In his father’s footsteps

The evening packed all the siblings inside the corners of their family TV room. Over the action and drama that flashed on the screen, the children awaited the sound of hurried footsteps on the staircase.

The distinct heavy thumps on the steps made their hearts race. Just like every night before, the sound made them jump on their feet and rush out the door with a chorus of greetings.
It only meant one thing: Their father was home.
“That was one of the very happy memories I have as a young boy,” Chel Diokno, who grew up with nine siblings, told alike. Their house on Roxas Boulevard was hardly ever quiet, and his mother often had to do a roll call before they went around places.

The siblings knew life as children of a senator. Chel understood early on how his father was being revered by everyone else—after all, his father was Jose W. Diokno, a man recognized by history for his courage, compassion, and integrity. “I grew up in awe of him, as a child he was like a demigod to me,” he shared.
The elder Diokno’s stature demanded respect. But it was his warmth and his words that were ingrained in Chel’s treasured memories. He fondly remembers how his parents treated them as equals; how they spoke to them as adults regardless of their age—it was their fundamental awakening to maturity, he said. It’s with this same openness to converse that Chel now enjoys a close bond with his own children.

Prodigy out of limbo

A statue of Ka Pepe stills stands at the compound of the commission he has led and founded. “I think part of the package was already that I would do the kind of lawyering that he was doing,” the 58-year-old human rights defender shared.

Chel was only 13 when he decided to study law. His decision to become a lawyer did not falter—he wasn’t some prodigy in limbo. The elder Diokno even took him to court appearances and made him observe how one prepared witnesses to testify. On other days, Chel was tasked to do research and read transcripts.

Their home welcomed all kinds of faces from all walks of life. After completely abandoning politics in 1974, Ka Pepe opened his doors to tribal groups, farmers, urban poor, and members of the religious sector. Diokno established the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) immediately after his unjust detention. The group gave free legal services to victims of martial rule and continues to balance the scales of justice for the marginalized today.

Another Diokno leads the organization today, but as a young lawyer Chel applied like any other member to gain a spot. He didn’t rely on his last name to get him anywhere, but he knew it was a son’s duty to live up to the memory of his father.

“I recall one of the very few pieces of advice he gave us. I was still very young at that time: Whatever it is that you choose to be, be the best you can,” Chel shared. “It’s not really about the result. In striving to be the best, that builds character; that forces you to push on the positive side of yourself, to appeal to your higher self.”
Continuing to build ‘A Nation for the Children’

The vision of the late statesman for his beloved country has not been realized 32 years after his death. If anything, that vision moves farther away from reality. Society has grown blinder to the injustices committed to fellow Filipinos, as those in power continue to inspire the triggermen and inspire silence when it comes to matters of sovereignty.
But the young generation continues to find hope and strength in the unbreakable courage of today’s rising figures. Chel Diokno is one of them.

“You have to speak the truth,” Chel said. “No matter what the external conditions are and even though it will be somewhat unpopular, you have to be true to yourself and to other people.”
Diokno put the call for justice at the core of his senatorial campaign. It wasn’t just a heed to the call of the times. It was an advocacy that already rests in his own center. While it is only the halls of the Senate that he has yet to follow the footsteps of his father into, the millions who have faith in him are allowed to continue dreaming up destinies.

Photos by Sean Xie for alike.

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