Lacaba truly was an artist. It was as if he was born to write. He was a voracious reader and began writing poetry as early as 14. In high school at the Pasig Catholic College, Lacaba was top of his class as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, president of the drama club, and head of the student council. During his last year of high school, he applied for and received an American Field Service scholarship, which allowed him to stay in the United States for a year.

College in Ateneo changed him. His writing suddenly became charged with insight and filled with purpose. In the rapidly shifting socio-political climate of the ’60s, Lacaba shifted with it. He became more involved with and fought for the Filipinization of the school administration and the curriculum.


This change also bled into his art. He had nothing but contempt for the formalist philosophy of “art for art’s sake” espoused by people like Edith Tiempo and the CIA-funded Iowa school that taught her generation. To Lacaba, this was a travesty. “The responsibility of any writer in the world is to write truthfully and comprehensibly about the world he lives in,” he wrote. “The writer’s responsibility in contemporary Philippine society is to present truth, which is not his responsibility alone, but every writer’s, every man’s in his own sphere of living, in any age, any place.”

This was Lacaba, a man who gave himself fully to everything he worked on, as if he was trying to pour himself empty. He was someone who needed to shine bright and consume everything. As a writer, he had a manic proficiency that allowed him to outclass his contemporaries.

Lacaba, the Activist

As an activist, he committed himself to immersing with the masses. He joined Panday Sining and was a member of Kabataang Makabayan. His activism and bohemian lifestyle seemingly clashed, but he managed to find a sort of balance.

His work reflected this: Before he graduated college, his short story, "Punch and Judas," won a Palanca Award for Best Short Story. It was about Philip Angeles, a man who went from effete intellectual to activist, fully embracing the people’s movement.

Activism eventually won out. After graduation, he joined the cultural organization Panulat Para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan and supported workers’ strikes. At one time, he asked his brother Pete to cover one about a printing press in Mandaluyong.

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Lacaba also took a lecturing job at the University of the Philippines to supplement his writing, but it didn’t last long. In the waning days of September 1972, Lacaba participated in a strike in Pasig before it was violently dispersed. He was assaulted, arrested, and briefly incarcerated. A few days later, Marcos declared Martial Law and strikes were banned.

But there was no going back now for Lacaba. Martial Law changed the landscape irreversibly, and Lacaba changed along with it. His contract in UP wasn’t renewed, partly due to his involvement in the strike, and so he focused on his creative pursuits.

He began performing at the Philippine Educational Theatre Association. He wrote plays. He tried his hand in essay work on subjects like language and the philosophy of the Filipino concept of loob. He wrote the theme song to Lino Brocka’s film Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang and was even slated to write a script for the acclaimed director.

And yet, this was not enough for Lacaba. He was a man constantly in pursuit of something, after all. In 1974, he found what he was searching for in the midst of the masses.

Lacaba, the Proletarian

Lacaba transcended his bourgeois origins and took up the highest form of struggle in 1974, saying goodbye to his brother Pete before going to Cagayan de Oro. Pete was in jail at the time for writing "Prometheus Unbound," which hid the phrase MARCOS HITLER DIKTADOR TUTA in the first letter of each line.

Lacaba was no longer an activist. He was no longer the “wild but shy young poet” of his youth. He was now the people’s warrior, a member of the New People’s Army.


He took the name “Popoy,” a reference to a persona now long outlived by the man who took homage to it. From Cagayan de Oro, he entered the countryside in North Cotobato as part of an expansion team. He and three others visited and lived with the indigenous Bilaan people. Lacaba learned the Bilaan language in a month and a half by drawing or pointing at the things he wanted to identify and asking what they were called. He endeared himself further by having the stomach for a particular Bilaan delicacy: wild boar, left to rot for two weeks, before being roasted.

Lacaba never stopped being an artist as a member of the People’s Army. Somewhere along the way, he picked up Bisaya and began translating revolutionary songs to it. He wrote whenever he can. When he ran out of paper to write on, Lacaba settled for cigarette tinfoil. He wrote about anything—his experience in the countryside, death and struggle, complaints about his bowel movements and his astigmatism.

He was comfortable among the masses. He sang songs with them, taught them how to write, and shared stories of his experience as an actor, a teacher, and an activist. In the end, however, the violence of Martial Law caught up with Lacaba.

One morning in 1976, Lacaba and his unit were having breakfast in a house in Tucaan Balaag, Asuncion, Davao del Norte. Elements of the Philippine Constabulary – Civilian Home Defense Front (PC-CHDF), along with a turncoat named Martin, spotted them and opened fire without warning. Two of his companions were killed. Lacaba was shot and captured along with a pregnant woman, Estrieta.


On their way to Tagum, the PC-CHDF decided that they wouldn’t be taking any prisoners. Estrieta was shot first. When the time came for Lacaba, a sergeant handed a pistol to Martin and ordered him to shoot. Martin hesitated for a bit, but Lacaba looked at him and said, “Go ahead. Finish me off.”

Those were his last words. A bullet went through his mouth and out through the back of his skull. Emmanuel Agapito Flores Lacaba, 27 years old, died in Davao del Norte, on March 18, 1976.

It is often stated that “to die serving the people is weightier than the Sierra Madre, but to work for the fascists and oppressors is lighter than a feather.” Lacaba was a man who gave his life for the people he cared about. His was a story of true transformation, from decadent “lumpen culturati” to “people’s warrior.” He was a man who gave everything in all his endeavors, whether in writing or struggle with the masses.

Eman Lacaba may have died in March 1976, but the truth is that he lives on, as a martyr, and as a true hero of the Filipino people.


Lacaba, E. (1992) Salvaged Prose. Ateneo de Manila University.

Remollino, A. (2002) The “Brown Rimbaud.” Bulatlat.com

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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