Monico Atienza was a natural leader. In high school, he was not only valedictorian of the graduating batch. He was also class president, president of the student government, and managing editor of the school yearbook. With a taste for adventure, he and two high school friends flew to the People’s Republic of China and stayed there for two months (a daring act because diplomatic relations had not been opened between the Philippines and that country at that time).
After his return to the Philippines, Monico enroled at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines (UP), taking up Philippine Literature. He became active in various campus organizations, including the Kabataang Makabayan (KM), Student Cultural Association of UP (SCAUP) and the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN). He became SCAUP president at one point.
Monico, or Nick to his friends, served as secretary general of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) from 1968-1970. It was under his leadership that KM established many branches all over Metro Manila and the rest of the country.
By the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Nick was one of the country’s foremost student leaders. With his exceptional organizing skill and leadership qualities, he helped build the youth and student movement across the country, which became the foundation for the bigger and broader multisectoral movement that would later face off with the Marcos dictatorship.
Nick is regarded as one of the architects of the Philippine youth and student movement.
In 1971, Nick went underground when his name was included in a list of 63 with arrest orders during the period of the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by President Marcos.
After Marcos declared martial law in 1972, as schools and universities were temporary closed, thousands of young activists became available for regional deployment. Nick and his group of underground activists systematically organized this deployment, spreading the activists in a nationwide network whose main tasks were to build opposition to the dictatorship and to spread the national democratic program.
Nick, by then known in his circles as Ka Togs, was arrested in October 1974 in a military crackdown that also saw the arrest of his wife and son, and several activists. The military, knowing they had in their hands one of the highest-ranking activist leaders, made Nick suffer severe and repeated abuse, psy-war (for example, making him believe through recorded sounds that his wife and son were being tortured) and prolonged solitary confinement.
Yet Nick suffered this abuse without incriminating anyone. He also suffered six long years in prison, where he not only participated in prison activities but often led in prison struggles to release women prisoners or sick detainees, or in demanding prisoners’ rights or improved conditions. Nick and fellow prison leaders were sometimes punished with solitary confinement (bartolina) because of this.
Because of sustained abuse against him, Nick suffered a mental breakdown at one point and had to be confined at the AFP Medical Center in V. Luna, Quezon City. Nick was still in confinement at the AFP Medical Center when granted a temporary release in 1980.
After his release, Nick returned to UP where he completed his studies and was accepted as faculty of the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature. He went on to complete his masteral and doctoral degrees. Establishing himself in the academe, Nick nevertheless sustained his support of activists and the national democratic movement. Succeeding generations of UP activists often came to Nick for advice and direction. Nick helped organize the Partido ng Bayan (People’s Party) for the 1987 elections under the Aquino administration. Nick gave inspiring talks to young activists. He became president of the First Quarter Storm Movement.
His doctoral thesis, published in 1992, is titled the Kilusang Pambansa-Demokratiko sa Wika, which delved into the role of the national democratic movement in the development of the Filipino language. This theses effectively merged his two life’s interests, democratic politics and the national language.
Nick survived an ambush in 1987, believed instigated by the military. He and fellow activist Bernabe Buscayno (the former Kumander Dante) were in a car that was fired upon. Nick was wounded but two others in the car were killed.
In 2007, Nick had a heart attack, but he held on for nearly a year in the hospital in near-coma, before finally succumbing in 2008. At his wake, fellow activists, friends, and former students gave moving testimonies of this man who was a living example of how to give all that one could give to one’s country. He was 60.