Ka Nitoy by Cayetano L. Santiago, Jr.

Many relatives and friends have asked me to write about my experience. With relatives, especially the sons, included in their plea the “benefit for the younger generation and even in the generation to come.” And as I cross the threshold of being an octogenarian, the sound of urgency becomes more shrill. They must have heard me many times saying that I am grateful to the Lord for carrying me this far but I do not want to be greedy, especially in his eyes.

I have always felt close to UP and visit the Diliman Campus whenever I am in the Philippines. Of course the graciousness of the faculty and the enthusiasm of students, and stories of their exciting projects in different barangays in the country always revitalize my spirit.  There are historical reasons for  this feeling of closeness.

Early in my childhood, I learned that one must have education to get anywhere in this world.  Having been born to a poor family, the prospect of being sentenced for life to hard labor was enough push for me to be serious with my studies.  So in high school, I merged being a “cochero”,  and the president of the Junior Student Council and later the Torres High School Student Council. Actually, this was not a bad combination because at that time the “cochero” was the King of the Road. Being ranked fourth in a graduating class of 480 gave me free passage to U.P., the University of my dream, and honestly speaking, the only one my widowed, ex-school teacher, turned government employee father can afford.  A very understanding Head of the U.P. Department of Chemistry kept me as student assistant for two years  as his secretary, in spite of the countless times, I failed to recover needed correspondence from the filing cabinet.  I surmised later on that he must have valued more my utter ignorance of chemistry than my clerical skills, although I could take his dictation in short hand, because that meant I cannot give out information on tests to be given that were my responsibility to cut into a stencil and duplicate using a mimeograph machine.

During my third year in U.P.  — incidentally my senior year since I graduated with A.B. (Arts-Law) in three years by carrying overloads and taking summer classes, Carmen Talavera returned from her studies in the United States as a U.P. Fellow and a Rotary or Lions Scholar.  Upon her return, she instituted courses in social welfare.  That immediately caught my attention.  My heart was not really in law although it was my father’s first choice for me because even if I did not succeed in law practice I could always be a chief clerk.  I do not have any doubt that made a lot of sense to him who  worked as an assistant chief clerk, under his cousin-lawyer who was the chief clerk.

I decided to go into social work for two reasons:  I would be able to finish in less time than in law (At that time I had already been going steady with Abigail for five years.) but more important it will enable me to help people without making another person a loser.  After receiving the A.B. degree and enrolling for a master’s degree in social welfare, I was hired as a graduate assistant with teaching responsibilities.  I believe I taught Introduction to the Field of Social Welfare and did it for two years.  In 1953 I was awarded the degree of Master of Sociology and Social Welfare, the first recipient.   I left for the United States with a Fulbright Scholarship and U.P. Fellowship in the same year to enroll at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work of Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri).  After graduating with the degree of Master of Social Work, major in Medical Social Work, in 1955, I worked as a medical social worker at the St. Louis Chronic Hospital which gave me practical professional experience prior to returning to U.P. to assume teaching social work in 1956.  It was a short-lived career in UP but one well remembered because of the many brilliant students with whom I enjoyed lively discussions.  At least two of them taught in the College for sometime and Evelina (Asuncion) Pangalangan even became dean.  I remember Thelma (Lee) Mendoza keeping her smile even as she “argued” a point with me.  I would not exchange those two years for anything else.

Helping people was probably in my blood, transmitted through my parents.  When I was young, neighbors and relatives would come to our father seeking his advice, many times on relationship problems.  To him the ability to “makisama” is fundamental to a life of happiness and contentment and he was happy to enable his friends and relatives.  As a head teacher of a primary school, he was also involved in community development, at that time promoting livelihood programs in raising fruits and vegetables and chicken.

Life is a continuous process of learning, even scrutinizing one’s style of living.  Shortly after returning to the U.S., as an immigrant this time, in 1958,  and affiliating ourselves with a Presbyterian Church  — at that time, there were three of us in the family (Abigail, my wife, was a Methodist;   I was a Roman Catholic;  and our only son then, Louis, was baptized in a Presbyterian Church), I began to question the concept of a happy life as an adjusted life, a learning I attributed to my social work training.  To me,  an adjusted life is like a leaf flowing down the river without getting snagged by low-lying branches or a sudden curve in the river.  I just thought there was more to human life than a leaf floating freely.  So I read books written by Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and started the journey on a life powered by God’s forgiveness of my sin, through Jesus Christ, and caring for, serving others.  Such a life is not free from anxiety, in fact it can be replete with anxiety, but it leaves you feeling whole and right.

I was privileged to live in the US in the sixties during the struggle of minorities for civil rights.  One of my early involvements was in voter registration in Montgomery, Alabama, shortly after the historical “Selma March”.   Before departing from Chicago, all five of us had to arrange for our bond money, in case we got arrested.  The fact that we were kept under surveillance while walking the neighborhoods, registering blacks to vote and even when we were eating in restaurants, kept our anxiety level on high.  The worst time for me was when we were rallied by one of Martin Luther King’s assistants to enter the local teacher’s college and dump all the classroom furniture through the windows to protest the suspension of black students who were suspended for their participation in the Selma March.  This was during our last night in Montgomery!  I kept on telling myself that I only volunteered for voter registration, not to participate in acts of vandalism.  As a daring coward, I learned then that you have to give up personal safety if you are to participate in protests of social injustice.

During those days, there was open admission that there was something atrociously wrong in the society but there was also the faith that something can be done about it and that each one of us could make a difference.  We knew we were involved in something historical.  My oldest son who was about ten years old at that time had that lesson in history after some cajoling from me.  Martin Luther King was leading marches for freedom housing in Chicago, the freedom to reside in a neighborhood of one’s choice rather than in a neighborhood dictated by one’s color.   I was going to march and invited Louis to go with me.  He did not want to.  He wanted to practice his pitching arm.  Maybe I was heavy handed but I asked him:  “Louis what will you tell your grandchildren when they ask you, “Grandpa, what were you doing when Martin Luther King was leading marches in Chicago?  Will you tell them you were practicing your pitching arm?”  Needless to say, shortly thereafter both of us  were shouting “Freedom” in response to the leader’s yelled question “What do you want” and “Now” responding to the question “When do you want it?”  – and with our fellow marchers, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The struggle for civil rights was not just in urban areas.  My family, by then we were five in all, did volunteer work for a month with the Farm Workers Organizing Committee at the invitation of Larry Itliong a Filipino union leader who was an early organizer of farm workers.  In fact, the headquarters of the Organizing Committee was in the Filipino Union Hall.  Larry was Cesar’s deputy at that time.

I like to relive that part of history because it affirms in vivid colors the dignity of each person.  But such dignity only blooms as it recognizes another person’s dignity, that it comes from the same source as yours, from God.

It seems that the more years I live, the more I am told that I seem to be full of life.  And they probably refer to more than just having a flat belly at age 82 or they just don’t expect someone of my age to walk, talk, think, or dream of the future.

I have not found the Fountain of Youth.  Twenty years ago, all I was wishing for was to be able to live to January 1, 2000, the beginning of a new century.  I knew it would not be different but I just wanted to be there.  Of course my primary care physician wants me to live to 130 years old so he and I can get into the Guinness Book.  At this time, the number of years does not seem to matter as much as how those years have been lived out.

First and foremost for me is that whatever I do it will be in the context of saying thank you to Jesus Christ for saving me from my sins.  I have to share with others the unconditional love he gives me so I can fully realize that love.  Dean Lito Manalili likes to recall what I told the faculty of Torres High School in Tondo, Manila on the occasion of announcing an endowment for the school in the memory of my first wife, Abigail.  I told them that earlier I kept asking myself why God was choosing to keep me healthy at my age.  The answer I came up with was so I could give more help to others.  So I decided to return to work and then devoted the income to endowment, part of which went to the CSWCD.  I told them that in deciding how the money would be used, I asked the question “Who will Jesus Christ look for should he visit the campus of Torres High School?”  The answer came back clearly to me – the students in the lower sections, the ones who do not get the attention of teachers, at least not the same attention they give to those in the higher sections.   I would like the money to fund projects that will help the students in the lower sections achieve more so we can raise the standard of education in Torres High School by raising their achievement and not the traditional way of capturing more medals by those in the higher sections.

I try to be grateful, even for little things.  How about being grateful for being able to pee without struggling?  You know at my age that is very important.  When you are grateful, it means you are focusing on something positive, not negative.  Happy thoughts!

I like to keep on learning.  One day as someone with no less than 40 years of experience in ironing clothes, I got excited when I found out a way of ironing my pleated pants with the pleat flowing nicely to the rest of the crease!  I am into organic gardening nowadays and get fascinated by the knowledge of those who have been practicing it for some time.

There is always something concrete that I want to do tomorrow.  Sometimes this keeps me from sleeping right away because I like to explore all the angles in getting it done.

I like to try something new.  My latest creation is a toss salad made from the traditional lettuce or mustard green with malunggay, talinum, and pansit-pansitan, with pineapple, mango and any other available fruit thrown in.

I try not to appropriate someone’s problem.  For example when I encounter a racially biased attitude, I don’t make it my problem because the problem really belongs to the prejudiced person.  You will be surprised how you feel afterwards.  You are not even bothered by a feeling of hatred, not even the negative feeling of anger.  Of course, you have to feel secure in your feeling of your own self worth.

I believe that more of us can share more of our resources for the benefit of people outside of our families.  Try giving an amount you at first don’t think you can afford and you’ll find out that it does not make any dent in your life style.   Maybe a common person like me lives with less frills so that sharing 20% of the income is doable.

In the Philippines, parents don’t feel  they are leaving enough for their children.  I commented once that I did not feel obligated to leave so much for my children because when my father died I did not get a dime.  He actually did but the three of us ceded our shares to our eldest sister.  Yes, I did not get a dime but I got the invaluable inheritance of an open heart that pulsates as I reach out to those in need, a mind that seeks out new knowledge, a faith that does not let me forget from whom all the blessings flow and that it is in their sharing that I can savor their full value, and the conviction that only as I respect the dignity of the other person can I experience my own dignity.

It has been a good life and I thank my parents, brother, sisters, wives (just two, in succession!), children, grandchildren, great grand children, teachers, students and all the persons whom I have the privilege to know and most of all, our ever loving God.

 

February 7, 2011

Quezon City, Philippines

 

College of Social Work and Community Development