Knowing Karen Empeño

To commemorate the birthday of Filipino revolutionary Andres Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan and the founding anniversaries of  Anakbayan and Kabataan Makabayan, we’re dedicating today’s (11/30)  16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign  post to youth and student organizers.

Knowing Karen Empeño

A conversation with Jonna Baldres on her mentor and friend, Karen Empeño, who was abducted by armed military forces of the Philippine government. 

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Jonna’s painting “Baril Baraha Biktima”; photo of Jonna (leaning, front), Karen (left), and friends.

Jonna is to the New York Filipino community as Reese Witherspoon is to Hollywood: a darling powerhouse who commands your respect because she’s smart and works damn hard.  After organizing at the prestigious College of Fine Arts of the University of the Philippines  – Diliman (UP), Jonna has become one of the cornerstones of the Woodside, Queens community.  Jonna’s ease and familiarity with the surrounding neighborhood and its people is unexpected given she’s spent three of the last five years living between Manila and New York City’s outer boroughs.  In recent years, she has played a major role in local immigrants’ rights campaigns and was also a main coordinator for the International Assembly of Migrants and Refugees,  while being a full-time employee of the Bayanihan Community Center in Woodside.

Jonna’s drive to grow as a community organizer developed as the result of several factors, but none of them are more important than the abduction of her friend, mentor, and fellow activist,  Karen Empeño, 23 at the time, who disappeared on June 26, 2006.

The pair met in 2005.  Karen was a sociology student about to begin her thesis, and a lead organizer with STAND UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights at the University of the Philippines).  Jonna was already working around Manila, but the pull of on-campus student activism proved to be more worthwhile than meetings with clients as a freelance graphic designer.  Both women had reputations as fierce student leaders on the UP campus, so despite being in different graduating classes from different colleges, their meeting was inevitable.

Nung na meet ko sya, parang feeling close na si Karen, kasi kilala na nya ko sa mga picture na nakikita nya galing sa rally or kung ano ano.  Talagang makulit siyang tao, minsan nga super-hyper.  Pero nag gigitara din sya, so nag click kami. / When we met, Karen already acted comfortable around me, because she recognized me from past event and rally photos.  She is a really talkative and perky person, and was sometime super-hyper.  But she played the guitar, like me, so we got along well.”

For the next few months, the two would work closely together planning campus events for STAND UP, facilitate occasional student workshops, and organize youth retreats.  These were all learning opportunities for Jonna, a bit out of touch with the campus since her graduation.  She was relieved that Karen was able to take the time and help her transition back into campus organizing.  “Siya talaga ang tumulong sa ipagkaorginiza ko.  Maraming akong natutunan sa kanya na kinakaya kong ipasa sa mga nakikilala kong kasama dito. / She is really the person who helped organize me.  I learned so much from her, that I hope I can pass those lessons on to other organizers here.”

By the summer of 2005, Karen began her immersion with peasant farmers for her thesis research, and Jonna returned to live with her mother in New York. “The last time I was able to spend time with Karen was right before her immersion began.  She was really excited to start this part of her work, to the point that she was crying tears-of-joy in anticipation.”

Jonna didn’t learn of Karen’s disappearance until about a month after initial reports, and only by accident: through an update email posted to a listserv.   Initially, Jonna was left with more questions than answers upon reading the email.  Which Karen was taken?  Why has she been missing for a month?  Who is responsible for this? It took Jonna the longest night of her life to confirm whether the Karen who disappeared was, in fact, her talkative and bubbly mentor.  There were hours spent sending a flurry of text messages to UP alumni and old activist friends still in Manila. “Yung Karen ba natin yan?/ Is that our Karen?”

The reply was, “Oo, Karen natin./ Yes, our Karen.”   Jonna’s heart broke and she cried for three days straight.

The details that surfaced were these: Sherlyn Cadapan, a 29 year old student at the UP College of Human Kinetics, and Karen Empeño were forced into a van.  A local farmer, Manuel Merino, tried to stop the armed men, and was abducted, too.  Since 2000, thousands of community organizers, students, union leaders, members of the press, and other civilians were disappeared or blatantly murdered under the corrupted administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo which hoped to quell the growing people’s movement in the Philippines.  Arroyo’s time in office has proven to be equally fatal to the Martial Law Era, with thousands of innocent civilians dead or missing during her term.  These human rights violations were unmasked to the mainstream when Melissa Roxas, a Filipino-American community health worker, was kidnapped by armed plain clothes soldiers and her story was featured on the New York Times’ front page.

Manuel, Sherlyn, and Karen were brought to a camp. They were tortured and beaten.  The women were raped.  The public only knows this because another victim, Raymond Manalo, escaped this same camp and survived. There are many graphic accounts of his time as a prisoner chronicled in major publications.  The most harrowing one being the description of the farmer who attempted to prevent Sherlyn and Karen’s abductions, Manuel Merino, being burned alive.  Raymond Manalo was the last person to see Sherlyn and Karen, tied to table legs and laying on the ground after beatings by their military captors.

Being thousands of miles away from answers, Jonna only had the humidity of a New York summer to contain her anger.  She would spend hours, which turned into months, combing the internet for articles.  “Only when I started reading the press, that’s when the reality of Karen’s disappearance sunk in.  There was one Manalo interview in particular that was too detailed : 4x4s and bamboo sticks inserted into Karen, legs tied and bound.  I couldn’t even finish reading it.  By that time, my anger was immense.”  However, the graduate of the Fine Arts College was able to turn to her artistic training, and redirect her anger into what resulted in several poems and songs, and a painting called “Baril, Baraha, Biktima” (“Gun, Playing Cards, Victim”).

“Karen was really excited to start this part of her work; all she wanted was a deeper understanding of the lives of these families.  When you come from a prestigious university like UP, students embrace their privilege.  They don’t look forward to living in humble communities the way Karen did.  Nakakagalit na yung mga gustong tumulong, yun ang mga hinuhuli.  Yun ang mga dinudukot ng gobyierno at sundalo. / It makes me angry knowing that the people who want to help, contribute to society, those are the ones who are taken.  Those are the ones disappeared by the government.”

In the meantime, the anger has found a workable plateau within Jonna’s body, and it’s easier for her to laugh again.  A smile appears on her face, because she suddenly remembers the last youth and students retreat she and Karen attended together.  The site was near a beach, and during a longer break between sessions, the two took a boat ride with some of their friends.  Also a skilled photographer, Jonna remembers the compositions of Karen along the boat and playing by the water.  The photos were taken on Jonna’s 35mm SLR camera, and never developed.

Jonna understands that the mere retelling of Karen’s story doesn’t correct injustice; doesn’t return the 2000 victims of human rights violations in the Philippines.  “I won’t stop organizing my community, and holding the Philippine government accountable for what they did to Karen and countless others whose names haven’t even surfaced in the media.  This is about ending the exploitation of farmers by their landlords, living a life free of military violence and state repression, creating jobs within the Philippines, living in affordable housing, getting an education the average family can manage, and having access to enough food and medicine to live healthy lives.  This is what Karen fought for, and this is what I’ve learned during her disappearance.  We are fighting for  justice and equal access to basic human rights not only for the people in my life, but for every Filipino.  Yes, it’s difficult knowing that she is not beside me, but this movement and my commitment to it – neither  waver. 

“Dapat nyang alamin na kumakapit pa rin ako, mahigpit pa,  at ang daming din bagong tao na kumakapit rin./ I want to tell her that I am holding on, holding on tightly,  and that many people who have been moved by her story are holding on, too.  I have hope. Until there is no evidence of her body, Karen is still alive.”   She adds, “ I still have that roll of film from the boat.   It’s somewhere in a drawer at my apartment.   Maybe I’ll get the chance to develop it sometime soon.”   

Attached is a poem dedicated to Karen Empeño and a photo of Baril, Baraha, Biktima by Jonna Baldres.

ISMAYL

(Ngiti)

Tinitingnan ko ang larawan mo,

ang larawang nalimbag sa mga pahayagan

nitong nakaraang isang taon at limang buwan

nang ikaw at mga kasama’y nawawala.

Nakangiti ka.

Walang bakas ng paghihirap

Paghihirap na dinanas sa kamay

ng mga hayop na mapagsamantala.

Narinig ko ang balita.

Ginahasa raw nila kayo, pinahirapan.

At ngayo’y huwag na raw kayong hanapin pa

sapagkat kasama ng magsasakang kanilang niliyaban

ikaw raw ay hindi na makikita pa.

Marahil kahit ang isang tanga

ay maiintindihang ito’y pananakot lamang

na akala’y sa kanilang babala ay magpapadala

at ang aming paghahanap ay ititigil nang tuluyan.

Hindi tayong tulad nila,

na noon pa ma’y buong loob at kusang binitawan

ang dangal at kalayaan sa pagsunod

sa utos ng berdugo’t diktador.

Hindi namin titigilan ang paghahanap.

Hindi lamang sa inyo,

kundi para sa hustisyang

kailanma’y hindi naibigay sa inyo.

Mananatili ang larawan mong nakalimbag,

hindi lamang sa mga pahayagan.

Nakaukit ito sa isipang kung saan ang ngiti mo’y

hindi lamang simpleng pagbuka ng mga labi.

Ang ngiti mo’y mapagpalaya.

Ngiting sa mga magsasakang inaapi

ay naghatid ng pag-asa’t pagkamulat.

Tinitingnan ko ang larawan mo.

Nakangiti ka.

At iyon ang mananatili sa isipan ko.

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One thought on “Knowing Karen Empeño

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. Yes the retelling of the story will not bring justice but these are the stories that tell the truth about the current conditions of the Philippines. More reason we should continue to organize.

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