By HENRY EMPEÑO
MASINLOC, Zambales—Her father wanted her to be a lawyer while her mother hoped she would be a teacher. But as fate would have it, Karen Empeño entered the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman in June 2000 with music as her first course preference and sociology second.
During validation, however, Karen surprised her parents by picking the second option. “She was really adamant about it,” her mother now recalls. “She even told me that, while she knew the music piece to play by heart, she wouldn’t play it well on purpose. That’s how desperately she wanted to shift to sociology.”
Six years later, while researching for her thesis in sociology, collecting songs of indigenous people, Karen disappeared. Witnesses said she was forcibly taken away by armed men from a village in Hagonoy, Bulacan, on June 26, 2006, along with another UP student Sherlyn Cadapan and farmer Manuel Merino. Karen and Sherlyn hadn’t been seen again since.
Karen is the daughter of Oscar Empeño, whom I call “Ka Oca”, the son of my father’s cousin twice removed. Today, at their modest house in our home village of Santa Rita in the town of Masinloc, Zambales, Karen’s framed pregraduation photo occupies a place of honor on the living-room shelf.
There is also a signed recognition from the 22nd Ecumenical Bishops Forum signifying solidarity with the Empeño family and citing their “courage to struggle for justice in the Philippine courts”.
Sometimes, when visitors ask about Karen, Ka Bot, who is Ka Oca’s wife Concepcion, would bring out an old scrapbook that her daughter has titled “My Life”. In it are photos and mementos that a girl would save to remember moments by—keepsakes arranged from one life chapter to the next with joyful innocence and prefaced with wistful sayings.
Most of the photos chronicle Karen’s growth from toddler to college girl. There is a section on her earliest passion, music; pages showing her best friends, and keepsakes from some of them; and a part when “The baby has now become a lady”—when Karen turned 18.
Then somewhere near the album’s last pages is a quote: “Stand up for what you believe in.” This precedes a photo of members of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) sitting at a park, holding aloft a red banner, and urging former President Joseph E. Estrada to resign. Karen is somewhere in this photo, taken November 14, 2000, just two months before then President Joseph Estrada finally resigned the presidency. But unlike the other photos in the collection, the Karen here is no longer the bida that stood out. The Karen here is now totally anonymous within the mass.
KA OCA, her father, wanted Karen to be a lawyer partly because it was his dream and his frustration. But early on, he had noticed certain signs that pointed his little girl to that direction.
“Karen read a lot and was very much interested in philosophy, religion and politics. Among her siblings, she was the only one who fastidiously read books as a child,” Ka Oca said.
Karen’s love for books was coupled by a passion for discussion. She would engage her father and elder brother Ogie in debates, as they devoured books late at night.
“I remember one time we argued about how science and the Bible are irreconcilable,” Ka Oca related. “We debated a lot with Ogie, and there were many times when Karen cried when she lost. She’s that passionate about her beliefs.”
But while her father describes Karen as iyakin, he said she wouldn’t let any injustice get past her.
“In high school, Karen instigated a rally when her class standing was unreasonably dropped from No. 10 to No. 15,” Ka Oca said. Some of her classmates walked out, too.
Karen’s mother, who recently retired as principal of a public-elementary school at the village next to ours, had thought all along that her daughter would gladly follow in her footsteps and take up education.
Karen, Ka Bot said, knew how to discipline people, including her playmates, during childhood. But the most important part was that she would explain things to her peers, even at play. She was their teacher, and they, her pupils.
“She was studious, she was reading books all the time, and what she learned, she shared with others. At one time, she taught some of her playmates some dance steps,” Ka Bot recalled. “She really had this innate want to help others.”
This might be the reason she chose sociology, Ka Bot offered. Or why she chose to help out farmers while doing her thesis in Bulacan—she wanted to share what she had.
“I didn’t know that she was already an activist in college, but that’s how she was—she had this affinity with the poor, and the people she felt were being oppressed,” Ka Bot said.
Part of this, the mother ventured, could be traced to an earlier experience when their whole neighborhood in Barangay Bani had to be demolished to make way for a coal-fired power plant.
Ka Bot always worried about Karen in college, but her daughter always reassured her.
“This is what I want my life to be—I want to be of help to the poor. I am happy here,” Karen told Ka Bot.
After Karen’s disappearance, some accounts began to describe her as a “born activist”. That may be because, at 2 years old, Karen was photographed with her father at the picket line of a union on strike. But her brother Ogie said this was not always so.
“We didn’t know she’d end up an activist; we didn’t even know when she was still in high school that she was going to take up sociology,” Ogie said. But what was apparent in her, even as a child, was her leadership potential.
“She was strict. She knew what had to be done. She’s very passionate about things and very sensitive at the same time,” Ogie pointed out.
And all the while, she would be reading and asking questions, especially things about the society.
Ogie recalled that, when he was studying sociology at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, he would bring home leaflets and brochures from Kamanyang, the cultural group of the LFS in PUP, and Karen would voraciously finish them up. These readings would almost always provoke debates and discussions between brother and sister.
Both Ka Oca and Ka Bot agreed that Ogie, their second child and only son, was a huge influence to Karen, their third child. After all, Karen did not choose to become a lawyer or a teacher, but aspired to become a sociologist like her brother.
“Right upon entering UP, Karen already knew what character she would become, what person she would want to be. She already knew where she would go and where she would belong to,” Ogie asserted.
Rubelh Peralta, also a sociology major from UP Diliman, first met Karen in 2002 when she joined Praxis, the academic organization of sociology majors.
They were neither batch-mates nor classmates, but became close when they lived as housemates in 2003. This was the time when they, seniors taking sociology, started the required community work somewhere in Quezon City. Rubelh, who now manages her family’s restaurant in the Subic Bay Freeport, recalled that, in their boarding house, Karen was very choosy about her food, didn’t like vegetables and would always want fried chicken.
“But that was before she tasted what in Payatas was called pagpag,” Rubelh said. Pagpag, she explained, was food scraps scavenged from fast-food outlets and then washed and cooked again. Everything soon changed after that experience.
Rubelh also recalled that Karen was very fastidious about tidiness, even in the community where they were assigned for training.
“She would cry when somebody else used her bath soap. She would get angry, and she would be very vocal. But later on, she became more accepting,” Rubelh said.
Rubelh also noted then that, as Karen went on with her community work, her leadership potential came out. From being reserved, she became more assertive. And she earned praises from fellow workers who saw in her a natural goodness.
“No malice, no selfishness, no pretensions,” Rubelh described Karen.
Community work apparently nourished Karen, as it allowed her to help out in educating the poor, learning their history and social structure, and devising programs for empowerment.
In Payatas, Rubelh recalled, they even taught poetry to drug addicts, some of whom were able to compose their own poems later on.
When the people were threatened with demolition, the community workers prepared their defense in court, gathered data and documented cases of violence. They also negotiated with the demolition team.
They were just sociology students on internship, but to the poor people in the community, they were their teachers and their lawyers.
Karen, Rubelh said, was cut out for this job: “She had good work ethic, was not lazy and hated those who came in late.”
She remembers their coming home from work, often tired and hungry.
“But Karen was happy,” Rubelh said. “She became happy when there were a lot of people attending. She became happy if there was a good discussion.”
When Karen went on for her research work in Bulacan, it was the same story. “She was always happy despite the discomfort,” Rubelh recalled. “She was satisfied simply knowing she had served.”
Last Saturday, July 22, marked the 34th birthday of Karen, who remains missing to this day. Ka Oca and Ka Bot invited over close friends and family.
Ka Oca roasted some turkey slaughtered from his own flock. Ka Bot, whose birthday was the following day, welcomed well-wishers despite preparing to go to Manila for the President’s State of the Nation Address—intending to link her own voice with those of the peasants and the urban poor who would express their appeals to the government.
And in their modest house in our home village of Santa Rita in the town of Masinloc, Karen’s likeness occupies a place of honor on the living-room shelf, the same way she occupies a special place in the hearts of those who knew her.
Top photo: Karen’s handwriting on a page of her scrapbook