40th Anniversary of Martyrdom Reminds Community of Courage
Filipino Americans from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut came together to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s assassination on August 21, 1983, upon returning to the Philippines after living in exile in the United States.
Ninoy Aquino Jr. was a strong supporter of democracy and spoke out against the Marcos government.
The community gathered at the Benigno Aquino Triangle, located on 184th Place near Hillside Avenue, in Hollis, Queens.
Community leader and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis talked about how this small patch of land is a big tribute to Aquino and his contributions to democracy. It is a place that holds a special meaning for Filipinos and everyone who cares about freedom.
As attendees gathered at the triangle, Lewis expressed mixed emotions, saying, “It is both joyful and sad.” Joyful, as Aquino’s sacrifice is recognized and honored, and sad because the challenges that prompted his sacrifice still persist. Despite the passage of 40 years, the Philippines’ current state raises questions about the progress made since Aquino’s sacrifice, Lewis explained.
“Filipinos seem to lack memory and are really forgiving and after 40 years, Marcos Junior is the president,” Lewis said. Thank God he does not have the brilliance of his father, and so I do not believe he’s going to be as ruthless as his father.”
Lara Gregory, a lawyer, said, “Regardless of where we were in 1983, today we know we know the absolute impact and significance of the life and death of Benigno Aquino Jr. His life just shows us the importance of dissent.”
Gregory remembers she was a teenager in the Philippines when Aquino was killed for his beliefs. “Before he died, he was in jail for seven years because he spoke out. After all that time in jail, he could have stayed safe in the United States, but he went back to the Philippines. He wanted to make a change by using his voice,” she said.
A prominent critic of the Marcos regime, Aquino was tragically assassinated on August 21, 1983, as he landed at the Manila International Airport. His return to the Philippines from a three-year exile in the U.S. was marked by his unwavering determination to contribute more to his homeland. Despite the comfort of his exile in Boston, Aquino’s dedication to his beloved country led him to make the courageous decision to come back, even in the face of danger that he had been warned about.
In the days leading up to his return, Aquino’s resolute spirit was evident as he declared, “The Filipino is worth dying for…” These powerful words foreshadowed his ultimate sacrifice.
Lewis highlighted this sentiment and added that after his assassination, his wife, who later became the president, affirmed that the Filipino is worth living for. Likewise, when their son Benigno Aquino III assumed the presidency, he echoed that the Filipino is worth fighting for.
Aquino’s decision to return to the Philippines led to something bigger as it sparked a movement called People Power in 1986. Filipinos joined together to fight against the government and bring back democracy.
The event was also attended by Assemblymember Steve Raga, the first Filipino elected in the state of New York, who praised the initiative to honor history. Raga stressed the importance of preserving memories and carving out spaces that embody the community’s history. He also spoke of the need for new generations to understand and honor the sacrifices made for democracy.
“It’s good to see us keep the history and let the next generation know that this is something to be honored and remembered. It’s also important to know that years ago, there were New Yorkers in Queens that came together and felt it important enough to put this together, to find park space and work with local, city, and state officials here in the state of New York to find a space,” Raga said. “That we can carve out our history so we can come together repeatedly again and again afterward to not just remember but look in the mirror and bring next generations together.”
The event was joined by the leaders of the Benigno Aquino Triangle Foundation (BATF) led by Antero Martinez and Dr. Connie Quiambao.
Eric Lachica, from U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance, shared his personal Ninoy story.
“I last saw him in Los Angeles one week before he flew out to the Philippines. In fact that black and white photo on the memorial, that was my last photo of Ninoy, I was there when he gave this last press conference before a group of media when he announced his going back to the Philippines and I saw it in his face,” he recalled. “He was going to play the Jose Rizal card and be a martyr because he was already warned by Imelda Marcos here in New York when he was here. He was told that he would be putting his life on the line.”
“Ninoy’s martyrdom in many ways, inspired me to dedicate the rest of my life to good governance, because that’s what Ninoy did, he was fighting for the Filipino people,” he added.
Members of the Here Lies Love cast, led by creator David Byrne and Jose Llana, Melody Butiu, and Moses Villarama attended the gathering and brought a wreath on behalf of the company.
Llana, who plays the role of Ferdinand Marcos, said, “It is important to acknowledge and to remember all the work that Ninoy did and we’re just grateful that we as a company are telling this part of Filipino story every night on Broadway.”
In the Philippines, people also gathered to remember Aquino’s martyrdom.
The Aquinos’ eldest Maria Elena “Ballsy” Cruz talked about her family’s sacrifices. “Even though some people try to forget, we should remember the good that Ninoy, my mother Corazon Aquino, and my brother Benigno Aquino III did for our country,” she said.
“To you, our fellow Filipinos, who joined us today when being seen with Aquinos is not exactly in fashion during this time, thank you for being one with us today in remembering Ninoy Aquino,” Cruz added.
President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. issued a statement acknowledging Aquino’s impact and called for unity among Filipinos. “We should work together for a better Philippines,” he said.
“I stand united with all Filipinos worldwide in commemorating Ninoy Aquino Day,” he added. “By standing for his beliefs and fighting for battles he deemed right, he became an example of relentlessness and resolve for many Filipinos.” n