Words by Samantha Delis
“In the line of fire is the place of honor.”
It has been thirty-five years since Leandro “Lean” Legara Alejandro – a renowned activist, leader, and martyr – was slain.
Now and even decades before, youth and student activism have always been under constant attacks. The 1987 Constitution vested us with the freedom to express and dissent, yet Filipino youth activists are constantly being subjected to red-tagging, state violence, and repression of rights. These threats did not stop Lean Alejandro from holding the line – even if it cost him his own life.
More than three decades have passed since Lean’s assassination, but the passion of youth to serve the people did not subside. Instead, the oppressive attacks from the past regimes fueled the fire more intensely, and no wonder that Lean was one of the inspirations of youth activists in the present generation.
Present-day youth activists who seemed to follow Lean’s fate are under the same hostile environment – being red-tagged, arrested, and even killed. The likes of Kemuel Ian “KI” Cometa, Kevin Castro, and Chad Booc met the same demise as Lean. Up to this day, the calls for Cometa’s disappearance in 2021 are still crying for justice. Like Lean, Cometa was also a student-activist in his days in UP Los Baños and a coordinator of Kabataan Partylist Southern Tagalog. Meanwhile, Booc and Castro, both student leader-activists, were slain by the state forces last February 2022.
Student activists under different regimes, yet with the same oppressive and fascist authority, are present-day testaments to the tragic consequences of speaking up to fight injustices – highly similar to Lean Alejandro’s fate.
In a documentary film produced by Sandigan Para Sa Mag-aaral at Sambayanan (SAMASA) Alumni Association and directed by Malu Maniquis, “Lean – In the Line of Fire is the Place of Honor” gave a spotlight to the never-before-heard stories about the famous activist.
Getting to know Lean
More than being a leader and a writer, Lean Alejandro raised the standards of youth and student activism. He became one of the pillars of student activism during the time of Martial Law.
At a young age, Lean was known to possess a brilliant mind. Fueled by his curiosity about why his grandmother’s cat gradually loses its weight, young Lean researched intensively using his cousin’s Britannica encyclopedia and later found out that cod liver oil is the cure. Perhaps, this encyclopedia book became Lean’s first love.
Lean’s interest in the medical field urged him to take up BS Chemistry as a preparatory program in UP Diliman. But after he was exposed to history and political science, Lean switched to Philippine Studies. From there, Lean grew fond of reading progressive books about the Russian revolution and Marxism. He was introduced to different political ideologies, which will play an important part in his later years as a leader-activist at the university.
To his friends and colleagues at the university, Lean is a bookworm, a laugh-out-loud person, and a singer-by-heart. But more than these silly descriptions, Lean is a strategist, charismatic, and dauntless student leader-writer.
Lean, the intellectual student leader-writer
In his years at UP, Lean embodied the call to serve the people and to uphold academic freedom – the freedom to learn, write, and express.
During his sophomore year, Lean joined the Philippine Collegian as a features writer. He was known to write articles about the atrocities of the Marcos administration. Lean is also vocal in reiterating the importance of student leaders’ active participation in mass mobilizations, emphasizing that:
“Ang rebolusyon ay walang Sabado (at) Linggo. Araw-araw ay rebolusyon at hindi ito pwedeng ipagpaliban.”
[The revolution has no Saturdays and Sundays. Every day is revolution day, and even a single day should not be missed.]
After a year of being a staff writer, Lean realized that a pen alone would not be enough to serve the people. His intellectualism was poured into writing and, later on, into mobilizing. During 1980, Lean joined the Anti-Imperialist Youth Committee – now the Youth for Nationalism and Democracy (YND), and he also became a member of the League of the Filipino Students (LFS). Moreover, he was elected as the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) chairperson under SAMASA; and by 1983, as the chairperson of the University Student Council (USC) who led numerous mobilizations and campaigns opposing tuition fee hikes. As a newly-elected USC chairperson after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, Lean highly participated in numerous anti-Marcos protests, including the Justice for Aquino and Justice for All (JAJA) movement. Furthermore, he was almost selected as the first student regent in UP if not rejected by the dictator Marcos.
Grounded by political ideologies he learned from reading books, Lean views activism like his favorite sport, chess: a constant battle of strategies and risks. Aside from being an intellectual activist, Lean is also a charismatic leader. His colleagues would describe him as one of the first student activists who wore slippers during rallies – a material testament to his unity with the masses in their fights. Lean “defined” the standards of student and youth activism by proving that intellectual activism and charisma are not mutually exclusive.
Lean, the full-time activist
Dropping out of the university to embark on a path of full-time activism is a tough and fulfilling journey at the same time. Lean was fully aware of the perils, but it did not stop him from his fervid goal: to serve the people.
At a young age, Lean became a key member of national organizations and alliances to resist the Marcos regime. Led by former Senator Jose Diokno, Lean was part of the Movement for the Philippines Sovereignty and Democracy (KAAKBAY) and the Nationalist Alliance for Justice, Freedom, and Democracy (NAJFD). In 1985, Lean was the pioneer secretary-general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) after it was established. He worked alongside nationalist stalwarts such as Lorenzo Tañada, Crispin Beltran, and Jose Diokno to fight for the causes of people.
Participating in protests to amplify the calls of masses always has dire risks. While Lean and his friend JV Bautista were negotiating with the police forces during a protest in February 1985, they were arrested and detained in Camp Ipil Reception Center. Their arrest was grounded on a Marcos decree called the Preventive Detention Action (PDA), wherein the president has “total discretion to arrest and detain alleged subversives indefinitely without bail and trial”.
For Lean, life in custody is not tantamount to hopelessness; instead, it is one of the most critical times to learn more. As the ever-curious Lean, he read books voraciously during his detainment – mainly J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In his letter to his then-girlfriend Lidy Nicpil, Lean said: “The struggle for freedom is the next best thing to actually being free.”
With collective efforts and campaigns for Lean and JV’s release, they were finally released after two months of detainment. After the People Power Revolution and the end of the fascist regime, Lean decided to forward his campaigns to mainstream politics by running for Congress. During the May 1987 elections, he was unsuccessful in getting the congressional seat of Malabon-Navotas against Tessie Aquino-Oreta, the sister-in-law of then-President Cory Aquino. Despite the unsuccessful bid, Lean left a political footprint that aimed to change traditional political ideologies into “people politics”.
The date was September 19, 1987 – thirty-five years ago. After Lean announced a nationwide strike against the continuous military domination of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in a press conference, he was silenced – forever. Lean was only 27 years old back then, and he was killed instantly by hired gunmen inside a van, only a few feet away from the BAYAN headquarters in Rosal Street, Cubao.
Three decades have passed, yet there is still no “serious and continuous” investigation of Lean’s tragic death. Yet, it was believed to be linked to the Reformed Armed Forces (RAM) during the Oplan Lambat Bitag operations in Cory Aquino’s administration.
Lean was killed, but his legacy did not die with him. Lidy Nicpil-Alejandro and supporters founded the Leandro L. Alejandro Foundation (LLAF) after the assassination. By 1997, a musical play entitled “Lean” was performed to commemorate the decade-long anniversary of Lean’s death. In 2015, “The Great Lean Run” was organized by SAMASA to annually re-introduce Lean’s ideals and campaigns to the current generation of youth activists. Most importantly, Lean Alejandro’s name was etched at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Wall of Remembrance.
Lean was right when he said that the greatest adventure on earth today is our struggle for freedom. He defined the standard of youth activism inside and outside the university – specifically, the intellectualization of student activism. From Britannica, to Marx, to Tolkien, the knowledge he gained from these books transcends beyond the four corners of the university. Learning goes hand-in-hand with serving the people in the frontline.
For Lean, in the line of fire is the place of honor. Perhaps it is true that to choose youth activism is to dig your own grave. But if digging your own grave means giving hope to the future lives, would it still sound bad?
Had Lean Alejandro lived today, it is guaranteed that we would have seen him on the frontline of protests and movements against fascism, tyranny, and corruption. Lean proved that standing in the line of fire by serving the people is the most honorable thing a man can do. No bullets, military forces, or oppressive attacks can hinder the youth in the fight for freedom. Today marks his 35th death anniversary. Let us commemorate Lean Alejandro by collectively raising our left fists and by continuing his fight for genuine freedom. Iskolar ng bayan, patuloy na lumalaban.