Let me begin a bit of my life story with my mother, Nenita. She taught me values that influenced my own beliefs and aspirations in life. I consider her a woman of strength. She was just 35 years old when she took on the sole responsibility of taking care of her two little daughters, me at age five and my sister Eve, age two, when my father died of an illness. She juggled her time as a home economics teacher and active church leader in a barrio 117 kilometers away from the city. In between her busy schedules, another woman, our “Tia Cianing”, took care of us. She became a trusted and loyal household help to Mama until her retirement.
Even without an immediate family living in the barrio, Mama was able to build deep friendships with our neighbors who became her support network in good and bad times. As young children, we thought then that these friends of hers were our aunties and uncles.
Owing to her school and church duties, Mama became the natural host of visitors – teachers, supervisors, priests, nuns and even military personnel assigned in our barrio during martial law. I saw her joy in doing service for our community until old age prevented her from continuing her passion.
Inspiring values from my mother
It was through her involvement in school and community work that I learned the values of service, of giving, sharing, respect, honesty, and humility. Most of all, as a prayerful person, she taught us to always appreciate whatever blessings we receive because these are gifts from God. I now remember that one of her guests gifted me with a toy – a miniature replica of a nun. I was fascinated with that image and dreamed of one day becoming a nun, too!
These values led me to affiliate with groups and organizations whose motto was service. I became an officer of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines when I was in Grade V until high school. Fate and luck brought me to the corridors of St. Theresa’s College, an exclusive school for girls. I was accepted as a BS Education scholar. There I became active in the Student Catholic Action of the Philippines (SCAP).
Those were the last years of the Marcos regime. The school was the seat of anti-dictatorship activities in the city because of its social orientation. There I witnessed stage plays of PETA and PATATAG that were critical of the Marcos administration. During a weekend immersion organized by SCAP in a slum area of Cebu City, my understanding of poverty was widened. I realized my idea of our family as economically poor was problematic. There were more people who lived in abject poverty – those who could not eat decent meals three times a day; who had no safe water to drink and no toilets (we had to send “flying saucers” after our morning ritual).
As the mantra of service to others kept playing in my mind, I soon found myself immersed in deeper discussions of social problems and radical solutions needed at that time. I became active in the campaign for campus democracy. We organized students in other schools to demand for campus freedom, restore student councils, and oppose tuition fee increases. Much of my time was devoted to these activities, and my mind was no longer present during class hours.
One day, immediately after my mid-term exams, Sr. Maria, a soft-spoken Belgian Dean of the College, called me to her office. She asked me to explain my clandestine activities based on the report of my uncle. That incident heightened the series of misunderstandings and conflicts between me and my sister, mother, uncles and aunties. They wanted me to focus on my studies. They were concerned about my safety.
This was the time too of so many arrests, disappearances, summary killings, massacres and hamletting.
But I was undaunted. It dawned on me then that finishing a college degree was not the urgent task at that time but rather organizing and educating more people to struggle for freedom and democracy. Despite the tearful pleadings of my mother, I gave up my scholarship and devoted my time and energy to the anti-dictatorship movement. I believed there was no bright future for me and my future children without freedom and democracy.
Eventually my work expanded to the workers, urban poor and later on to the farmers. With them, I felt their resolve to sacrifice not only to achieve the reforms they struggled for in their sectors but for the liberation of our country from the clutches of military rule, and their dream of a freer and just society. In those times when I lived with them, I experienced their sincere generosity in sharing the little they had in terms of resources. In so many ways, I felt they became my extended family.
The abduction and disappearance of Fr. Rudy Romano, CSsR, a courageous voice of the powerless on 11 July 1985, led me to the work of organizing the professionals for justice and peace. At that time, it was not easy to encourage them to be involved. There was fear in them. But when we joined with the marginalized sectors, we were encouraged by their determination. When we felt vulnerable, weary and uncertain, we gave comfort and cheer to one another.
Pursuing an unfinished college education: the long and zigzag road
The early dawn news coverage of February 24, 1986 on the hasty helicopter exit of the Marcos family from Malacañang ushered in a new chapter in the history of our country and also of my life. Like the morning mist of a new day, I felt a refreshing desire to return to school and finish my college degree. The faculty and students of St. Theresa’s College warmly welcomed me back in the second semester of 1986.
But a year later, the atrocities of vigilantes group Sagrada Corazon de Jesus intensified. The research institution I worked with decided to conduct a study of its rise within the framework of the “Low Intensity Conflict” strategy that political analysts said were employed by forces opposed to the democratic reforms instituted by then President Corazon Aquino. Our security was threatened. I had to quit school again.
In 1992, I heard of the Non-Traditional Studies Program offered by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. I was already a young mother of two bubbly children, ages two and one year old, and based in Manila. I enrolled in the program. There were many activists in my batch who found school as an avenue for understanding the so called debacles of the left who were suddenly pushed to the sidelines on the eve of the country’s political victory from the dictatorship. I was then working in an NGO attending to the needs of recently released political prisoners. At this time, I realized how hard it was to combine studies, work and motherhood. I managed to finish ten years later under a reinvigorated and more systematized program and with a very supportive thesis adviser and college dean. It was tough though. I had a two year old daughter then who needed much of my attention. I was also practically running my household by myself.
The desire to finish my college education pushed me to conquer the challenges before me. And I entrusted the rest to God. By November of 2002, I went up the stage in my toga with my two year old daughter. I felt a deep sense of joy. I succeeded! Finally I can make my mother happy. Her eldest daughter earned a college degree after 26 long years of waiting.
And realizing that post graduate studies is a gender issue
In the next three years after earning a college diploma, I busied myself learning a new kind of work from human rights to conflict resolution and peace. The pressures of the job and of my own domestic affairs were so much that my inner self was looking for a breathing space. I needed a new kind of learning that will help me understand what was happening in my life. I wanted to know if the life I had been living – that of doing something for social chang e– was really making a difference. I wanted to proceed to higher studies but I was not certain of what I wanted to pursue. A colleague from the anti-dictatorship movement who was completing her thesis under the Social Work Department here at the College of Social Work and Development invited me to take up Women and Development Studies. The idea of enrolling in UP, the premier university, in the country was enough to inspire me to try.
Why a course on women and development studies? What was in it for me? Where would it lead me to?
These were some of the questions I asked my friend to explain. Many years back, I remembered meeting some women leaders and I was struck that some of them separated from their husbands. I had reservations regarding what I might learn from the course! Ultimately, I decided to apply. I needed an environment that would help me understand myself better as a woman, mother, wife and daughter. I just wanted to know how the course would help me see my life from a broader perspective.
Maybe that was what I needed to recharge myself. There was so much happening then in my personal and professional life. In just two semesters of schooling, I realized I had to confront my own issues at home. And so far I believe that was a good decision. I began to appreciate life and all its challenges from a different perspective with a lighter and happier disposition.
In September of 2009, I took a month’s leave from work to prepare myself for the comprehensive exams the following month. However, nature had its own plans. Typhoon Ondoy struck and all my books and review materials went with the flood. About eighty percent of my family’s belongings were damaged. Three weeks of my leave were spent cleaning the house and restoring our sense of security in our surrounding environment. I was left with a week to scout for notes from classmates and study.
I took the exams even with little preparation. I prayed and wished that I would pass. I also prepared myself for an unfavorable result. Whatever might happen, it would be a learning opportunity. And if ever I failed, I still had an option to retake the exam by March. God was so kind and generous. I joined the graduation ceremonies in April of 2010. This time, my 81 year old mother was able to join me on stage. It was a double celebration for the family. My eldest daughter also graduated with a degree in Journalism in the nearby College of Mass Communications.
It’s now year 2012 and I am back to school again, this time as a doctoral student in social development. My eldest daughter is asking why I am still studying. She wanted to know if my MA degree had helped me earn a higher salary because she could not see a dramatic improvement in our financial situation. I even had to get a loan for my tuition. I tried looking for scholarships to fund my education. But most offers are for studies abroad. I could not leave my children behind.
I don’t know if my decision is right at this time. Right now I find joy and excitement in attending my classes and learning new theories and perspectives in social development. This is where for now I find an opportunity to synthesize my life experiences and appreciate them from a more empowering perspective. Through the class, I find a space to reflect on my experiences in human rights and peace work in the lives of marginalized peoples in communities I have been working with. I look forward to understanding these experiences more fully as I move on to the other subjects of the course. Maybe I will be able to fully understand what the task of social change means from the different theories and practical experiences of peoples from the North and South.
On a personal level, what I realized so far is that post graduate study is both a class and gender issue. But I continue to push the limitations surrounding my life and see where it will take me. Sometimes when I look at the piles of reading materials waiting for me to study, I begin to ask myself if this is indeed the right time for me to study. I don’t know the answer. What I believe right now is that maybe as I tread my path each day, I will soon realize a deeper sense of purpose and direction of where life may lead me to.
 “Flying saucers” meant waste wrapped in newspapers and thrown outside the house because there were no toilets, private or public.