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He began joining protests when he was 13. Today, he warns against revisionism

By Tanya Lara Published Feb 25, 2021 1:00 am Updated Feb 26, 2021 10:17 am

If they had Twitter back in 1984, this black-and-white photo of a boy would have gone viral. He was 13 years old when the picture was taken.

It shows him lighting a candle from the flame of another candle, a look of concentration on his young face, part of a circle of people. There are other kids seated on the ground while the adults behind them are also watching the flickering light on this dark night.

It looks peaceful. It looks as if all’s well in the world for these children, for everyone. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t been for a long time.

That day, Sept. 20, 1984, Howell Vocal Felix from Cardona, Rizal skipped his sophomore high school classes to join a candle vigil on the eve of the 12th anniversary of martial law at Liwasang Bonifacio. It was a rally to remember the disappeared, the killed and tortured.

That day, photojournalist Kim Komenich was also at Liwasang Bonifacio, covering the martial law commemoration for The San Francisco Examiner.

Komenich snapped a photo of the boy.

Nuns leading the prayers in front of armed military men and tanks during the People Power Revolution, 1986. Photo by Pete Reyes 

Howell, now 50, tells PhilSTAR L!fe that his mom wouldn’t allow him to go that day in 1984 but he insisted. “We took the jeepney going to Manila with my elder neighbor and we slept in Luneta together with other protesters.

“I still remember when a foreign journalist took a photo of me and wrote down my name on his notebook. The next day, I joined the march towards Mendiola. Anti-riot police barricaded Mendiola bridge with hundreds of policemen and barb wires. We stayed overnight and never got hungry because of the food and water supplies given to us by students from nearby dormitories in the University Belt.”

The police dispersed the crowd with water canons and tear gas. Howell was in the third line of the crowd; front liners were Chino Roces, former Senator Jovito Salonga, Rene Saguisag and other prominent opposition leaders.

Two years later, in 1986, Komenich would return to Manila to cover the People Power revolution.

Howell, 16 by then, would again skip his classes and go to EDSA where he would protest against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos stealing the snap election from opposition leader Cory Aquino.

Already a multi-awarded photographer by the time he was covering the Philippine unrest that began when Ninoy Aquino was assassinted, Komenich in 1987 won the Pulitzer Prize in spot news photography for his coverage of the People Power Revolution in 1986.

More than three decades later, photographer and subject would remember that moment in 1984. Komenich because he had written “Owell Felix” on his notebook, and Howell because, well, you don’t get photographed by a Caucasian photojournalist every day—even if you’ve attended many protests at this point of your young life.

Not an inch of free space on the avenue where democracy was born again. Photo by Joey de Vera 

In 2010, Howell received a message from Komenich saying the photographer was in Manila working on a movie about the people he photographed when he was on assignment in the Philippines and that he was now a professor at San Jose State University in California.

“I photographed a 10-year-old boy who was lighting candles at a vigil—I think it was at Liwasang Bonifacio and he gave his name as ‘Owell Felix.’ I'm hoping he was and is you.”

It was he. But by this time, Howell was already living in Sacramento, California.

In 2016, Komenich released a 70-minute documentary film and companion book Revolution Revisited, in which he looks back at the peaceful revolution and the final days of the dictatorship. 

Howell grew up in Cardona, Rizal in a middle class family. The youngest among three siblings, his father passed away in 1980 of colon cancer. “All I remember was my dad worked as consultant at the Department of Agriculture Main Office during the Marcos administration together with his fraternity brother Salvador Escudero.

“Politics was never part of any discussion in the family. But I still remember that in the mid-70s, there was always a lot of people in our house having coffee and meeting with my dad. I discovered in the late ‘80s that my dad was a former vice mayor and a Liberal Party leader in our town. My mom never mentioned it to me for one reason or another.”

Howell Felix (left) at 13, in 1984, at the martial law commemoration in Liwasang Bonifacio. Photo by Kim Komenich/The San Francisco Examiner 

How did he get to be so political at such a young age? He was reading the newspapers his mother was selling in their sari-sari store. “At night time before bed, I would tune in to Radio Veritas and listening to the commentaries.”

Even as a child, he says, he knew “Marcos was a very bad leader and not a good example to the youth. With thousands of human rights violations, massive corruption and his wife’s extravagant shopping sprees abroad, they made the Filipino people were suffer in poverty and hunger—what a shame!”

Even though he was two years short of the voting age in 1986, he supported the opposition in his town and his family supported Cory. “Together with my kababayans, I was at the Cory-Doy proclamation in Liwasang Bonifacio and at the Laban ng Bayan Meeting de Avance in Luneta.”

On Feb. 22, when the military led by Gen. Fidel V. Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile defected to Cory, only Radio Veritas—its location then hidden—was broadcasting.

“When Cardinal Sin made an appeal to go to EDSA, my two elder sisters—both University of the Philippines students—were already there.”

Howell took a jeepney from Cardona to Cainta and from there he walked all the way to EDSA with his friends.

“We walked going to EDSA with thousands of people coming from Eastern Rizal to support the peaceful revolution. I was there for a couple of days with the joyous crowd. The atmosphere was that of a fiesta. Filipinos had no other motive but to end the tyranny of 20 years.”

Howell and wife Leila with their two children

Post-EDSA, Howell took up Business Management at San Sebastián College in Manila. In 1989, he joined politics in his hometown as barangay kagawad and finished three terms. In 1997 he was elected as the youngest barangay captain, and then municipal councilor of Cardona, Rizal under the Liberal Party.

In 1999, he migrated to the US and today continues to be involved in outreach missions to the Philippines through an NGO he founded in Sacramento, California.

Howell looks back at the photo Komenich snapped and the rush of memories and emotions is palpable.

He says, “Don’t believe the Marcos revisionism. We should learn from what happened in the past. Don’t believe fake news on social media—or everything we fought for would be in vain.”