TACA, Arturo Montemayor

Taca Arturo M., MD pic

Arturo Taca was a young doctor, bright and gifted, when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Arturo’s parents as well as Arturo himself were members of the opposition Liberal Party under the wardship of then Manila city mayor Antonio J. Villegas and then senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.

In the persecution that followed against members of the opposition, the three Tacas lost their government jobs in the city government. Arturo’s father Vivencio lost his post as chair of Manila’s Veterinary Inspection Board, his mother Basilisa as director of the Manila Zoo, and Arturo as new member of the hospital staff of the Ospital ng Maynila. Arturo was in fact arrested by constabulary authorities and held incommunicado for a few hours in February 1973. (Taca letter, 1977)

Fearful for his wife and three sons, Arturo decided to immigrate to the United States. In St. Louis, Missouri, he applied and was taken in at the Homer G. Phillips Hospital, first as intern, then as resident in the general surgery department and then in the urology department. Meanwhile, he took and passed both the Missouri and Illinois medical licensure examinations and he was able to open his practice in both states. (Taca CV)

Dr. Taca applied for political asylum in the US in 1977, citing his concern in his application letter that “ …  upon my return I will surely be subjected to … unjust prosecution and persecution based on my past activities and close associations with prominent members of the banned opposition… “ His petition was granted in the late ‘70s but he never applied for U.S. citizenship.

Meanwhile Dr. Taca kept track of events in the Philippines, particularly the fate of Ninoy Aquino, who was his political mentor as well as marital godfather. Ninoy Aquino was then being kept in prison under very harsh conditions, undergoing trial before a military tribunal and facing a possible death penalty. Dr. Taca wrote a succession of letters to US senators, asking them to pressure the Marcos government to release Aquino.

In 1977, Dr. Taca led the St. Louis chapter of the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP), founded 1973 in Washington DC by former senator Raul Manglapus to organize anti-Marcos resistance in the US. Among its first set of officers are the late Bonifacio Gillego, Gaston Ortigas, and Manglapus himself (all three Bantayog honorees).

Elected  MFP chapter head at St. Louis, Dr. Taca proved himself a relentless recruiter, paying particular attention to Filipino physicians because he knew they had a base of Filipino expatriates and they wielded an influence invaluable in the anti-Marcos resistance. His efforts won over many doctors in St. Louis, although this was a far from easy task because many US-based Filipino doctors were apathetic or even hostile to anti-Marcos activities. (Fuentecilla letter 2011)

At his own expense, Dr. Taca published a newsletter that reported news events from the Philippines and insightful opinion pieces on these events.

Although members of the US-based opposition were often called “steak revolutionaries,” Dr. Taca did not deserve the description. He staked his life, his career, and even his family’s safety and future, in his efforts to oppose what he considered an unjust regime in his home country. He lobbied strongly against continuing US military aid to the regime, thus inviting harassment from US officials who favored Marcos. (Fuentecilla letter, 2011)

Rene Saguisag: “He was an established doctor who did not have to fight the dictatorship openly, but he did.”

Members of the US-based opposition were made to feel what they called the “Marcos-Reagan persecution machine,” consisting of, among others, office break-ins, house raids, and phone record subpoenas. In 1982, a grand jury investigation opened in San Francisco, California, of what were charged as illegal activities of the anti-Marcos opposition. The opposition accused the US government of using the investigation to harass Marcos’ opponents in the US. An admission of telephone wire-tapping by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of US-based Filipino activists indirectly confirmed US government’s involvement in persecuting these activists. (Letter of Willy Cornello, chair, MFP New York region, and Orly Apiado, MD, regional representative, New York Region to Arturo Taca, dated July 31, 1982)

Dr. Taca was asked to appear before the San Francisco grand jury to testify about these suspected illegal activities. In what was seen as a daring move, he refused to testify, saying he did not “want to be part of an investigation intended to silence legitimate opposition to the Marcos dictatorship. He cited US law to support his refusal, although he actually risked imprisonment with his act. (We Forum 1982)

At around this time, Dr. Taca, acting on a request by fellow MFP Bonifacio Gillego, began to search for Ferdinand Marcos’ guerrilla records during the Japanese occupation at the US army archives in St. Louis. This started what would be a two-year research with Bonifacio Gillego. Marcos had made claims of heroic action during the anti-Japanese resistance, which he said earned him war medals from the US. Gillego believed that Marcos’ claims were false, particularly the war medals. For his part, Dr. Taca trained his investigative eye on Marcos’ claim of having organized and led a guerilla unit in Pangasinan called “Ang Mga Maharlika,” numbering anywhere from 300 to 8,000. He believed this claim to be false. (Swallow letter 2011, and unpublished Taca memoirs)

Dr. Taca doggedly pursued the paper trail. But faced with bureaucratic redtape and even coverup attempts by the US army in cooperation with the Philippine military, he never saw the documents, until a separate effort led to a New York Times exposé of the fake war medals in early 1986. When the story on the fake US war medals was eventually published in the New York Times, a sidebar appeared featuring Dr. Taca’s own efforts.

Convinced that the US was aware of Marcos’ sham claims, Dr. Taca accused the US government of “seeking to protect Marcos’ war record,” investing legitimacy to his claims of heroic service to the American flag. Dr. Taca put  the responsibility “for breeding this monster of a dictator” on the US government, as well as many traditional politicians and WWII veterans in the Philippines. (Unpublished Taca memoirs)

In his unpublished memoirs, Dr. Taca wrote: “Marcos, among the rest, stood out for the most absurd and grandest deception foisted to a largely unbeknownst people, and who tested the limits of incredibility (sic), with so much success, through his crass depiction of his self-contrived heroic past to propel himself into the highest office of the land.” Those who knew better tended to turn a blind eye on Marcos’ fake claims because they shared the same guilt, he said, which partly explained why Marcos’ mythical claims were not challenged by other prominent guerrilla personalities. (Unpublished Taca memoirs)

He ceased his research efforts in 1984, after he became convinced that, following the assassination of the late senator Aquino, greater events were happening, overtaking MFP’s efforts, and that with or without these exposés on Marcos’ war records, Marcos himself was about to see his downfall.

(Later Ferdinand Marcos became visibly upset in an interview by Ted Koeppel for the latter’s TV program Nightline, when asked about his Maharlika claim. Marcos threatened to cut the interview short if Koeppel pursued his line of questioning! Dr. Taca felt indirectly vindicated by Marcos’ reaction.) (Unpublished Taca memoirs, “Steak Guerrillas” – XVIII )

In the turbulent years in the Philippines between 1983 and 1986, Dr. Taca became a frequent presence in US media, an articulate and intelligent source of insight and opinion on Philippine events. He had by this time become chairperson of the MFP.

His priorities, according to MFP colleague L.John Swallow Jr., were: first, the anti-Marcos resistance; second, his family, and third, his medical practice. Swallow Jr. recalls that at the time of his involvement with the anti-Marcos resistance, long-suffering patients in the two clinics he maintained waited for him to arrive, believing he was at the other clinic while he was actually being interviewed by journalists. At the height of his involvement, he was receiving half the income he was used to because, not only did he neglect his practice, but pro-Marcos doctors refused to refer patients to him and hospitals refused any association with someone too openly political as he had been.

Dr. Taca was tireless and tenacious, he loved polemics and debate, and he had sharp political instincts. For example, he challenged the new government of Corazon Aquino to negotiate a political settlement with the National Democratic Front. He said the NDF was the “earliest organized group to resist Marcos,” and he credited the NPA insurgency for bringing the Philippines to international attention. He said that denying the NDF and the NPA “a meaningful role” in the new government was “unfair” because the NDF and the NPA, as a single entity, suffered the most during the anti-dictatorship struggle through “battle casualties, salvagings and unjust detention.” He said it was the only group consistently uncompromising in its opposition, whereas those who have assumed power in the Aquino government were belated participants in the anti-dictatorship struggle, including pro-American exiles.

He said that although Marcos was gone, “inequitable and oppressive social, economic and political structures remain firmly entrenched,” and the new democratic space should be used to allow the NDF to achieve their goals through peaceful processes, and give the country “lasting peace” and “national reconciliation.”

Meanwhile, he refused to receive offers from the new government, except an honorary appointment as attaché to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations, with a salary of P1 a year.

Then in 1987, the California grand jury case against Dr. Taca was revived. Thankfully, he was spared from testifying. (Fuentecilla letter 2011 and Swallow Jr. letter, 2011)

A bomb exploded in  his clinic in Illinois in February 1988. (Arturo Taca letter to Rene Saguisag, Aug. 15, 1988.) Writing about this, he said that “… even in this so-called land of liberty, remnants of the failed regime continue to operate with impunity, with an insidious but deadly campaign of retribution and vengeance. We are being made to pay for our involvement in the struggle, and its erstwhile patron, the Reagan administration, appears unwilling to rein in this odious debris of the dictatorship.”

Dr. Taca was able to return to the Philippines many times after the dismantling of the dictatorship, enjoying his homeland and visiting old friends. “What is so ironic is that I didn’t feel this way when I was in my own country. It was only here in the United States where my eyes were truly opened. It’s been said quite often that you don’t realize the value of something until you lose it. Right now (with the EDSA revolution going on in the Philippines), many of us Filipinos in the US feel quite emotional in being away from our country.”

However, illness started to catch up with him. A long-time smoker, he developed lung problems and had to be hospitalized several times. He grew weak from emphysema, dying quietly in his St. Louis home on his 52nd birthday. His body was taken back to be buried in the country he loved.

He contributed articles to Manila Times before he immigrated to the US. In the US, wrote for Life magazine, Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, the US-based Filipino Reporter, and Philippine News. Worked with other politicians who fled to the US, such as Sonny Alvarez, Serge Osmena, Raul Daza, Steve Psinakis