Lito de Dios: My Brother’s Big Heart

Opinion & Analysis Feb 22, 2019 at 4:11 pm


By Emmanuel S. De Dios

I can only speak as someone who knew Lito (or Gio, as he preferred the family to call him), my whole life. So when Jeline and Jenny [his daughters] called to relay the news of his leaving—the finality of this news felt like a great body blow. It was as if a big chunk of my life had been suddenly snatched away. Now there is no one to corroborate the times, experiences, ideas, and opinions the two of us shared. Did they really happen as I remember? Is that what we really thought and did? Were those really the people we met? Is that how they behaved? I used to be confident I could always go to Gio and ask him this or that. Not anymore. For those things, the bereavement is complete. He has left me alone.

Gio and I were the closest siblings: the two of us were raised in the same extended de Dios menagerie of doting grandmother, godmother, aunts, and uncles on Magdalena Street, Trozo (now part of Santa Cruz, Manila). Papa and Mama took us in only during the weekends, since they were busy at work the rest of the week. This meant Gio and I spent much of our time together. Our older relatives can still tell you: Gio was harót (unruly) and galawgáw (restless). He always got into minor accidents, got gashes and rashes, broke things, but he was also the bibo (exuberant) performer, an unabashed crowd-pleaser who could recite a poem from memory or sing an operatic aria at the drop of a hat. In this way he channelled a lot of Lolo Mat the showman, who was obviously pleased to no end that his eldest was following in his footsteps. By contrast, I was introvert, shy, and always loath to perform—so I was secretly happy Gio had willingly occupied the performer’s evolutionary niche.

It was playtime with him I enjoyed the most. We were seldom allowed to play in the streets with the other kids, so we mostly had to play indoors by ourselves: marbles on wooden floors, rubber bands, and “tex” playing cards are some of my earliest memories. At home with Papa and Mama in Washington Street, we were allowed to sword-fight using walis-tingting (broomsticks) as sabres, or rolled-up magazines as swords. Actually being allowed to whack each other was a treat for little boys.

When Gio left for the seminary (minor at Novaliches, major at old San Jose QC, and Ateneo de Manila), we obviously saw less of each other. Nonetheless I eagerly looked forward to regular weekend visits to the seminary: first to see him, of course, but second, because the family was always in for a special treat we brought him— typically Max’s, Kobe, or Savory chicken, or Ma Mon Luk’s or Kowloon siopao. We could all see that seminary did him good. He blossomed: he became even more extrovert, confident, adventurous, and accomplished. He acted in plays (a Jesuit thing), wrote poems and music, learned to play guitar, played better basketball, sang songs sacred and profane, both solo and in groups. His tenor was especially valued. But it was at seminary where he also learned to smoke (alas), and missed no beat of the 60s and 70s pop and rock era, even while supposedly preparing for a vicarial vocation.

If there is a running thread in all this—as would also be evident in later phases of Gio’s life—it was his total involvement and total immersion in the moment. He threw himself without reserve into whatever he was doing, whether this was academics, music, work, revolutionary activism, and later on, love and family.

One of the earliest memories I have of 1970s activism is that of Gio as a seminarian, con todo sutana, singing his own composition (“Pass the bill 1065”) in front of Congress on January 26, 1970, in that famous large demonstration attended by moderates and radicals. It was a noble, passionate, but ultimately futile deed. Gio was part of the moderates demanding a nonpartisan constitutional convention. The radicals of course knew better and were under no illusion that this would be of any avail. From what we now know of Marcos’ sinister plans, the radicals were right: Marcos had already determined to declare martial law and there was really no stopping it.

De Dios family’s last Christmas together in 2017. Seated: Oyie and Lito de Dios. Standing, from left: Children Inky, Jenny and Jeline.

De Dios family’s last Christmas together in 2017. Seated: Oyie and Lito de Dios. Standing, from left: Children Inky, Jenny and Jeline.

At that time, for many reasons, through various influences, but in remarkably mutual reinforcement of each other, we all became radical student activists. It was the panganay (eldest) Kuya Dennis, of course, who led the way, encouraging us to join demos, and legitimising radical action in our eyes. I was drawn in through my own high school activities. But as usual it was Gio whose involvement ended up being the fullest, deepest, and most “official.” He left the seminary and ultimately went “full-time” in the movement, going full underground after martial law was declared.

Those were exciting, dangerous times. While the motives and methods of some in the underground Left leadership may be debated, I don’t think the idealism of many of the youth at the time—Dennis, Gio, Oyie, myself, and many of our friends—can be denied. But were we used and fooled? Were we willing participants in the deception ourselves? How I wish I could have had time to discuss this matter at leisure and dispassionately with Gio, the same way we discussed things when he would come home on weekends from seminary. I can imagine how much we might clarify things to ourselves. But alas, that will not happen now.

If there was anything of lasting value in his years in the movement, however, it was that he found a few good and true friends, but especially Oyie. Oyie was the fixed point of his life that sustained him and provided him his life’s compass, both during the difficult years underground and beyond. At a certain point—specifically when Inky was born—Gio and Oyie decided that enough was enough. A more overriding imperative presented itself, namely, that of providing for human beings whose existence depended completely on them. But this part you already know: Gio as usual plunged himself totally into the task of finding work and sustaining his family—and more.

Amazingly, he completely changed his knowledge base and skills: from studying philosophy in the seminary, he obtained his Masters in sociology, and went on to planning and construction design. He ultimately built a reputable and rewarding professional career at the head of his own engineering consultancy firm. Professional ethics allowed him to work with a good conscience with government (even under Marcos and beyond), with no whiff of scandal. Though outside government, he essentially adopted the attitude and ethic of a civil servant. It was this same professional ethic that made him keep away from partisan politics.

Gio’s career success is amazing by any account, and this was not only because he was good at what he did, but also he actually enjoyed it. (I shall always remember him on his hospital bed frantically drawing Gantt charts with multicoloured markers on bond paper, taped end to end.) His total immersion, his enthusiasm, and perfectionism meant he could never do anything halfway but would always over- achieve and over-deliver.

This ultimately took a toll on his health. Through the decades, the symptoms and ailments only seemed to get worse. I would visit him at the hospital during those episodes of illness, but he always seemed to take these health problems in stride and good humour—they were a necessary and bearable cost. I would encourage him: Kaya mo ‘yan, pero mag-ingat ka na (“you can handle this, but you must take care from now on”). Still, there seemed no stopping him.

What was all that for? I think people are mistaken to simply think he worked hard for financial gain. Instead I believe that in a way, he never left the seminary, and his hard work was the price of an aesthetic of love—agape was one of his favourite early words. Love for his family, love for those who worked for him, love for his own work, and love of duty to his country.

So, if they ask me what my brother died from, I would say: “His love proved too big for his heart.”