From Under This Hat: I am an activist


(On this issue, we accommodate Sherry Mae Soledad’s article, a first person account of the widespread reality under the 16 month old dispensation of the present president of the Philippines.)

A turning point at 16

My turning point was when I was 16 years old, during my first year in the university. One of my professors required us to visit and write an article about the plight of the workers in a mushroom farm company who were on strike. I went there as a Journalism student who only wanted to fulfill an academic requirement.

Inspite of the high mark that I received for that article, I knew that I failed to capture the heart of those stories and the deep impact they had left on me. I could remember myself being emotional when the workers told us about how the management intentionally wanted to deceive them.

The actual wage they were receiving amounted to less than 50 pesos a day, while they would be required to sign another payslip which stated they received higher than the minimum wage. To keep up with the expenses of the family, women and children were pushed to work for the company but not as regular workers. They had to harvest mushrooms between 12 midnight up to 3 in the morning, during the coldest hours that goes to as low as 7 degrees celsius, only to receive 25 centavos for every good piece they had gathered.

I could not turn a blind eye to that cruelty and greed. Those stories of how the families of each worker in that company struggled hard were etched in mind as the sickening truth of social inequalities unfolded before me. That day, I left the mushroom farm I was not only a university student, I also became a student of the people’s struggle.

Student of the people’s struggle

Being a student of the peoples’ struggle meant becoming involved in it. I decided to give one important thing in trying to become a good one—my commitment. I joined a cultural group that primarily uses theatre arts to convey the stories of peoples’ lives and struggles. It was our vehicle in organizing fellow youth and students to join the peoples’ movement fighting for students’ and people’s rights and welfare.

It meant spending extra hours after our regular classes to achieve two things: painstakingly learn about social realities, and tirelessly improve our craft as performers. To be effective in that field, we intended to learn it directly from the authors and players of “the real life” —the masses. We spent days and nights in the communities to discuss and live with them, and to deepen our understanding of their situation more than we could ever have from mere lectures in the university.

Whenever we left each community, we knew those individual stories were something we could not allow to pass untold. It was then our duty to share it to a broader audience to make them aware of the unheard and silenced realities, of both sickening stories of inequalities and inspiring accounts of collective struggle. More importantly, it was our task to bring back these stories to the masses as it was theirs to own and to fight for; and in turn, gain a growing number of people joining them thus making them ever stronger.

At this stage, I would say that the stories of collective struggles that left a great impact on me were those of Ibaloi communities’ against San Roque Dam construction and the Benguet Corporation’s mines. The indigenous peoples’ fight to defend their rights to self-determination and ancestral domain opened up another level of deeper understanding of a greater problem than what I had first learned in the mushroom farm.

Those were struggles that showed me a more concrete picture of how systemic the problems in Philippine society are. It made me realize how more arduous and greater the struggles await us to achieve the basic changes we want in this wretched system.

An intense realization

I continued in organizing work. I did not stop living with the people in the communities. I did not stop sharing with them the historical roots of the problems we now experience, and the radical solutions these require to eradicate them. In doing so, I was able to recognize how little knowledge I have had all those years of being ‘educated’.

This realization was intense. The problems are more complex, far more intricate than what I knew. I could recite problems of landlessness, high usury rates, land grabbing, high prices of agricultural inputs and so on. But I lacked in understanding the nuances and the narratives of the cruelty these problems that have stripped off the dignity of our nation’s largest population—the peasants.

In the next years that followed, what started as a commitment to become a good student of peoples’ struggle inevitably turned into a conviction to learn and do more about it.

A conviction to learn and do more

I engaged myself in helping poor communities and peoples organizations to mobilize political support from different organizations and institutions. I got involved in a non-government organization assisting poor farming and indigenous peoples communities in Northern Luzon. What our work meant to us is to build and strengthen capacities of the people to assert their fundamental rights.

It means to build awareness of the social issues they face. This lays down the basis for people to learn or know why they have to be organized and build the unity in their communities. That unity is their strength for collective actions to gain more concrete and immediate returns be it political, cultural or socio-economic rights. We learn and struggle together to increase food production in peasant communities. Whatever help we get to assist them build their community’s socio-economic projects like potable water systems, communal irrigation, or rice and corn mill and so on, are productive gains and treasured victories of their collective efforts.

I have witnessed how communities who thought they were so helpless turn into being the most determined at protecting their lands, livelihood and resources. Communities who knew what was rightfully theirs and were determined to demand from government the social services and benefits they so deserved. I have seen how they transformed from just understanding the issues of their respective communities to becoming involved in broader issues of the country. #

Continued next week


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