Saturday, December 5, 2009

Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes?: Why I Speak


My love affair with politics was a pre-ordained destiny chosen for me by well-meaning relatives on my momma's side of the family. It began as their hope--hope for the continuation of a family legacy--which became mine the second they recognized in me an aptitude for words and a so-called commanding presence in public speaking. So they nurtured a potential that was more evident to them than it was to me, and in this nurturing the seed of gradual transference of dreams and passions slowly began to take root. 

Out of all his grandchildren, my grandfather chose me as his successor--the one who would strengthen the political dynasty he wasn't quite finished building when partial paralysis robbed him of his powerful oratory skills. Whenever my parents and I would visit, I'd be summoned by my grandfather to talk. Over drags of cigarettes and sips of coffee, he would talk to me about game theory, political posturing, diplomacy, candidacy...

I was only six years old. 

I thought such grandfather-granddaughter dynamic was normal, until the day I realized that with my other cousins, he discussed the importance of obedience to one's elders and which countries produced superior chocolates. Whenever he asked them about school, it was always in the framework of whether or not they made new friends or what they had for lunch, or what they learned. 

So I asked my momma and grandmother why he didn't see me as a child, and in hushed voices, they told me that my marked difference was a privilege. It was an honour for such a learned man to groom me to be his equal. His staggering brilliance and titanic legacy would be passed on to me. Even at a young age, I understood the weight of this inheritance, but to my momma and grandmother, it was a pair of coveted wings; a privilege my grandfather did not deem them worthy of.  

"You are an American," they proudly said, "and you have the chance to fulfill your potential. You can marry a powerful politician and together, you will be stronger. You are lucky." 

And so there it was, laid bare: American privilege. My citizenship was simultaneously a beacon of hope--the triumph of my colonized ancestors--and the invictus sword of elitist masters who colonized. At such a young age, I became keenly aware that I lived in the borderlands. In these amalgam lands, I began to understand the importance of examining the little details that people overlook, and to listen to every story regardless of how many times I heard similar ones. 

They didn't count on my American-ness to be flawed. My constitutionally-protected American freedom of expression gives me the luxury to be able to question the validity of everything and to seek truth far deeper than what is seen by the naked eye. My American outspokenness allows me to speak my mind, regardless of whether or not the world agrees with me. My American sense of human rights advocacy made me value humanity, truth, and justice over political posturing and saving face. My American sense of identity values my ancestors' cultures, languages and traditions--fights for their preservation and revitalization--but refuses to follow blindly to legacies without first exploring the unknown. 


My momma's side of the family remains, to this day, Marcos loyalists and apologists. I grew up believing that Macoy and La Imierda were the saintly saviours and heroes of the Philippines. I grew up defending Imierda's vast shoe collection and extravagant parties as small repayments for a great service to the country. Martial Law, as explained by my grandparents, was good. Because of the vigilance of the Marcos administration, the Philippine military, and the Philippine police, criminals were forced to confront the error of their ways and learned to suppress their "evil urges." Those who were defiant were quickly arrested and brought to justice. The Marcos era was a proud, prosperous time in the Philippines, wherein a Third World country held the esteemed audience of the First World nations it wanted to become. 

But that was their truth, not my own.

I found the missing pieces to the story of the Pilipino people years later, long after the dictator perished in shameful exile. I, who have Pilipino blood coursing through my veins, learned about the history of the Pinoys as a high school student in Hawai'i, from Pinoy political refugees. "What do you mean there are Pinoy political refugees? I thought only Vietnamese, Cambodians, Cubans, Eastern Europeans, and Africans were political refugees." I asked the old, one-armed man who lived at the nursing home where I volunteered. And in his hoarse, heavy-accented voice, Manong Isko told me his story. 

He was a priest who dared to speak out for a nun who was brutally raped  and left for dead by several members of the Pilipino military. She was found buried underneath rotted garbage in Smoky Mountain with her  dark blue skirt bunched around her waist and her Rosary beads hanging out of her skirt pockets. Manong Isko wanted me to know that her name was Sr. Maria Cecelia--birth name Clarita--and she was a 30-year-old woman who loved to cook sinigang na hipon and play the bandurria. Sr. Maria Cecelia was a beautiful Spanish mestiza, which was probably why these rapists targeted her, disregarding the fact that this young woman made purity vows to serve God. He was their God, too, supposedly. Yet in times when man shows his darkest shadows, it is difficult to reconcile this duality. Manong Isko--who was Brother Franciso in another life--raged. He went into Camp Crame to file a complaint and refused to leave until they listened; for this insubordination, he was taken into an interrogation room. Details of what happened next, Manong Isko did not want to elaborate to a 14-year-old, but the tears in his eyes and the tremor that shook the stump that used to be his right arm told the whole story. He remains in Camp Crame still.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, I ask? Who will guard the guards? 

The Marcos government regime enacted a campaign of terror, abuse, fear, and silence against its own citizens. The rapes, robbery, murders, and terror were not absent; they were just swept away and spoken about in soft whispers and averted eyes. It didn't happen to us, so there's no need to get involved became the collective credo. For the elite bystanders, there was no need to make ripples in the water lest they get drowned in the tsunami of retribution. My family was unharmed and retained our properties and social standing because Marcos was an ally. My family never had to worry about receiving phone calls in the middle of the night, telling us about an unfortunate accident that claimed the life of a beloved. Born into a working-class family, La Imierda and her Macoy sought validation and acceptance from old money alta sociedades, to further assert their righteousness and worth in the international arena of must-haves. In turn, alta sociedades wanted to retain their power, fearful of descending into the dreaded masses. Quid pro quo. Silence and indifference was acquiescence, and for the privilege of being untouchable, the price was humanity. It was the country, as a whole, that paid the price. 

I know now that there are some people who sit in their thrones not because of their power, but because they relinquished it. Power is subjective, and for some, the price of a throne, privilege, or elitism is the abandonment of their freedom and individuality. Power, for some, is worth the price of what it means to be human. 

My activism and outspokenness as a twenty-something is shaped by a six-year-old me who was told I would one day take over my grandfather's legacy. Despite his brilliance and his success, and despite the fact that I love him deeply, I refuse to be like him. The bystander mentality may be ingrained into my upbringing, but in my heart and in my soul, humanity is far deeply rooted.

And so I speak. Even if my voice shakes, I speak. 

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We must never permit the voice of humanity
within us to be silenced. It is Man's sympathy with all creatures that first makes him a Man.

--Albert Schweitzer

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

--Viktor E. Frankl