Born on May 5, 1955, Sontillano came from humble origins in Santa Barbara, Iloilo where he grew up. He was the eldest of three children, who was valedictorian of of the Santa Barbara Elementary School in 1968. His academic record earned him a scholarship at the prestigious government-funded Philippine Science High School in Manila.
Fighting for Students Rights
At Pisay, as the school was called, Sontillano wrote poetry for the school organ called Lagablab, played basketball, and eventually was drawn to social activism. He joined discussion groups, and helped mobilize students in social actions geared to helping farmers, workers, and the urban poor.
He became close to Bantayog martyr Ronald Jan Quimpo and their schoolmate, Marie Hilao, the sister of the first known female martial law martyr, Liliosa Hilao.
They were young men and women at the forefront of the fight against institutional injustice. On campus, they struggled against the lack of clean water fountains and functioning bathrooms. They challenged the school administration to improve conditions at the school.
Taking On a Corrupt Government
Even they took the fight off-campus, as they saw connections between conditions at Pisay with the corruption under Ferdinand Marcos. Sontillano eventually became a respected member of the Malayang Kilusan ng mga Kabataan, or MKK.
By 1970, marching to denounce corruption and political abuse under Marcos became routine for the young activists of Pisay, including Sontillano. In fact, during one march, on December 4, 1970, he was so in a hurry to join a demonstration that he neglected to wear shoes, and ended up joining the protest in rubber slippers.
The Philippine Science High School contingent joined other students from the University Belt in Manila. The marched, chanting slogans and urging other young people to join. Then, when they reached Feati University, something happened.
Death of Young Sontillano
There was an explosion which one witness described as like “a thick plank of wood smashing itself onto my nape and back.” The students dispersed, run for safety -- except Francis Sontillano, who had collapsed on the street, bloodied and his head shattered. A security guard had thrown a pillbox at the student demonstrators. He was later charged and sentenced to life in prison.
Francis Sontillano, the teenager from Iloilo, became one of the first martyrs of the fight against Marcos. Two years later, after martial law was declared, other young people from Pisay and other schools followed his example in joining the fight against the regime.
In September 2011, more than 40 years after Sontillano’s death, the Philippine Science High School honored twenty-one Marcos-era martyrs, including Francis. The ceremony served as an opportunity to discuss with millennial students the brutality of the Marcos regime and the young Filipinos who waged the fight to end it.
One millennial used social media to join Sontillano, his niece Lexley Maree Villasis. With the help of her mother who is Francis’ younger sister, Siena Sontillano, the 11-year-old created a Facebook page in honor ofthe teenager who joined the fight against tyranny.