Whisper That to the Wind: An Interview with Alejandro “Bundo” Deoma
by Norberto Roldan

Norberto “Peewee” Roldan (NR): Were you not one of the founders of Teatro Obrero? As a cultural worker in Negros since the early 1980s, can you share how and why Teatro Obrero was founded, what was your involvement in it, and what were its objectives?

Alejandro “Bundo” Deoma (AD):
The answer is yes and no. To be more specific, I was part of the team from the church sector that was deployed to the sector of workers engaged in trade union work in the sugar industry. Our team was tasked to help in the formation of a sector-based cultural group, to work hand-in-hand with the youth organization Kahublagan sang Kabataan sang Mamumugon sa Negros (KKMN).

The formation of a trade union-based cultural group was prompted by lessons and experiences learned during the workers’ strike at Azucarera de La Carlota in the early ‘80s.1 The music group Tubig was initially organized, later transforming into Teatro Obrero on 7 April 1984 as a way to organize the youth and to develop a community theater as a platform for expressing and portraying the sentiments and plight of the ordinary people. Most of its original members were sons and daughters of sugar farm and mill workers. Teatro Obrero became the cultural arm of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and joined the Negros Theater League (NTL) as an independent unit. NTL was the theater section of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines - Negros (CAP-Negros).

I remember that in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, the community-based theater movement in the Philippines was quite strong with the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) as the lead institution.2 PETA organized and directed the first Makiisa: Festival of Peoples’ Culture at the Rajah Sulayman Theater in Manila in 1983. Did Teatro Obrero participate in the festival? Were you there?

Teatro Obrero was not represented in the first Makiisa festival, but I was there as part of Teatro Pangkatilingban, a church-based cultural group under the program of the Diocese of Bacolod through its mandated organizations managed by the Diocesan Youth Commission (DYC). Alongside the DYC, I remember that the church-run Social Action Center (SAC) was equally active in promoting the welfare of the sugar workers. Bishop Antonio Y. Fortich, the head prelate of the Diocese then, was very popular as a social activist and for his Liberation Theology advocacy or the “preferential option for the poor,” a teaching of the church popularized by Christian democratic movements in Latin America during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I also recall that the Black Tent Theatre of Japan participated in the first Makiisa festival.3 Can you recall your encounter with the Japanese participants, if you have any?

Yes, I had experienced engaging with some members of the Black Tent Theatre during the festival at the Rajah Sulayman Theater but I cannot recall their names and the specific activities anymore. However, the Japanese group Haguruma-za came to Negros to immerse in Teatro Obrero’s communities and they collaborated with us in some theater productions.4 I can recall the musical-drama Ihutik Mo sa Hangin (Whisper That to the Wind), an anti-militarization and anti-dictatorship production which featured Japanese participants. This was presented in the Lupit Cultural Center in Bacolod City in 1983.

In 1984, the second Makiisa: Festival of Peoples’ Culture was organized by the CAP-Negros in cooperation with PETA in Bacolod. By this time, the Negros Theater League (NTL) was already established as an umbrella organization of community theater organizations in Negros. Japanese artists also participated in this festival. Can you recall any collaboration between NTL or Teatro Obrero with the Japanese?

There were co-productions and collaborations between NTL, PETA, and the Japanese participants during the festival in Bacolod, but I can’t recall the details anymore. During this time, I was already assigned to the NFSW - International Solidarity Work (ISW) Desk, so I was meeting and coordinating not only with the Japanese but also with other foreign cultural organizations. Aside from Black Tent and Haguruma-za of Japan, there were cultural groups from the Solomon Islands, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Indonesia.

You have mentioned previously to me during our chat that Teatro Obrero and Haguruma-za had collaborated on some theater productions. Can you share how this connection and working dynamics was established?

The collaboration between Teatro Obrero and Haguruma-za was a product of the ISW of NFSW in 1986. The highlight of this production was a series of presentations in organized areas in the Near North and Central Negros, where three members of Teatro Obrero were killed by a Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU) squad in Hacienda Azcuna in the town of Murcia.5 

Haguruma-za translated some Bisaya and Tagalog songs into Japanese which were performed in front of sugar and mill workers during community gatherings. The most popular piece was the song Ginpili nga Banas (The Chosen Path) which was sung by Haguruma-za and Teatro Obrero in Nihongo and Bisaya, respectively.

The same production approach was done in their performances in Southern and Oriental Negros during the height of then-President Corazon Aquino’s anti-insurgency campaign wherein the phenomenon of internal refugees became a big issue.

What was your personal experience working with Japanese colleagues and friends?

Working for the NFSW-ISW Desk gave me opportunities to interact and engage with international cultural and development organizations and workers. But working with Haguruma-za was my most rewarding and fruitful experience.

1 “Central Azucarera de La Carlota, Inc. traces its history to 1916 when it was estrablished by the Elizalde and Ynchausti families at Hacienda Esperanza in La Carlota, Negros Occidental at the south base of Mt. Kanlaon.” For more information on the Central Azucarera de La Carlota: lacarlotasugarcentral.wordpress.com/about/. For more information on Teatro Obrero: cambridge.org/core/journals/theatre-research-international/article/abs/sugar-overflows-and-teatro-obreros-escalante-story/1CB54FD49251BAA0B2F19DC8A91E91C8.
2 “Cecile Guidote-Alvarez founded the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) on April 7, 1967 with the vision of a Philippine Theater engaged in the development of people and society.” For more information on PETA: petatheater.com/.
3 For more information on Black Tent Theatre: core.ac.uk/download/pdf/48651369.pdf.
4 For more information on Haguruma-za: haguruma-za.sakura.ne.jp/.
5 “The CAFGU are designed to take the place of the Civilian Home Defense Forces (CHDF), organized in 1967 under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos. Poorly supervised, and frequently employed as private ‘armies" of wealthy businessmen, estate owners, and local political tycoons, the CHDF acquired an odious reputation because of its human rights abuses.” For more information on the CAFGU: crossasia-journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/iaf/article/view/1767.
On 22 November 1990, Teatro Obrero members Aguinaldo Marfil, Ferdinand Pelaro, Reynaldo de la Fuente were killed by a "privately supported CAFGU squad". For more information: latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-12-20-mn-9380-story.html. 

This interview was conducted via Messenger in November 2021. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Alejandro “Bundo” Deoma started his cultural work as a member of the parish-based theater group Teatro Pangkatilingban, and was a founding member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines - Negros (CAP-Negros). He was involved in the development of the youth sector music group Tubig into Teatro Obrero in 1984 and became its Chair for four years and artistic director for two decades. He has organized Teatro Obrero’s reenactment of the Escalante Massacre from 1986 to 2017 and he was the festival director of the 31st Escalante Massacre Commemoration in 2016. He was a volunteer/artist for the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) from 1987 to 1988 after having graduated from PETA’s Broadcast and Film Teleplay Writing Workshop. He was also a trainer/facilitator for BANAAG Center for the Popularization of Visayan People’s Culture for three years. Deoma worked for the National Federation of Sugar Workers - International Solidarity Work Desk (NFSW-ISW Desk) as liaison for foreign cultural organizations. He is presently an Adviser on Special Concerns to the City of Himamaylan in Negros Occidental where he assists the local government in cultural mapping, leading to the establishment of the Himamaylan City Arts Council among his other tasks.

Tim Alipalo is a former member of the Correspondents, Broadcasters and Reporters Association - Action News Services (COBRA-ANS) based in Bacolod City. COBRA-ANS was part of the “mosquito press” that fought against government misinformation during the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Tim has covered many political events in Negros Occidental since the early 1980s up to the ‘90s as a stringer for Reuters (1988-1994). In 1994, Tim joined Associated Press (AP) as part of the original team that launched AP’s Television Bureau in Manila. Tim and his journalist wife founded Sugar Mountain Media in 2005 as independent development communications specialists. In 2017, Tim migrated to the US and has since been doing freelance work for AP.