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RIVERMAN’S VISTA: Mario Talja, Super Friend and Comrade

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 12 August) – Forty days have passed since Mario Talja — comrade in the fight for planet and people, colleague in the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC), student leader and activist of Xavier University, advocate and supporter of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, true Mindanawon and native Cagayanon, good and loyal friend, and husband, father, brother, and son — passed suddenly and irrevocably to a new life.

I waited this long to finish and publish this tribute because grief, even when it never leaves you, can become more meaningful as time passes. I also thought that I needed forty days to remember more about Mario and our thirty year friendship, only to realize that forty days, in fact forty years, would not be enough to recall even half of those memories.

I write it on behalf and borrow words from colleagues in the LRC community of practice and friendship.

I offer it to Mario’s family and to everyone in Mindanao, the Philippines, and the world who love and miss our Super Mario.

This is especially for Inna and Ally, Mario’s daughters, so they will know what their father was doing in their younger days in Davao when Mario would go on long trips in the field working with Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

The news last July 4 came very suddenly. Our colleague Judy Pasimio posted it in Facebook:

“Today, we learned of the tragic, sad news of Mario Talja passing on. We are in tears and will be for a long time. Mario is a colleague, friend, comrade, from LRC days, and well beyond. Mario was one of the first, if not, the first paralegal staff of LRC, to the four founding lawyers – Marvic Leonen, Gus Gatmaytan, Nonette Royo and Tony La Viña. Mario set the bar of what it was to be a good LRC paralegal – committed, knew his politics, and those of the communities, his geography, his ethics. He has formed deep lasting relationships with LRC partners. He was serious yet funny; he was quiet, yet you could spend talking the night away; he could be shy, but once you have the jingle songbook in front of him, with his guitar, he would sing his heart away, and yes, he sang very well. No videoke then – just jingle and guitar. It was Mario who set up the LRC Davao Office in 1992. Indeed, Mario was one of the pillars of LRC. We are sad, Mar, very sad.”

I was in Songdo, South Korea for a climate change meeting when I heard what happened – the accident in Agusan that took Mario away from us. At first, I was numb and in denial. But after one day, when I was able to process what had happened, I found myself grieving and crying for hours – one whole night in fact. The tears were not just for Mario but for his family – for his wife Gina and daughters Inna and Ally – and for all of us in the communities of practice and friendship that Mario was part of – LRC, Indigenous Peoples, environment, and Mindanao civil society community – that had lost a comrade and friend. That one night I listened many times to different versions of Queen’s Love of My Life, the ultimate lamentation song when you lose someone you love.

Indeed, Mario was well-loved by those who worked with him for decades.

From Washington DC where she is now based, our LRC colleague Ateng Ballesteros recalls:

“My most memorable time with Mario is during the arduous yet inspiring fight to save Mt Apo from large scale energy development in the early to mid 1990s. As a paralegal, as campaigner, as advocate and as community organizer working with Lumad leaders he taught me soooooo much. He was my treasured ‘field’ buddy, given the two to three momentous LRC climbs to Mt Apo with Marvic, Gus and the whole team to protest and declare the sanctity of the National Park as ancestral home to indigenous communities LRC was working with. PNOC to date (now EDC) credits the long and evidence based legal and campaign fight led by LRC against the Mt. Apo geothermal development plant as the most difficult experience they faced dealing with IPs and NGOs. This means we gave them hell! And Mario was a huge part of that fight and many other campaigns we got involved together in my many years at LRC. He was a brother to me, our musician on call, and a great listener to work and life challenges. He is family to me. I will miss him dearly.”

The Lumad Mindanawon People’s Federation also praised Mario for his roe lint eh Mt. Apo flight. “Kauban si Mario nga nibarug sa pagkasagrado sa Apu Sandawa/Mt. Apo. Dili lang siya basta advocate kung dili kauban sa Katawhang Lumad through thick and thin struggling of identity, land and self-determination.” (“Mario was with us in our fight for the sacredness of Apo Sandawa/Mt. Apo. He was not just an advocate but a comrade, accompanying us through thick and thin in our struggle for identity, land, and self-determination.”

Mae Ocampo, also from LRC and now based in the Netherlands, remember the gift of song Mario gave us:

“Rest in power dear Mario J B Talja. You will always remain in my heart, Mar. I’ll never forget your quiet yet solid presence and the advises you gave me as a young learning activist (including your ‘kanchaws” (teasing) as I slipped on rice paddies visiting communities). Back during our LRC days, you always gave me gentle encouragement when I felt down and confused and always whipped your guitar and would say “ikanta muna natin yan tapos i-proseso natin” (let’s just sing about it first then lets process it). PADAYON, MAR!”

Another colleague France Begonia, now a Regional Trial Judge, shared a similar tribute:

“I wish I knew you more, wished I did more to crack that shield of yours that kept you close, but not too close to the people who worked with you, people who loved and cherished you more than you could ever know or words could ever convey. You were my rock in those field visits in the farthest and different parts of communities where injustice and hunger festered. You were always reassuring, towering, brotherly presence. You knew instinctively how and when to dissipate tension, how to steer a conversation

back to calm waters. I regret that I wasn’t there for you in your tribulations. I regret that for the most part, you my dear friend overtime became a distant memory. I regret I did not keep in touch over the years and gave you friendship and comfort the same way you did many years ago. I remember you as one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever had the luck of meeting in this life. I thank the Lord for your life. For you service to those who needed it most, for your music, for your jokes. When the going got tough, you never whimpered or complained or shouted back. You just kept to yourself and kept on going. Farewell, Mar. You are and will always be loved by the people you leave in tears now with your passing.”

Last August 4 was Mario’s 53rd birthday. Judy posted this: “I remember you today, with sadness, fondness and with a grateful heart that we met each other, climbed Mt Apo together, got jntroduced to habal habal and skylab through you, learned and unlearned things about community work from you, and remained friends with you despite distance and time.”

In Cagayan de Oro and in Manila, when he died, the friends of Mario gathered, in grief and gratitude, to console each other, to sing and remember, and say goodbye and pay tribute to him.

We thanked Mario for his fortitude, leadership, calmness, music, helpfulness, protectiveness, and above all his friendship. Mario was as stoic and as grim and determined as activists often are but he had a soft heart and empathy. Actually the perfect Cagayan de Oro word for Mario’s greatest strength would be “pag-amping” – the ability to take care of others, to nurture, to safeguard and protect, and accompany the people he loved. Behind the stoicism and calm demeanor, Mario was a caring person. He cared for the communities he served, for the island and country he loved, for his wife and daughters, his brothers and family, his extended family, indeed for all of us.

I had a special relationship with Mario, being both from Cagayan de Oro, sharing a link with his in-laws the Royos, being his and Gina’s ninong in marriage, and working with him in LRC for almost a decade.

Two years ago, he came to me and my wife Titay to ask for help and guidance. We had a long conversation about forgiveness: how to forgive yourself for your faults and mistakes, for your selfishness and limitations; how to forgive the people you love when they have hurt you, even for things you thought you would not be able to forgive them; and how to ask for forgiveness from the people you love because for sure you have hurt them even without knowing.

Mario’s sister in law Nonette said it best for all of us:

”We have known Mario in his many roles, as a friend, a co worker, a leader, a brother, a Tito, a protector, a husband, a doting father to two amazing daughters, a sparring partner who was always very sure of himself, a confidant, a health adviser, a listener, a singer, duet partner with the right pitch and ready chords, a biker to hitch us through Cagayan traffic, and many more. Like most of us, he played these life roles with light hearted dedication, riding through a lot of trials and errors, learning from them. I have seen how Mario walked the path he chose, with openness and readiness to try. I have witnessed his energy, persistence, courage and patience. Through the highs and lows of his life’s journey, we participated in various ways.

We want to complain bitterly about why he had to leave us so suddenly, We cry at the gaping hole he left in our hearts. But in God’s time, he is called, to remind us to choose Love. Love that transforms us into that someone we desire.

Love that is not just for self, but expands to everyone, and everything.

Love. That is the best, the only way to summarize the life of Mario JB Talja. His love for our common city Cagayan de Oro, for our great and troubled island of Mindanao, for Pilipinas nating mahal (Our beloved Philippines) for Indigenous Peoples and the poor, for us his friends and comrades, for his brothers and their families who loved him fiercely, for Gina, Inna, and Ally who were always at the center of a heart that was always brimming over with love.

Last January 1, 2019, to welcome the New Year, Mario posted this meme in his Facebook timeline: ”I am walking into 2019 with a clear heart and mind.

If you owe me, don’t worry about it. If you wronged me, its all good, lesson learned. If you’re angry with me, you won – I’ve let it go. If we aren’t speaking, its cool – I truly wish you well. If you feel I’ve wronged you, I apologize it wasn’t intentional. I’m grateful for every experience I learned. Life is too short for pent up anger, holding grudges, and extra stress and pain. Here’s to 2019!!! Remember forgiving someone is for you so don’t block your blessings. May 2019 be a year of possibility and a season of forgiveness”

Mario posted this without knowing it was a goodbye letter to all of us. I certainly did not know. I had always thought, being from the same city, Mario and I will be crossing paths again.

Mario and those of us who worked with him have seen challenging times; indeed we have lived dangerous lives fighting for human rights, protection of envrionment, and for justice and democracy. Those were good years – when we were young and poor but idealistic, burning with love for the poor and the country, and full of hope. In those years of struggle, we sang Joey Ayala’s Walang Hanggang Pamamaalam, a haunting love song if there is one, a lot because we were never sure when and even if we will see each other again.

Ironically now that we are older, I thought we would always see each other more often – having the time and the means now. But maybe we will. Certainly for me, the friendship with Gina and now with Inna and Ally will continue. After all, as we sang together during the LRC parangal (tribute) to Mario: “Ang pagibig natin ay walang hanggang paalam, at habang magkalayo papalapit pa rin ang puso; kahit na magkahiwalay, tayo ay magkasama sa magkabilang dulo ng mundo.”

Pag-amping ug daghan salamat, God bless, Mario, super friend and comrade.

(Antonio “Tony” La Viña of Cagayan de Oro City is former Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He teaches Constitutional law in Law schools in Manila and Mindanao)


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