Our story’s other version has us begin on January, 1970. Students and activists in Manila and the country’s other urban areas were protesting a myriad of issues, from rights civil and human to women and worker. They decried the encroachment of the United States on the Philippines as a colonial influence, the continuing manipulation by a small oligarchy of the country’s political and economic affairs. Tensions rose, and in what is now known as the First Quarter Storm, clashes between protesters and the constabulary began in earnest.
At the front lines was a journalist named Jose Maria Flores Lacaba, known simply as Pete. The eldest of six children, Lacaba is Cagayan de Oro-born and Pateros-raised. A fan of local radio, Tagalog komiks, and the weekly Balagtasan, Lacaba’s class consciousness was tempered at an early age as a disadvantaged scholar surrounded by the rich students of Ateneo de Manila—a school he was forced to drop out of when his finances finally gave. “I was just 19 when I started writing for the Free Press, handling culture and the arts,” he recounts to Esquire. It was the only job available to someone without a college degree. The brutal dispersals he witnessed in the skirmishes of January 26 and 30 edged Lacaba ever closer to a critical stance against the regime and the system it perpetuated. A younger brother, Emmanuel, known to friends and family as Eman, would share with the elder Lacaba this political coming of age.
“Prometheus Unbound” turned out to be an acrostic, in which the first letters of each line, when read downwards, spelled out a message different from that of the rest of the poem.
“In 1971, I began to take an active role in union organizing. When we lost our union’s certification election, the whole Free Press staff resigned en masse.” Lacaba, along with Free Press veterans Nick Joaquin and Gregorio Brillantes, started a new magazine, the Asia Philippines Reader. “We did our best to be balanced, but becoming politicized was unavoidable, especially after the Plaza Miranda incident,” in which a Liberal Party campaign rally was bombed, killing nine and injuring 95 others.
Shortly after martial law was declared, Lacaba heard from relatives that a military unit had been looking for him at their family home in Pateros, a lucky break brought about by outdated intelligence, for Lacaba had since moved to Quezon City. Knowing that he was now a hunted man, Lacaba joined the underground press.
“Our publication was called Taliba ng Bayan,” he says. It began as a monthly, mimeographed publication before the staff eventually found a sympathetic printing press. As a wanted man, Lacaba’s movements were limited to the Taliba’s various underground houses—his younger colleagues, mostly members of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, served as stringers. At length, one of these stringers told Lacaba that The Varsitarian, the student paper of the University of Santo Tomas, was interested in publishing his work, as long as it wasn’t too radical.
“I thought about writing an acrostic, as I had written some of those before, for girls,” he laughs. “A lot of anti-government acrostics were being published at the time too, in Tagalog. So I decided to do the same.” Still on the move from one underground house to another, Lacaba composed “Prometheus Unbound”.
Game With High Stakes
The poem makes multiple references, primarily the plays of Greek tragedian Aeschylus and English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. “I also wanted to refer to the famous painting by [Flemish artist] Peter Paul Rubens, hence my choice of pen name.” Cuevas, on the other hand, was Lacaba’s nod to the Philippine folk hero Bernardo Carpio, himself a titan, cursed by a shaman to be wedged under the mountains of Montalban, whose mere shrug of his mighty shoulders caused the earth to shake, and whose freedom will coincide with the liberation of the Filipino race.
“Laro lang,” Lacaba says of the poem’s composition. “The first line is a pun on ‘Martial Law tonight’. And Mars isn’t even a Greek god,” he laughs.
Lacaba understood the risks that came with publishing the poem, however. Martial Law, after all, was just a little over a year old, and fear hung heavy in the air like a firearm’s report in the small of dawn. When Lacaba sent the poem to The Varsitarian, he told the stringer to make the acrostic clear to the publication’s editors. “The editors backed out,” Lacaba says. “That’s when I thought to send it to Focus. If memory serves, they were the only government-sanctioned magazine publishing literary works at the time. At nakalusot naman."
“The first line is a pun on ‘Martial Law tonight’. And Mars isn’t even a Greek god," Pete Lacaba laughs.