Rolando Federis came from a poor family. His father Dionisio once owned a tailoring shop in Camarines Norte. His wife contracted cancer and died early, leaving him to raise his extended family himself. Dionisio left for Manila, where he hoped to find better employment. He found work as a master cutter in a tailoring shop in Cubao, rented a small place in Project 4, Quezon City, and brought his children one by one from Bicol to live with him. (He later remarried.)
Life during Rolando’s childhood was usually difficult and the going always hard. Nevertheless, Rolando (or “Lando” as he was called) managed to get to college, the first in his family to do so.
At PSBA, he started to become politically involved. He joined discussion groups where he sought to understand the roots of his family’s poverty, the same relentless poverty that seemed to burden thousands of other Filipino families, from which there seemed no escape, even as evidently a few privileged families did not face the same fate. Even as
Rolando studied what activists called the “three –isms,” he started organizing the youth in his community to join the youth movement. He joined the Kabataang Makabayan (KM).
When Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, Rolando went underground. He joined a collective of activists in his community, secretly organizing to build resistance against martial law. He focused his organizing efforts on three communities of informal settlers, often faced with eviction threats as the martial law regime pushed for “beautification” of Metro Manila. Rolando sought to help enlighten the community on their basic rights, including the right to decent housing. When civilian armed groups were sent by the regime to harass and evict these “squatters,” Rolando also sought to organize the residents for resistance.
Needless to say, Rolando lived dangerously, putting himself always at risk of being abducted or arrested. But because he was an “insider,” or one among the people, he had the advantage of being known to the people he worked with, and he enjoyed their trust and cooperation. He even gained the respect of the community thugs and those who made a living by fencing or petty thievery. His friends included ones with fearsome aliases like “Boy Pilay,” and once, a gang leader tried to donate to the movement some bicycles he had earlier stolen!
Yet, Lando never pandered to these friends, and always tried to explain to them in ways they appreciated that stealing was not the answer to poverty.
In 1973, Lando married another activist, Carol Ojeda, and eventually had a son by her. Carol Ojeda came from a much more prosperous background but she was full of admiration for the tall and charming activist, who challenged her to “transcend” her privileged background and helped her deal with the realities of working with the poor.
Later, Carol became the target of military harassment, and she decided to leave for the States with their son, hoping to return when the situation improved. The couple exchanged letters.
The year before he disappeared, Lando took an assignment as courier, bringing letters and ferrying people and packages to and from the city to the countryside. In one of these trips, in October 1976, he was with two women activists he was to accompany to Bicol.
One of these women, Adora Faye de Vera, a student from the University of the Philippines, would later reveal that the three of them were seized by plainsclothes operatives at Lucena City en route to their destination, dragged into an ambulance, and taken to an apartment, and later to other places, in that city. The three were subjected to torture continuously for more than two weeks, the women raped and abused repeatedly. The last time Adora saw Lando and Flora alive, Adora stated, the two were being “transferred” elsewhere.
Adora identified the officers, from the colonels down to the enlisted men, who were personally involved in their abuse and torture. Still, the government never revealed the whereabouts of the two missing activists. It is believed the area where they had likely been buried has since been clearned and made into a paved roadway. The bodies of the two have never been found.
On February 15, 2011, Rolando’s widow Carol received $1,000 as settlement from the Marcos estate, for the death of Rolando, a compensation she says, that is more insult than compensation.