Tribute to Behn Cervantes, Revolutionary Artist
By Prof. Jose Maria Sison
Julie and I convey our most heartfelt condolences to the family of our beloved Behn Cervantes, long time friend and revolutionary comrade.
We feel a deep sense of loss because of his personal warmth, his strivings and accomplishments. At the same time, we find comfort in the fact that he lived a full, meaningful and fruitful life. We celebrate his achievements for the emulation of the current and future generations.
Julie and I admire his outstanding achievements as an actor, stage and film director and as teacher of the theatrical arts and above all his highly intelligent and militant service to the people in their struggle for national liberation and democracy against foreign and feudal domination.
His professional achievements, his artistic works, have been imbued with and given direction by his deep concern for the toiling masses of workers and peasants and the need for national and social liberation. His 1976 film “Sakada” is an excellent depiction of the suffering and struggles of the farm workers of Negros. It is an outstanding artistic creation in the service of the people.
Behn and I were contemporaries at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and were active members of the UP Dramatic Club under the direction of Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, starting in 1956-57. Since then, we had become friends.
We belonged to the same batch in the UP Dramatic Club as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Adul de Leon and others who proceeded to excel as film directors in terms of social content and artistic creativity.
The biggest production we participated in as actors was Oedipus Rex. Behn was the most accomplished actor among us, appearing in more plays than we did in the last half of the 1960s. His commanding presence on stage and his accent which seemed to be a cross between England and New England carried him far.
We, who belonged to either one or both of the U.P. Dramatic Club and UP Writers’ Club, had a penchant for following each other’s activities even when we did not find time to communicate with each other directly. We always had a grapevine among us.
Moreover, it is in the nature of our professions that we are written about or we write in publication . Thus, I came to know promptly when in the U.S. Behn began to insert the letter h in his original nickname. He stayed in New York for a while. He loved Broadway and liked to sing top hits from Broadway and stage Broadway musicals.
However, what I consider as most interesting is how Behn became a revolutionary comrade. He observed the activities directed by the Cultural Bureau of the Kabataang Makabayan in the late 1960s, such as those undertaken by Panday Sining, Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista-Arkitekto (NPAA) at Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA). Like so many creative writers and artists, he became engaged and militant in the First Quarter Storm of 1970.
Subsequently, he became an active member of the Samahang Demokratiko ng Bayan. He was the leading spirit in the formation of Gintong Silahis, the performing group of SDK, and engaged the KM cultural groups in friendly competition. He wrote, produced and directed the musical Barikada which was a depiction of the Diliman Commune of 1971. He supported the comradely and militant partnership of SDK and KM.
The Cultural Bureau of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was formed to consolidate the cultural groups of the national democratic movement under one program. It was in this context that Behn became an active member of the revolutionary party of the proletariat, together with outstanding patriotic and progressive cultural workers in various arts.
Enthusiastically, he engaged in revolutionary studies and mass work. He further used his expertise to create revolutionary art. Even before the suspension of the writ of habeas in 1971, he proved himself as a worthy cadre of the CPP. When martial law was proclaimed, he contributed significantly to the building of a broad antifascist/ antimartial law underground network of artists and middle forces.
He was arrested and detained by the Marcos fascist dictatorship. But he could not be cowed by the dictatorship. He was defiant even in prison. The more persecution he suffered the more he struggled in the interest of the people, for national liberation and democracy. He continued to be active and productive in the revolutionary underground.
Despite having experienced the fascist prison, he formed the UP Repertory Company in 1974, with the objective of defying and challenging the dictatorship. He dared to direct “Pagsambang Bayan” of Bonifacio Ilagan in 1977 and again in 1980. This strongly inspired the artists of the theatre and the youth activists to persevere in struggle and serve the people.
It also caused his rearrest by the fascists.
At the peak of fascist repression, Behn initiated the Free the Artist, Free the Media Movement, together with Pete Lacaba, Lino Brocka and other others. This eventually led to the formation of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines in 1983.
Immediately after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, Behn was among the first of cadres to link up with the Aquino family and assured them of mass support from the national democratic movement. There was a spontaneous upsurge of mass outrage over the Aquino assassination but the solid organized forces of the national democratic movement were needed to sustain the mass movement.
Behn had for his direct visible base the cultural activists associated with the Concerned Artists of the Philippines. He had a key role in mustering the mass movement under the successive names of Justice for Aquino, Justice for All (JAJA), Congress for the Restoration of Democracy (CORD), Nationalist Alliance for Freedom, Justice and Democracy) and the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) in the three years that led to the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship.
Behn was a leading figure in all major formations against the Marcos despotism and was in the forefront of all major mass actions, which always featured protest art in the form of street theatre, songs and murals. His resolve and militancy did not wane or waver after the overthrow of Marcos and the succession of pseudo-democratic regimes which continued to serve the same US and local reactionary interests that Marcos had served.
Behn continued to fight for the national independence and democratic rights of the people. He was among the first I met when I was released from the fascist prison in 1986. And soon enough I was in his house celebrating and promoting international solidarity with human rights activists from the US and other countries.
He openly assisted the members and staff of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines that negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the panel of the Manila government in1986. He provided serious advice, boad, lodging and other forms of assistance to the NDFP personnel.
Behn met me and Julie a number of times abroad. We met in Mexico City in 1988. We made a tour of the museum sites and exchanged experiences in our respective situations. He was very happy with his cultural and political work in the Philippines and he narrated his work with the underground. Whenever he visited Europe, he came to Utrecht and stayed with the Jalandonis.
I was always glad to be informed that he was active in the Estrada Resign Movement and contributed much to the alliance of the resign, impeach and oust currents and to the deployment of street theatre to give color and drama to the protests.
He was consistently opposed to any attempt at rehabilitating the fascist dictator Marcos. He strongly advocated the video recording of testimonies and documentary evidence against the dictatorship in order to perpetuate the people’s memory against it. Despite his failing health, he was in the forefront of the protest march on the 40th anniversary of martial law last year.
The last time Behn came to Utrecht on August 12, 2011 he talked about his work and the consequences of aging to himself and to his contemporaries. We had good laughs over the reminiscences, the successes in current work and even the manifestations of aging.
I know enough of Behn and his work to be able to say more. But our comrades and friends must also give their testimonies. The more people reflecting on the life and work of Behn the better for a well-rounded and profound evaluation and understanding of his artistic merits and revolutionary service to the people.
Long live the revolutionary legacy of Comrade Behn Cervantes!
Long live art and cultural work in the service of the people!
Long the Filipino people’s struggle for national liberation and democracy!