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PASSION FOR MISSION: Out of the mouths of babes and infants

mindaviews passion for mission

A tremor was felt in Davao City on May 6, 2023. Although the tremor was seemingly insignificant, the aftershocks shook people in the Visayas, Luzon and beyond. Religious men and women were shook and pondered on their privileged position in society. Tagakolu youth were moved and vowed not to give up on their studies despite the odds in life being stacked against them. There were those who were touched and extended a helping hand to the Tagakolu youth. There were a few, however, who may have shuddered, scrambling to hold on to what little sense of morality they had lest they fall flat on their faces. Aftershocks continue to be felt by numerous people days after the tremor.

The epicenter of the tremor was a young woman named Gwyneth Marie Vasquez. She is a jolly and fun person but little did I know that she had super powers! Kidding aside, she delivered an earthshaking valedictory speech on their graduation day at the Ateneo de Davao University that touched many people and exposed  the hollow foundations on which the powerful were standing (https://mindanews.com/mindaviews/2023/05/valedictory-speech-the-discomforts-of-privilege/#). The speech did not call for unity; it spoke humbly of truth, accountability and honesty.

In her speech, she compared her situation to that of Weweng, her Tagakolu friend in Sitio Matamis.

“She hails from a historically marginalized Tagakolu community that continues to be neglected by the state, and deprived of services that it is supposed to offer its citizens. Her parents have not had any form of mainstream education, and during the time of my fieldwork, they were wage laborers in a land their ancestors used to own and till. I fondly remember strolling through Sitio Matamis with Weweng and the other Tagakolu girls. In a ‘remote’ community with poor infrastructure and intermittent access even to electricity, our main pastime, aside from browsing the internet, was either river-watching or visiting our neighbors. Weweng would then take her leave earlier than most of us because she needed to cook dinner for her parents and siblings. Sometimes she would also help her parents labor in the corn fields. Imagine her now attending to all these responsibilities while being a senior high school student and a volunteer catechist at the Malita Tagakolu Mission…

“Weweng and many others like her do not lack ‘pagpaningkamot.’ I have seen that they are just as hardworking as any of us here has been or will ever be. The problem is not Weweng not yet working hard enough or Weweng not too focused enough on her goals. Rather, the problem lies in a society and its institutions that continue to exclude and oppress, that makes it even more difficult for someone of Lumad ancestry to overcome barriers and succeed like the rest of us.”

One of the many roads in the mountains of Malita leading to Tagakolu communities that Tagakolu farmers use to transport their produce and travel on to reach the town center. Fr. Primo Fagel, Jr., MJ (left) is helping another motorcycle driver get out of the mud in this October 2020 photo. Photo by FR. JOEY GANIO EVANGELISTA

The great majority who had come across either her speech or the TikTok video of it online were moved and felt the call to change our society for the better. There were a few, however, who, all of a sudden, felt vulnerable, her words having found a chink in their armor. It would be scary indeed if the protection you had built around you through decades of deceit and abuse would suddenly be exposed for all the world to see by the mere words of a young woman who had just finished her college education. It somehow brings to mind the words of the Psalmist, “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).”  

After her speech, powerful people and government institutions suddenly wanted to get in touch with her. It would have been flattering if they had used the official channels to do so but they did not. A simple and formal letter from their offices was all that was needed being people in government and yet they did so clandestinely. You would not resort to such tactics if you had no ill intentions, would you?

Not only that, a few days after the speech the Province of Davao Occidental issued an Executive Order No. 8, series of 2023 on May 12, 2023, signed by Governor Atty. Franklin P. Bautista of Davao Occidental entitled “An order regulating the entry of organized groups in the province of Davao Occidental without proper coordination of respective local officials.” It may seem innocuous to someone who does not know the province well but Bro. Karl Gaspar, CSsR points out in his MindaNews column The Sojourner’s View the likelihood of a connection between the EO and the speech (https://mindanews.com/mindaviews/2023/05/a-sojourners-view-to-speak-truth-to-power-in-an-age-of-a-power-laden-social-media/). The reason behind the EO is the alleged protection of the Indigenous Peoples and their culture.

In an ideal world this would have been laudable. I had lived among the Tagakolu in the mountains of Malita, Davao Occidental for twelve years. I had seen and had lived the reality that the Tagakolu go through each and every day. I must say that I find the EO not only laughable but an unreasonable stretch of the imagination. The Tagakolu do not need protection from the outsiders the EO vaguely specifies, rather, they need protection from the very people and institutions who had been mandated by law to protect them but who instead viciously perpetuate the marginalization of the Tagakolu people to their benefit.

There is a litany of abuses against the Tagakolu by the powers that be of the province that violate the very law on which the EO purports to found itself: their encroachment into the ancestral domain of the Tagakolu and Blaan people, the malicious twisting of what is beautiful in the Tagakolu culture by the powers that be to legitimize their hold on power, the inefficient delivery of and the inappropriate form of education for the IP youth, the lack of infrastructure in IP areas or the lack thereof,… need I say more?

One of the many roads in the mountains of Malita that needs a bridge. Men, women, children and the elderly are always stranded each time there is a downpour such as this in 2022. Photo by FR. JOEY GANIO EVANGELISTA

The province’s slogan “the Province of Endless Possibilities” is not true for the Tagakolu, Manobo and the Blaan. This slogan is only for the powers that be and for those who grovel at their feet and do their every bidding! Gwyneth perceived this only after two months. Listening to her speech, I found myself saying, “The Force is strong in this one.” Her words ring true and is a challenge for all of us not to succumb to the power of the dark side but to take action to end the historical marginalization of the Tagakolu, Manobo and Blaan in the province and of all indigenous peoples. There are those who have been enlightened by her words while there are others who are scrambling to ensure that their sinister secrets remain in the shadows. The EO may have been intended to flaunt the power they wield but it actually betrays the fear of those who have something to hide. I remember stories in the New Testament of the Pharisees being furious at Jesus’ words that they failed to see the lame walk, the blind see, the dead come back to life and the thousands who were fed just because it challenged their privileged position.

Gwyneth’s speech had ruffled some feathers and shook the perches of a few chickens hallucinating to be eagles. We have every reason to be unsettled by her words. Let us heed her message and take action to transform our society and institutions to be more inclusive to make the “pagpaningkamot” of the many Wewengs not an impossible task but a challenge that can be hurdled with patience and fortitude. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Fr. Joey Gánio Evangelista, MJ, lived among the Tagakolu in Malita, Davao Occidental for 12 years. He headed the Malita Tagakaulo Mission (MaTaMis) of the Diocese of Digos. He is presently based in Antipolo)

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