Oscar was Oca to most who knew him. His socio-political activism started in the late 1960s with the Student Catholic Action (SCA) in Mapua University, and later at the Manila Archdiocese. He also was involved with the reform-oriented National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) under the leadership of the late Edgar Jopson (a Bantayog honoree), and then later the Christians for National Liberation (CNL).
Shortly before the declaration of martial law in 1972, Oca began a life-long involvement in community work, then called community organizing or CO. Working under church programs, Oca became a trainer and supervisor of community organizers, working primarily in Tondo, one of Metro Manila’s oldest and poorest districts.
When Marcos imposed martial law, he wanted to build an international port in the Tondo foreshore, thus ordering the razing of the homes of some 30,000 informal settlers in the area. Oca, doing organizing work in Tondo’s Magsaysay Village, was right in the center of what often became a fierce battleground between the regime and the affected villagers. In order to empower the local people, Oca together with organizers from the local parish, helped set up a broad alliance called Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO). The resident “squatters” defied the regime. They trooped to offices to submit petition papers, talked to foreign reporters, invited nuns and priests to their homes. They had a single message: Marcos’ plan was unjust and inhuman. ZOTO’s open defiance, which could not be cowed despite arrests and threats, made the community one of the Marcos regime’s biggest embarrassments abroad. Oca was a key figure in this local movement.
Oca was respected and even loved by many of Tondo’s tough community leaders. He was not only an effective community organizer; he was a brilliant trainer of organizers. He proposed daring tactics. He was quick to grasp situations and adapt them to his goals. He was calling on people to help themselves, applying the concept of “people power” when the term was yet unknown. More important, ZOTO’s thousands of poor families soon were joining the marches and rallies against the dictatorship.
After his stint with ZOTO, Oca joined the National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), under the justice and peace desk and the desk for poor settlers. He continued to show out-of-the-box thinking, introducing innovations such as the creation of justice and peace groups nationwide. These groups later became the nucleus for a strong national ecumenical human rights network called the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace, or EMJP.
Oca was also a key person in the development of the Basic Christian Community-Community Organizing (BCC-CO), a church program that became a crucial weapon in many urban and rural communities nationwide in resisting the Marcos dictatorship.
Oca’s contribution to the anti-Marcos struggle is incalculable. One of his most notable strengths was in building alliances. By the early 1980s, friends were seeking his help in building such broad anti-dictatorship alliances as the People’s Assembly for the Pope’s Arrival (PAPA), the National Coalition for the Protection of Workers’ Rights (NCPWR), the People’s Movement for Nationalism, Independence and Democracy (People’s MIND), the Coalition for the Restoration of Democracy (CORD), Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), and the Lakbayan-Sakbayan (March and Caravan) for the campaign to boycott the 1984 elections.
His friends sometimes claimed that Oca had one of the most number of “comrades” in the anti-dictatorship circles. They came from north to south, and ranged from the proudest to the humblest, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low.
After Marcos was overthrown, Oca went full blast into supporting initiatives for urban and rural development, agrarian reform, as well as people empowerment and good governance. These initiatives included the Partnership for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (PARRDS), where he was executive director, and later president, and the Philippine NGO Council for Food Security and Fair Trade, where he was president for 14 years.
Towards the late 1990s, Oca returned to his Leyte roots and started the Leyte-based Institute for Democratic Participation in Governance, serving as its first executive director. He continued to be tapped as consultant for pro-poor programs in both rural and urban areas by the government and even international organizations.
He accepted several government positions, always choosing posts that allowed him to help the poor. For nine years, he was NGO sectoral representative in the government’s National Anti-Poverty Commission, later its vice-chair. He was board member of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), and consultant at the Department of Agrarian Reform, and the KALAHI-CIDSS Program of the Department of Social Work and Development. For a short while, Oca also served as party-list representative at the House of Representatives.
Yet as he rose in position, he remained grounded, full of humor, and approachable. He always welcomed his friends who irreverently called him “General Tolindoy.” In or out of government, Oca pursued his crusade for the working people, fighting to enhance their power and to improve their welfare.
In the late 1990s, his health took a turn for the worse. Diabetes slowly ravaged his body. He finally succumbed to it in 2010.
Oca led in mobilizing the national network of diocesan social action centers in the promotion of human rights, justice, peace and the integrity of creation based on Gospel values. He also played a key role in linking the church with secular national and international movements for peace and justice. -SOPHIE LIZARES BODEGON, FORMER COORDINATOR OF THE NASSA RESEARCH DEPARTMENT
Two things strike me … : how Oca kept out of prison despite all his activities and statements in favor of empowering the poor and opposing Marcos’s martial law regime, and how he was so frequently effective both in stimulating consensus on contriversial matters and in modifying excesses. -VICTOR GERARDO BULATAO, MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS, LANDBANK
I was one of the many who witnessed Ka Oca’s heroism, not only as a political and social activist, but as a man who knew his mission and the roles he had to play at the right time. -JOHN MARK CAJIUAT
Oca was truly one of the many people who contributed in toppling the dictatorship. Fueled by his passion to teach and mentor people with a heart for real change, he was able to hone young community organizers to become people’s partners in understanding and asserting their rights. -ATTY. ARMANDO D. JARILLA, NATIONAL COORDINATOR OF TASK FORCE MAPALAD INC.
Oca will be remembered for his service to the poor, his pioneering work in human rights under the Marcos dictatorship, and for his work as coalition builder, reformer and bridge-builder.
We all knew Oca as a critical instrument in the building of alliances between the included and the excluded in our society, a crucial hand in coalition building, and a determined reformer and bridge builder between civil society and the state. -FRANCISCO LARA, COUNTRY DIRECTOR OF INTERNATIONAL ALERT, UK
Oca had the sensitivity to religious belief and the respect for differences of opinion that many of our friends had in the 1970s. -DENNIS MURPHY, URBAN POOR ALLIANCE
I am deeply humbled and remain in awe of Oca Francisco’s valuable contributions to the cause of democracy, justice, and human rights… What a difference Oca would have made if we still had him working … within our ranks. -ALEXANDER A. PADILLA, EXECUTIVE VICE-PRESIDENT AND CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, PHILHEALTH
For his exemplary service in organizing the people of the Tondo foreshore and other communities during martial law, for enabling them to participate in decision-making and to exert their interests in an authoritarian regime, I strongly recommend (Oca to) the Bantayog ng mga Bayani. -MARY RACELIS, PROFESSOR AND RESEARCH SCIENTIST, ATENEO DE MANILA UNIVERSITY
Those years of ZOTO and Ugnayan were the golden years of people organization because of organizers like Ka Oca, who leave no stones unturned, so that the message of the urban poor can be heard. -TRINIDAD HERRERA REPUNO, FOUNDING PRESIDENT OF THE ZONE ONE TONDO ORGANIZATION