Baltazar Pinguel came from a poor migrant family from Samar. He was a bright student, earning honors from elementary to his high school years. He entered the University of the Philippines through a scholarship.
In UP, he became a student leader. He ran for the UP Student Council under the Sandigang Makabansa progressive slate. He also joined other organizations such as the Brotherhood of UP Plebeians and Lakasdiwa. He read widely and was frequently engaged in earnest discussions over the problematic state of the country and the national politics.
By the time the First Quarter Storm erupted in January 1970, he was with the Kabataang Makabayan (KM). He had oratory skills and was eventually made spokesperson. He was also part of the historic 1971 Diliman Commune in UP.
Bal helped organize protest rallies against the increasingly repressive Marcos government but his true power was in his oratory. His speeches awakened and put spirit into many future nationalists. During the eve of Marcos’ declaration of martial law, the name Bal Pinguel was known to most Metro Manila activists as the rally speaker that held them spellbound. His speeches, well researched and wittily argued, often got the loudest cheers. He was the last national spokesperson of KM, which by then had become the largest youth-and-students activist organization in the country, before it went underground due to the declaration of martial law by Marcos in 1972.
Bal was arrested and detained twice during the period of the Marcos dictatorship. His first was in November 1973, with other UP students and teachers in Sta. Cruz, Laguna. He suffered torture from his captors. In December of that year, he and eight other prisoners dug a hole in the wall and escaped from the stockades of Camp Vicente Lim. This is the first known group jailbreak of political prisoners under Marcos’ martial law. He was arrested a second time in 1980, this time in Cebu City. Again he suffered maltreatment from his captors, particularly because of his 1973 record of escape. His captors kept hitting his left knee and leg in order to disable him. (The injury eventually healed but as Bal grew older the hurt knee gave him frequent problems.) The second time he was brought to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan, Metro Manila, where he was kept for five years, together with other political
In 1981, Marcos released many political prisoners on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit, but Marcos left several behind, including Bal. The remaining prisoners and their families launched a hunger strike so noisily they got the attention of the foreign press and the Vatican hierarchy. That hunger strike, says co-detainee Satur Ocampo, helped expose the existence of political prisoners in Marcos’ jails, an issue the dictator had been trying to deny for years.
Finally released from prison in January 1985, Bal went back to his political work. He helped build the groundwork for the founding of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or BAYAN in 1985. Bal worked with political opposition figures such as Senator Lorenzo Tañada, who became its founding chairperson, with student activist Lean Alejandro as secretary-general and Bal as deputy secretary-general.
When Lean Alejandro was assassinated in 1987, Bal took his place as BAYAN secretary-general. Then in 1989, Bal himself, while aboard a jeepney with his two-year-old son, narrowly escaped an abduction attempt. Bal decided to accept an offer from Amnesty International to go on a human rights speaking tour around Europe, Canada and the USA. In 1992, Bal applied for political asylum in the US, was first denied, but consequently got approval in 1997. His family joined him in the US.
Bal took a job at the Third World Coalition of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker peace and justice organization. He gave talks on human rights to students, church groups and friends of the Philippines. He was often invited to give this talk in other countries as well. He later became AFSC’s Director of Peacebuilding and Demilitarization Program.
Bal and his family chose to reside in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, USA, and became a naturalized US citizen in 2013.
Bal stayed in touch with BAYAN, becoming a frequent speaker in activities of BAYAN-USA. He joined the BAYAN-USA activists who in 2016 protested in front of the Philippine Consulate in New York City over the burial of Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani.
Bal was also part of protests against US intervention in Iraq under Pres. George Bush II, was one of the organizers of the 2002 Stop the War Mobilization in Washington DC, and helped in organizing the No Bases Conference in Quito and Manta in Ecuador in 2007.
In an interview for a Fil-Am magazine in 2011, Bal revealed, “I always had the Philippines in my heart. However, circumstances in my life changed and I had to adapt to new situations. As an activist for peace and justice, I believe I can be at home in any place where there is a need for organizing.”
Bal died of a heart attack in 2017 at his home. He was 67 years old. Before he died, he and his wife Rosario had been planning to return permanently to the Philippines for retirement.
On June 15, 2017, the City Council of Philadelphia approved a resolution authored by Councilwoman at-large Helen Gym, which read in part: “… hereby commemorates and honors the life and legacy of Baltazar “Bal” Pinguel, a former political prisoner who braved imprisonment and death threats to challenge authoritarian regimes in the Philippines and around the globe and became a tireless activist for peace and justice, and a radical voice for a democratic people’s movement.” An Asian-American, Helen Gym was a former teacher and journalist, and a community organizer who frequently worked with Bal and admired his work in justice and peace-building.