My Life Journey by Fleur de Lys Castelo-Cupino

| Written by CSWCD

I am a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend.
I am a social development worker, an educator,
an environmentalist, a woman advocate… 


Growing Up

My earliest memory is happily living with in extended family that included my maternal grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins in a compound in Quezon City. Churchgoing and Sunday school in a Methodist Church were part of our family traditions. Despite being a Methodist, my mother enrolled me in Catholic elementary schools.  The differences in Methodist and Catholic practices and beliefs confused me a bit.  But the good outcome is that I learned to respect and be tolerant of the beliefs of others. When I was in Grade 4, I encountered an intellectual and spiritual question that haunted me for many years. I saw the contradiction in the religious belief that God loved all of humanity and yet, only those who believe in God can go to heaven. I wondered what would happen to the millions of non-Christians? How can God show them love if they could not go to heaven?

In early schooling, I also experienced how a foreign nun would humiliate a Filipino nun, or how a teacher would humiliate a student who failed to do an assignment.  These experiences made me aware that religious institutions are built by people and as such, may be fraught with human failings here and there.  I also learned to be critical of authority.  I learned to look at people and events and weigh them in accordance with values taught in family and Church.

In general, however, learning and school always fascinated me.  I enjoyed the intellectual challenges. In my upper years in elementary school, I read in the newspaper’s headline something about martial law.  I went to social studies class and asked what martial law meant but my teacher was clueless.  So I learned to be resourceful and seek knowledge outside of the confines of classroom.

I lived in an upper middle class neighborhood.  I played with neighbors under the moonlight and climbed trees with them. We spent many summers together.  But just a turn away is a block of homes of “squatter” families.  The socio-economic difference among the families in the neighborhood did not escape me. I also became aware of the socio-economic divide because my father, a local politician, would regularly bring me to poor communities during fiestas or meetings or as part of his minding us for the day, and I just knew and felt that they were quite “apart” from the social world I grow up in.

Actually, it was my father also who allowed me to live more closely with the economically disadvantaged.  He enrolled me in a public school.  It was a political move on his part but I accepted this as a challenge.  The difference between my socio-economic status and that of my classmates and schoolmates was apparent because I was the only student who went to school in a car.  I was a shy and quiet student but I knew that I had to survive four years in this new school with classmates from a culture different from mine. I tried to overcome my shyness and in a certain way, I became one of them, having developed close friendships along the way.

As I started high school in 1971, student activism and the renewed movement for nationalism and democracy was at its peak.  The next year, martial law was imposed.  But I was protected from the social unrest and I was ignorant of the harshness of Marcos rule. Perhaps this was because my sources of information were the newspapers and TV which were controlled by government after martial law, and my parents who were government officials and pro-Marcos. Even in school, the discussions on martial law were not critical of the regime perhaps because it was a public school which had to toe the official line. So I was exposed more on the gloss than on the flaws of Marcos rule.

Even when I went on to study in UP for my college degree, the atrocities of martial law did not dawn on me immediately!   I saw student activists protesting against high tuition fees and against martial law but I was afraid of their unruly nature.  So I just turned my face away and focused on my mission to get a degree.

Actually, I was somewhat lost in the big university.  I applied and was accepted to the BS Psychology program because I wanted to understand people but my mother discouraged me.  So I shifted to Statistics but found no meaning in cold numbers.  I really wanted to work with people, so I shifted again to Community Development but eventually graduated from the course, Social Work in the College of Social Work and Community Development (CSWCD).

I sought spiritual bearings to help me through university life. The UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) welcomed me and I was able to build deep friendships and find a second home in the organization.  UPSCA gave me an opportunity to integrate among the rural poor, in a Dumagat community in Antipolo.  Together with a team of seven, I lived there one semestral break and one week in the summer.  The next year I also integrated in a church-based urban poor program in Punta, Sta. Ana, Manila.

My UPSCA journey took a more political turn when we had a group discussion with the mother of Fr. Edicio dela Torre, a rebel priest imprisoned during that period. I also came into direct contact with police brutality when we organized a night with community leaders from the rural communities where UPSCAns integrated during school breaks.  We informed the UP Police about this activity but in return, the police raided our “tambayan” and arrested some students and community leaders. It was only then that I came face-to-face with the harshness of martial law.

UPSCA and my studies in the CSWCD, that included two semesters of field exposure in rural or urban poor communities, politicized me.  My spirituality took a political and social dimension.  My religiosity assumed a concrete expression.  UP and in particular, the CSWCD, introduced me to the intellectual discussions on politics and society while UPSCA introduced me to the theology of liberation, to a living Church that addresses the needs of the poor.


From Social Development to Revolutionary Road

I graduated from college in 1979.  Martial law was still at its height, approaching its seventh year.  But people were no longer afraid or quiet.  The eerie silence that immediately followed the declaration of martial law when leaders of organizations, activists, media people, and Marcos’ political opposition were arrested en masse was broken by the strike of La Tondeńa workers in Tondo, Manila in October 1975, defying the strike ban imposed by martial law.  By 1979, students, workers and other sectors of society boldly held protests, rallies and strikes calling for an end to the atrocities and dictatorial policies of martial law.

In the backdrop of this people’s movement, I went out to embrace the world, turning down a scholarship in MA in Development Economics in UP’s College of Economics.  I co-founded with six other colleagues from the CSWCD the Organization for Training, Research and Development Foundation, Inc. (OTRADEV).  Our first project was with the Mangyans of Mindoro. Flora Lansang was our mentor.  In the mountains of Mindoro, we had to face the military who suspected that we were fronting for the New People’s Army (NPA).  In fact, we were not (at that time).  So, we earned the ire of the military but at the same time, the radicals did not look well on our work because we “did not effect real change and simply propped up the existing unjust system”.

After four years of building OTRADEV, working in Mindoro and later among the fisherfolks of Laguna de Bay, and amidst the growing social discontent and street actions, questions formed in my mind.  The change we were effecting in OTRADEV was too slow.  I asked myself if community organizing was the real answer to empower the people.  I considered the radicals’ belief that without structural political and economic change, the lives of the majority will remain the same – impoverished, exploited and oppressed.  During the same time, a friend’s brother who was an NPA was killed in battle.  This made me take another look at the radicals – who are these people and what are they fighting for?  The “radicals” no longer are strangers shouting in the streets or people who looked down on us as reformists but assumed a human face, upper middle class, like me.  I thought deep and hard: what made him offer his life to a cause?

It was then that I engaged in dialogue with people from the revolutionary movement and after half a year of discussions, I was convinced that the movement was the correct path to change the status quo.  I left OTRADEV to work with labor unions in Marikina. I was 25 years old when I joined the movement, where I spent the next 17 years my life.  My involvement was well thought of, not a spur-of-the-moment decision of a young idealist.  Just a month or so after I joined the movement, Ninoy Aquino was killed and there was no turning back for me.  During those years, I was able to work with the trade unions, the urban poor, the department store workers, and the jeepney drivers.  I joined rallies, endless meetings, marches, and study sessions.  I remember rallies being tear-gassed, rained with bullets, dispersed violently.  I moved from one house to another to avoid arrest and keep safe.

I learned a lot from the movement.  The experience made me more sensitive to social issues; it made me more in touch with social realities.  It made me feel good in the sense that I was doing something to change the lot of people.  I did not simply stand by and live my own life. It gave me a sense of fulfillment. I met highly committed people. I also remember tender moments – sharing meals, protecting each other, singing and celebrating together.

It is in the movement were I met my husband, Bernie.  He was a student leader who stopped studying to join the movement full-time.  He lost one brother and one sister to the struggle for change. We are blessed with two children.  Raising children while in the movement was a big challenge.  I wanted to give them my all as a mother but I also wanted to give the same to the movement.  I wanted to be a very good mother and a very good activist.  After all, I was fighting for change so that my own children would benefit too.  But finding a balance was so difficult, especially with the security situation.  The leaders were often saying we had to sacrifice our personal happiness for the greater good of the Filipino people. I tried to embrace that idealism.

In 2000, I attended an international meeting of community leaders.  There I saw a number of creative initiatives being done by other groups and individuals from different countries.  I realized that revolution is not the only option. There are many other programs being implemented that can truly help the people.

With that realization, together with my dilemma in raising my children, and the toll on my health, I left the movement soon after.


The Journey Continues

By the time I left the revolutionary movement, the century has turned.  It was the start of 2001.  Social, economic and political problems still persisted.  People were still mired in poverty and President Erap Estrada was being ousted from power.  It was the age of globalization and information technology.

I involved myself in activities that would still define myself as a social development worker and give relevance to my life vocation while allowing me to attend to the important responsibilities of being a mother and my own person.

I took up my MA in Women and Development in the CSWCD and completed my course in 2006.  I felt at home in the same college where I completed by undergraduate course in Social Work.  I also enjoyed my studies that helped me reclaim and be proud of my being a woman. My thesis was on the lifestories of women revolutionaries during the First Quarter Storm.

I was involved in the promotion of the Charter of Human Responsibilities (CHR) in 2001.  Our group believes that beyond claiming rights, people should also exercise responsibilities. Our team implements local programs involving the youth to promote the concept and practice of responsibility.  My involvement in this group allowed me to travel to other countries to attend meetings and conferences; definitely widening my horizon.

On a fulltime basis, though, I worked in a foundation that provided free email to remote rural communities in 2002.  However, I left after two years because it seemed that the farmers were not ready for internet yet.

It was during this time that I got involved in setting up a high school that started as an extension school of St. Joseph’s College of Quezon City.  It was where my son completed his high school.  After two years, we repositioned the school to serve the lower middle class – children who would otherwise have gone to the public school were it not for an affordable tuition fee.  I was a member of the Board of Trustees and Executive Director in the founding years.  Today, I head one of the schools, the one located in San Mateo, Rizal.  In 2008, I decided to take up a PhD in Educational Psychology so I can be more attuned to the needs of the school in the larger context of social development.

Education can be a window to initiate my community and social advocacies.

As I journey on, I look back every now and then at how I have transformed as a person and as a woman.  I am happy with the many paths I have chosen and I learned a lot along the way.  I may have stumbled a number of times but the experiences became sources of personal and spiritual growth for me.  Today, I feel I still have a lot to do and to know. I still have a lot of questions I want answered and some dreams that may or may not come true in my lifetime. Life and struggle, joy and pain continue.  My life journey goes on as a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a colleague, a social development worker, a student of life.#

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