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Sugar Overflows and Teatro Obrero's Escalante Story


Protesting against the Marcos regime in 1985, farm workers and other activists and their supporters from multisectoral groups are ‘massacred’ in front of the Escalante town hall by state police and paramilitary troops, resulting in the death of twenty persons. A year later, Teatro Obrero, the ‘cultural arm’ of the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers, stages a re-enactment of the massacre. Thirty-two years later, in 2017, the theatre group performs the re-enactment for the thirty-second time; the group has been doing the re-enactment every year since 1986. What is the reason for this fidelity to the restaging of a traumatic event? What is the logic of the repetition that happens relentlessly in the same way every year? Drawing from a co-performative engagement with Teatro Obrero and its re-enactment theatre, I argue that the reason may be found by looking at the long history of the sugar workers’ oppression, which spans centuries, and which is about more than Marcos and his repressive regime. The theatre has not changed because the social conditions that birthed it have not changed. It has become an intergenerational resource for the Escalante survivors who have once again lost their trust in promised change under the current national leadership.

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1 ‘Tokhang’, the name of President Duterte's anti-drug campaign, is taken from the Cebuano words toktok (knock) and hangyo (plead). In the context of the campaign it means police officers are to make a polite request to surrender or stop using drugs.

2 Translated from Tagalog: ‘kawalan ng hustisya at makabuluhang pagbabago . . . magmula noon hanggang ngayon’, quoted in Tangis ng Asukal: Pag-aalay at Pagpupugay sa mga Martir ng Escalante Massacre (Tears of Sugar: Offering and Tribute to the Martyrs of the Escalante Massacre), a photo book published by the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers, Teatro Obrero and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, 2017.

3 I was involved in the 1985 welgang bayan (national people's strike), though not in Escalante, but in my own region. Ours was also a march, a lakbayan (short for lakbay ng bayan, ‘people's march’). I was part of a multi-sector group of more or less five hundred with peasants in the majority, who walked for four days from Legazpi City to Naga City, a good hundred kilometers. We were chanting the same slogans that Teatro Obrero still use in the re-enactment.

4 Lopez-Gonzaga, Violeta B., The Socio-politics of Sugar: Wealth, Power Formation and Change in Negros (1899–1985) (Bacolod City: University of St La Salle Social Research Center, 1989), p. 99.

5 Ibid., pp. 102–3.

6 Lopez-Gonzaga, ibid., p. 105, cites a UNICEF report, taken from Business Day, 7 October 1985, on the malnutrition situation in Negros, which ‘was past the worst and continued to worsen’.

7 Ibid., p. 92.

8 Eddie Villalon and Alma Villalon, ‘Escalante Massacre, 31 Years Ago Today’, 20 September 2016, at, accessed 22 April 2017. This is an account of the massacre as told to interviewers Carrie Panaligan-Manglinong and Cathy Abrazado. Eddie and Alma Villalon continue to help in organizing the yearly re-enactment and are active members of MARTYR (Mothers and Relatives against Tyranny and Repression), an association of the survivors of the massacre. The number of accounted deaths is twenty, not more, so the count reported here must be an error.

9 Members of Teatro Obrero take turns in doing the many tasks involved in staging the re-enactment, including not only being actors but also preparing food for the month-long rehearsals and doing the community rounds to mobilize audiences. The communities of sugar workers also take turns in sharing the needed resources for this long-standing endeavour, and these include providing the actors, who would then be trained for the performance. The theatre group thus has a fluid membership coming from Escalante and the surrounding towns of Cadiz, Toboso, Sagay and Calatrava.

10, ‘Negros Observes First Anniversary of Escalante Massacre in Which 21 Died’, 17 September 1986, at, accessed 22 April 2017.

11 Angela Casauay, ‘CHR to Convene Claims Board for Martial Law Victims’, 31 January 2014, at, accessed 18 October 2017.

12 The LawPhil Project, ‘Republic Act No. 10368: An Act Providing for Reparation and Recognition of Victims of Human Rights Violations during the Marcos Regime, Documentation of Said Violations, Appropriating Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes’, at, accessed 18 October 2017.

13 Author interview, Alejandro Deoma, 18 September 2015. Deoma was the artistic director of Teatro Obrero at the time of the ‘massacre’ and has stayed with the group and led the organization and preparation of the re-enactment activities up to the time this was written.

14 Malou Guanzon-Apalisok, ‘Remembering the Escalante Massacre’, 19 September 2011, at, accessed 18 October 2017.

15 Kear, Adrian, Theatre and Event: Staging the European Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 7, quoting Agamben, Giorgio, What Is an Apparatus?, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 41, 43.

16 Larkin, John, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 3.

17 Ibid., p. 1.

18 Fernandez, Doreen, The Iloilo Zarzuela 1903–1930 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1978), p. 8.

19 Ibid., p. 10.

20 Ibid., p. 12. The insulares de Jaro y Molo (insulares from Jaro and Molo) were Spaniards born in the Philippines who settled in Jaro and Molo, towns in the island province of Panay.

21 Locsin-Nava, Ma. Cecilia, History and Society in the Novels of Ramon Muzones (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001), p. 9.

22 Larkin, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society, p. 81.

23 The planter is Gina Martin-Bautista, head of the (Philippine) Sugar Regulatory Administration.

24 Jay Abello, Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar (documentary film), 2012.

25 Quoted in ibid.

26 Julius B. Mariveles, ‘AFTA and the Sugar Industry: Tiempo Muerto For Negros, Tiempo Suerte for Filipinos?’, 15 April 2014, at, accessed 2 November 2017.

27 Bernardo Villegas interview in Abello, Pureza.

28 ‘Countries by Commodity’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, at, accessed 2 November 2017.

29 See Abello, Pureza.

30 Author interview with Deoma. He speaks passionately about how the feudal ties of the workers to their amo (master) need to be broken in order for the workers to be truly freed in mind and heart.

31 Mariveles, ‘AFTA and the Sugar Industry’, 2014.

32 Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr, assisted by Katon, Brenda M. and Desiderio, Rene S., The Making of Cane Sugar: Poverty, Crisis and Change in Negros Occidental (Bacolod: La Salle Social Research Center, 1984), p. 79. Aguilar reports a 1982 survey of the workers’ involvement in unionism, specifically the activities of the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW). The survey shows ‘a dramatic rise in the number of unionized workers’ as compared to a 1975 survey, and many of these 1982 respondents ‘volunteered the data on union membership’. Emphasis in original.

33 Papa Isio is a tribute to Dionisio Sigobela, the farm worker turned revolutionary shaman and military commander who became a hero to the peasant folk of Negros, establishing an alliance with the hacenderos Aniceto Lacson and Juan Araneta and winning against the Spanish army through the contrived Cinco de Noviembre attack in 1898, and later turning against them when they embraced and cultivated the favour of the Americans. Cinco de Noviembre in the history of Negros is a victory through performance. The Negros revolutionary force made up of sugar workers and the hacenderos did not have sufficient men or arms to fight against the Spanish, but won the battle of 5 November 1898 by staging an attack using bamboo and other farm implements made to look like rifles, which indeed the Spanish mistook for such, seeing the formation from afar. The Spanish forces surrendered the next day and the hacenderos established the Negros Cantonal Government.

34 Cruz-Lucero, Rosario, ‘Tiempos Muertos: The Radical Semiotics of People's Theater’, in Chua, J. and Cruz-Lucero, R., eds., A Reader in Philippine Theater History and Criticism: Essays in Honor of Nicanor J. Tiongson (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2014), pp. 7389, here p. 74.

35 Ibid., p. 75, citing Summary 1981.

36 Llana, Jazmin, ‘How Does Theatre Think through Politics’, in Kear, A., Kelleher, J., Bleeker, M. and Roms, H., eds., Thinking through Theatre and Performance (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, forthcoming 2018). The telling of the 2016 commemoration and much of the Badiouan reading also appears in my chapter in the book.

37 Fernandez, Doreen, Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1996), p. 133.

38 Ibid., p. 136. The First Quarter Storm was a frenzy of student demonstrations, marches and riots that included a siege of Malacanang during the first quarter of 1970, which started on the day Marcos delivered a ‘State of the Nation’ speech in Congress after he had become president of the republic for a third term. See Lacaba, Jose F.’s Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1982) for a blow-by-blow account of these events.

39 Lumbera, Bienvenido, ‘Isang Maikling Kasaysayan ng Dulang Mapanghimagsik’ (A Brief History of Revolutionary Drama), in Writing the Nation/Pag-akda ng Bansa (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2000), pp. 247–52, here p. 251 (quote translated from Tagalog by the author).

40 Schneider7, Rebecca, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 37. In the second quotation Schneider is citing Connerton, Paul, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 43.

41 Roach, Joseph, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 26. Roach, Joseph quoting bell hooks, ‘Culture and Performance in the Circum-Atlantic World’, in Parker, A. and Sedgwick, E. K., eds., Performativity and Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 45–63, here p. 57.

42 In 2015, Performance Studies international (PSi) conducted a dispersed conference project – Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing – consisting of smaller events in fifteen sites across the world instead of the big annual conference. The Philippine cluster was one of these. With the theme On Tilted Earth: Performance, Disaster, and Resilience in Archipelagic Space, the Philippine cluster was composed of journeys to fifty sites across the Philippine archipelago conducted for fifty-one days from March to July and an international conference in November. See the project website at See also Felipe Cervera, ‘Planetary Performance Studies’, GPS Global Performance Studies 1.1, at; and Heike Roms, ‘Fluid Futures’, ibid.

43 I say it was an ‘out-of-time’ performance on 8 April 2015 when we visited, since it is usually done during the anniversary of the massacre on 20 September. Our hosts obviously honoured us with the performance.

44 The Tanghal theatre festival is a flagship programme of the National Committee on Dramatic Arts. Originally a festival of best works of university theatre companies, it has included in its yearly programme the works of community theatre groups. The programme is run under the auspices of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Philippine government agency tasked to formulate policies and to support and oversee programmes for the culture and arts sector. Officers and members of the NCCA committees are private individuals or independent artists who volunteer to work with the agency. It is pertinent to say that, for activist groups, the formation of the NCCA in the early 1990s was a product of the struggle of a national theatre and arts movement that came to fruition in the post-EDSA years, which included the democratization of the programmes and reach of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the creation of the Presidential Commission for Culture and the Arts, which later became the NCCA.

45 Tiempos Muertos was performed by Sinagbayan, an activist dance theatre company based at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Manila, with chapters across the country.

46 The play on Dagohoy was presented by a peasant group from Bohol island, where Dagohoy fought the longest rebellion against Spanish colonization from 1744 to 1828, and where Dagohoy still has followers almost two centuries after his failed rebellion.

47 At the time of writing, however, President Duterte is reported to have a net satisfaction rating of 58 per cent (‘very good’) from a survey conducted by the Social Weather Station in December 2017, up from the 48 per cent rating (‘good’) in September 2017. This means – if one believes in satisfaction surveys – that he continues to enjoy the support of a majority of citizens. See Julius N. Leonen, ‘SWS: Duterte's Net Satisfaction Ratings up by 10 Points in Q4 of 2017’, Inquirer, 22 December 2017, at, accessed 24 January 2018.

48 Tangis ng Asukal, last page. Quotation translated from Tagalog.

49 Tangis ng Asukal, introduction, n.p.

50 Martial law was declared in Marawi City and all of Mindanao on 24 May 2017, a day after the first clash of government forces with the rebel group Maute. This first skirmish became a full-blown siege that pulverized the city and went on for five full months until 23 October 2017, resulting in thousands dead and hundreds of thousands more displaced. A report on 11 October 2017 cites ‘Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Major General Restituto Padilla [who] said a total of 1,009 [were] killed in the war’ – the number included ‘160 government forces, 802 fighters of the local armed groups, and at least 47 civilians’. See Carmela Fonbuena, ‘Marawi Death Toll Breaches 1000’, Rappler, 11 October 2017, at, accessed 24 January 2018. At the height of the clashes in June, the reported number of people who fled the city was 230,000, and 40,000 of these were in evacuation centres outside Marawi. See Allan Nawal, ‘40,000 Marawi Evacuees Suffer in Emergency Shelters’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 June 2017, at, accessed 24 January 2018.

51 Berlant, Lauren, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 2.

52 Daniel Gempesala, in Tangis ng Asukal, n.p. Quotation translated from Tagalog: ‘Matapos ang masaker, maraming nagsabing rebolusyonaryong hustisya lamang ang makapagbibigay katarungan sa mga biktima. Likas na marahas ang estado kaya lalong nararapat na ituloy ang laban’.

53 Davis, Walter A., Art and Politics: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, Theatre (London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2007), pp. 70, 64.

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Theatre Research International
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