“Pinaglingkuran niya ang sambayanan, ang buhay niya’y isang bituing tatanglaw sa aming landas” are the words written on Leo Alto’s tombstone: He served the people, his life shines light on our way.
Leo Alto was a 4th year pre-med student at the University of the Philippines when he joined the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines (SCAUP) in 1970. He started attending discussion groups, teach-ins and rallies. He also joined workers'pickets demanding higher wages and better living conditions.
Later he joined the Panday Sining, a political theater group that was active in cultural campaigns denouncing the increasingly authoritarian Marcos administration. Then he joined the Rizal chapter of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and started organizing a KM chapter among children of enlisted men and officers of the Philippine Army based in Fort Bonifacio. (Leo's parents owned a concession inside the army camp where the family also lived, his father being a retired soldier.)
He later became KM coordinator for Rizal, organizing the propaganda, education and mobilization campaigns of the various chapters in Rizal province.
At the height of a campaign to oppose oil price increases in 1971, Alto joined a barricade set up by students in the UP Diliman campus, later to develop into the historic Diliman Commune. Once he was arrested in Makati while putting up campaign posters.
As he got deeper into activism, Alto dropped out of college and immersed himself in the communities. He joined a team that undertook a survey of people's problems in the areas of Binangonan, Morong and Jalajala in Rizal. In 1971, under the banner of the Progresibong Samahan ng Rizal, he was part of a team that organized a trek from the Sierra Madre foothills in Jalajala, as part of a “people’s long march against poverty” that culminated in Plaza Miranda, Manila.
During the great ﬂoods of 1972, Alto turned his organizing efforts into helping the displaced families in Pasig, Rizal. Relief centers were opened, and the activists even managed to spark political discussions among the refugees.
When martial law was declared in September 1972, soldiers raided the home of the Alto family looking for him. Leo, eldest among eight siblings (he was Heracleo Jr.), managed to escape and decided to join the underground resistance to martial law.
He underwent training as an acupuncturist and paramedic under physician-activist Juan Escandor. In 1973, together with other student activists, he joined a Serve the People Brigade in the countryside. They would organize local farmers, mostly Bisaya and Ilokano settlers – as well as the Subanon tribal communities fighting for their ancestral lands. They called him”Doc.”
At the age of 23, Leo Alto was killed by a unit of the Philippine Constabulary on 1 August 1975 in Polanco, Zamboanga del Norte. Another man, a Subanon, died with him. Alto’s body was buried in Dipolog, Zamboanga del Norte until his family had it exhumed eleven years later. He was laid to rest in Pateros, Metro Manila in 1986.