Who We Are

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I had my first draft for today’s article finished three days ago. I wanted to talk about freedom, a state that eludes most Filipinos more than 110 years ago in a sentimental declaration of independence that was immediately aborted before it was understood.

My view is that there is no freedom when most citizens are characterized by a lack of access to patrimony and to opportunity. The patrimony of Filipinos is wealth almost unimaginable in a country determined to be among the richest in bio-diversity. This includes an array of minerals that have made our earth a delight to foreign mining companies. Against this backdrop of abundance are millions of Filipinos grappling with hunger or its constant threat.

From natural abundance should flow open access as there is enough for all. Reality is quite harsh, though, as more than five million poor Filipino families cannot afford the smallest and barest decent houses. In contrast, a few exclusive villages in Metro Manila have land and homes valued high enough to eliminate homelessness in the Philippines. Truly, access to patrimony and opportunity is not a blessing of most Filipino citizens.

A weak people cannot influence good governance. With poverty at such a massive scale, it is but natural for corruption at approximate proportions to be its active partner. Good governance is not derived from the refinement that wealth brings. The elite had long been rich, long been powerful, but had chosen long ago as well to exploit the weaker majority instead of raising them up. Where, then, will good governance come from?

Just as I was finalizing my article, I received a copy of an email from a young Ateneo graduate, a Violet Lucasi, who wrote about a very recent experience building homes for the poor in Zamboanga. Violet describes herself as a pure-blooded native Balangao, an indigenous tribe listed under many categorized as Ifugaos. Her story is not a rare one among natives, the humiliation she suffered from mainstream Filipinos who look down and make fun of those coming from indigenous tribes. Violet said she had no reason to love her country, no reason to understand what nationalism means, no reason to appreciate how those like her are paraded and presented as cultural showcases with their costumes and all.

Yet, in five days, in the company of a team of Ateneo students, in a bigger company of fifty other teams from all over the country all converged for one noble purpose, Violet discovered a kinship with people, cause and environment that transcended prejudice and resentment. She witnessed and experienced generosity and nobility born of compassion for those left behind and the determination of many to be heroes for the poor.

It was not just about the collapsing walls of rich and poor, it was also a rare display of fraternity between those of different regions and different religions. From so far North, Violet was down South in Zamboanga. From her Ifugao roots, she was relating to Muslims. And while she was deep in reflection at a strange convergence in the largest relocation site of Zamboanga City, another two hundred volunteer builders and Marines who built with them in Sulu arrived to the cheers of an appreciative people. The largest contingent of civilian Christians had landed in Sulu, built homes for the poor among their Tausug brothers, and now merging with the bigger body of builder heroes in Zamboanga.

The sum total of her week-long experience fused in one holy moment and Violet found herself on her knees, connected at last with pride as a daughter of the motherland, joyful tears flowing down her cheeks as she released her pain and accepted her mission as a Filipino. She broke the chains that enslaved her to a painful past and faces the challenge that confronts all our youth – to build a nation they can be proud of.

Violet is free, but tens of millions more are not. Violet found her freedom not by being a beneficiary of good governance but in the exercise of being a good citizen. Violet is but one, yet her path is an arrow of light pointing to a pathway leading to freedom.

A weak people invite bad governance. A strong citizenry guarantees good governance. This formula is simple. Yet, so many cannot understand it, or are not willing to understand. For sixty years, we have tried to promote good governance to an audience which has no intention of governing. For sixty years, our politics have neglected the necessity of teaching and promoting good citizenship. It is not difficult to anticipate that citizens who contribute more than ask favors from their elected and appointed leaders will demand performance and good governance. Why, then, will those who seek power push good citizenship when pushing a good governance cause, by its impossibility in a democracy wallowing in poverty and corruption, keeps the power centrally among  those who govern?

The story of Violet and her friends from a premier university in Metro Manila building in a relocation site in faraway Zamboanga shows that compassion and nobility combined with hard work and sacrifice is a noble posture that opens operational gridlocks and melts hostility among sons and daughters of one motherland. They did not wait for elections; they never even thought of them. Yet, for sure, they added solid blocks in our collective effort to build our nation.

Voting wisely is a challenge. Oftentimes, however, a choice between bad and worse leave no room for wisdom. And the presentation of alternatives without proven records of effective leadership and a consistent history of putting the interests of poor, the weak, the old and the innocent ahead of self, family and friends does not lessen the odds against weak or bad governance.

But the greater challenge is to be a good and contributing citizen of the Philippines. It is in our citizenship that we invest in what we can do rather than what our leaders can do. The good traits that we seek in leaders that ultimately allow us to vote for the good among them are the same traits that we are asked, as good citizens of our country and faithful members of our respective religions, to develop in ourselves. It is less about who the candidates are and more about who we are.

(E-Mail jlmglimpses@gmail.com)

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