Children from indigenous communities have a new champion in the person of television celebrity Alden Richards, who is working to help open up access to their education as an advocacy.
On Friday, during a conversation with Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle at the the fourth Philippine Conference on New Evangelization (PCNE 4) at the University of Santo Tomas, Alden revealed: “Ako po kasi parang lately nahihilig po akong mag-outreach sa mga indigenous po nating kababayan. ‘Yung mga hindi po masyadong naaabot ng tulong kasi especially po ‘yung lugar nila mahirap puntahan (I lately have this urge to engage more with our indigenous brothers, the ones not quite reached by institutional help, especially the youth).”
The mainstay of Eat Bulaga! program recalled celebrating his birthday two years ago in an Aeta community in the Municipality of Bamban, Tarlac.
With the help of friends, he was able to make the off-road journey on a “heavy-duty” vehicle, donate some supplies, and share a meal with the families.
“What I noticed po talaga is the need for education especially for the indigenous people,” Alden told Tagle. “On my part, parang ‘yun po talaga ‘yung number one na kailangang bigyan ng pansin (Education. That would be among the top priorities in need of attention).”
He acknowledged that there are Filipinos living in urban areas also in need, but the indigenous people’s circumstances were distinct, because they lived in remote, hard to reach areas.
“My advocacy is to bring education opportunities to those people, the kids, especially,” Alden said.
His remarks come after President Rodrigo Duterte recently threatened to bomb lumad schools in a press conference following his State of the Nation Address on Monday.
“They’re teaching subversion, communism, the works,” Duterte said. “So umalis kayo diyan. Sabihin ko diyan sa mga lumad ngayon, umalis kayo diyan. Bobombahan ko ‘yan. Isali ko ‘yang mga istraktura niyo. I will use the Armed Forces, the Philippine Air Force. Talagang bobombahan ko ‘yang lahat ng mga ano niyo (Leave. You lumad get out of there. I’ll have your structures bombarded) because you’re operating illegally and you’re teaching the children to rebel against government.”
Duterte later clarified his statement, saying, “Hindi ko sinabing bobombahin ko ‘yun habang may mga bata, kundi kung wala nang bata. Kaya nga pinapaalis ko na sila doon (I never said I was going to have the place bombarded while the kids are there. That’s why I want them out of there).”
His words drew criticism from various groups, including children’s rights and human rights network Save Our Schools, which on Friday issued a statement that read, “We… strongly reiterate our stand that education is an inviolable right of children, especially of the oppressed sectors in our society. Lumad schools which were persevered by lumad organizations is an assertion of their basic human rights and their right to self-determination.”
Lumad school Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), in particular, issued an open letter to Duterte, saying, “(O)ur lumad children here have been through experiences that children should never have to experience. They have been witnesses to traumatic things you would never wish for your own grandchildren to see. So when you told this to their faces… that they should leave their ancestral lands because you will bomb their schools and communities… know that it isn’t the scariest thing these kids have heard.”
ALCADEV continued, “After your administration and the past ones massacred our leaders, violently destroyed homes, burned down schools, plundered natural resources, and forced us into too many evacuations, these children have long understood that this government is no safe haven for them.”
“For most of these children, education is wealth with immense value. They build dreams, hopes, and plans out of the things they learn in our schools,” ALCADEV said. “As the head of the Philippine government, we ask you to be at the forefront of upholding their right to education by using your power and influence to protect it at all costs, instead of being the one who holds the gun and pulls the trigger to kill their dreams and hopes in life.”
(Read the full letter here: www.facebook.com/alcadevinc/posts/10154955056633237.)
Also speaking at PCNE 4 was Sr. Mary Jane Caspillo of the Medical Mission Sisters. After a series of strong storms that affected Mindanao five years ago, such as Sendong and Pablo, the Medical Mission Sisters decided to support the lumad in their cause of caring for the Earth, and learn from them, as well.
“Ang isyu po ng mga lumad ay kailangan po nilang i-reclaim ‘yung ancestral land nila dahil marami pong mga lumad… na nadi-displace because of development, mining, kasama na diyan ‘yung mga typhoons. Kung sino po ‘yung nagdedepensa sa ating kalikasan ay ‘yun po ‘yung mga napapahamak (The issue is that the lumad need to reclaim their ancestral land, because they are being displaced from their land by development activities, mining, typhoons. It’s those who are taking care of nature who are suffering the penalty),” Caspillo said.
The Medical Mission Sisters immersed in a community in the Municipality of Quezon at a time when they were in the process of reclaiming their land from a reluctant occupant.
On the day the community was to be installed in the land, the occupant sent armed men to keep them out.
“Alam po naming may mangyayaring masama. Pero dahil po kinomit namin ang aming sarili na makiisa sa mga lumad, so ang tanong ko po doon sa asawa ng chieftain, ang tawag po ay bai, ‘Bai, saan kami?’ Nagkakagulo na po eh. Nag-strategize na sila kung papaano nila poprotektahan ang sarili (We knew something bad would happen. But since we have committed ourselves to the lumad, we asked, ‘where do we stand?’ They are thinking of a strategy to protect themselves) in a non-violent way,” Caspillo narrated.
And the reply of the chieftain’s wife? “Sister, kung saan kami, doon kayo (Where we are, Sister, there you should be).”
The nuns looked at each other and realized that there was no turning back. They wanted to be in solidarity with the lumad, so they stayed. The men arrived bearing arms, and proceeded to destroy the lumad’s homes.
When the chieftain saw that his house was being destroyed, he told the armed men, “Kapatid, brad, tandaan niyo, pananagutan niyo ‘yang ginawa niyo sa Panginoon (Brother. Remember. What you’ve done you will be accountable to the Lord).”
Caspillo explained that a chieftain’s home was sacred. If this was destroyed, it was as if the community itself was destroyed.
The armed men fired.
“Mabuti na lang na-orient kami na ‘pag may nagpaputok, dapa, gapang,” Caspillo told Tagle. “Yun pala ang ibig sabihin ng run for your life. Hindi ko na po naisip ‘yung mga kasama ko, kung ano nang nangyari sa kanila, dahil the moment na narinig po namin ‘yung putok ng baril ay inisip na lang namin ‘yung aming sarili (We were told that, if firing starts, we should hit the ground. Crawl. I lost track of what happened to our companions).”
Reflecting on that moment, when the lumad and their children were crying in fear and anger, Caspillo said, “‘Yung panaghoy ng isang community… tumatayo po ‘yung balahibo ko at nararamdaman ko na ang Panginoon ay nakikiisa sa panaghoy ng mga lumad (I felt goosebumps. I felt the Lord was one with the lumad).”
This, she told Tagle, was the most important experience she had ever had as a religious, where she met the God who was one with the poor: “Ang Diyos na nakikisa sa mga dukha (God is one with the poor).”