Philippine history is full of stories of young heroes, such as Emilio Jacinto and Gregorio del Pilar who both joined the revolution when they were barely out of their teens, and dead by the time they were 24 years old, fighting to help end Spanish rule.
A young man from Jaro, Iloilo City followed the path of these young models. Virgil Montero Ortigas of Jaro, Iloilo City was 20 years old when he started on his activism.
Virgil was the youngest son of a Baptist Minister and a teacher. He was outgoing and he loved to play the guitar. He had his education at the Central Philippine University, a Protestant-founded and managed institution in Iloilo City. His childhood was steeped in faith and in values.
Virgil was in college in the late 1960s, a time of great political ferment. Virgil’s sense of right and wrong was pricked by the depravities he was seeing. As their Manila counterparts, students in Iloilo were taking their demands for reforms to the streets. Virgil joined the Federation of Ilonggo Students (FIST) and participated in discussions and other fora to learn more of the country’s worsening political situation. In a short while, he was at the forefront of the students’ campaign for reforms to education.
When the writ of habeas corpus was suspended in 1971, Virgil pressed all the more to organize the students and the people in general to oppose the creeping repression. He joined one student organization after another. He was instrumental in the formation of a coalition of Ilongo organizations committed to oppose government moves to curtail the people’s freedom.
When martial law was declared in 1972, Virgil left the university and moved to the rural areas, living with sacadas and trying to understand the roots of their problems. He learned the ways that farmers were being exploited and how the lands they were tilling were being grabbed from them. Virgil was living with a group of other former students, themselves also seeking to understand local realities as well as trying to share their own insights with local residents.
Marcos called a referendum in 1973 as part of his plan to have a new Constitution ratified. The students in Virgil’s group sought to make sense of the Constitutional draft and began to campaign against provisions that were embedded in the draft charter in order to perpetuate Marcos in power. This education campaign brought Virgil’s group to Antique, where, apart from campaigning against the sham referendum, they also undertook to conduct further studies on the social conditions of the people in the countryside.
This was the initiative of student Edmundo Legislador, (Bantayog honoree) who wanted to understand the situation of the horrendously exploited sacadas. (Also with the group was Atenean Ferdinand Arceo, also a Bantayog honoree.)
The students were winding down their research when military operations were conducted in the area where they were. It was the last days of July 1973. On July 25th, a vehicle bearing Virgil and his friends was stopped at a checkpoint. They were recognized as the students campaigning against the referendum. They were ordered to get down and to move to another vehicle. Virgil tried to break free. A melee followed, and Virgil’s captors shot him down.
The violence did not end there. On July 27, the day of the referendum, student Ed Legislador was killed while sleeping in a hut, and on the 29th, student Ferdinand Arceo and 2 others were shot dead as they were walking along a beach.
Western Visayan bishops issued a pastoral letter condemning the brutality of the slayings in Antique. Virgil’s aging parents were hit badly by the loss of Virgil because an older brother, Fluellen, was at that time being held as a political prisoner in Manila. Yet Virgil’s death inspired the community in Antique to fight their fear of the dictator and defend their human and civil rights.