Published on Page A13 of the November 30, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every
government on Earth, general or particular, and what no just government
should refuse to rest on inference. -- Thomas Jefferson
WHEN people learn that I’m an activist, they automatically look at
my nails. No matter how much they try, it seems they cannot imagine
anyone among the angry horde they see on TV news programs having
Explaining the seeming paradox is never easy, especially if one is
not accustomed to explaining to people one has just met. Which only
goes to show, I suppose, that after all the education I got in the
activist world and after all the people I’ve met, I remain indifferent
to society at large.
This is not to say that I do not have a heart for the poor or that
I’m living a double standard. My pretty nails cannot tell you that
everything I have learned along this badly ridiculed path has gone to
waste. I think that the issue here is perception. People perceive
activists to be generally unhygienic and unkempt. For example, when my
family meets one of my activist friends, they make excuses for his
appearance. “Ang dungis niya ano? Aktibista kasi eh" ["Doesn’t he look
dirty? That's because he is an activist”], someone would say.
Comments like this sound funny, but some don’t. Some people look at
activists as spineless political individuals. Even worse, there are
those who believe we are fighting for a lost cause.
Most people I’ve met are surprised when they learn that I study at
the Ateneo de Manila University and that I have no qualms about living
indefinitely in an urban poor community. Let me explain. First off, all
throughout my life in the university, Jesuit education has taught me to
try harder at thinking about others. Our Jesuit mentors try to instill
in us a sense of altruism. They tell us to try not to be the
money-hungry yuppies or money-driven career persons. They teach us at
the Ateneo the value of other human beings regardless of their station
in life. And they drill into our heads that we have to be “men and
women for others.” I suppose they are trying to save us from our
This is not to toot my own horn. This is something that I have
learned in personal encounters in the Ateneo. Despite the seemingly
sanitized environment of our upper-class school, it never lets you
forget that there are people dying just outside the walls of the
university. If there is anything important the university has taught
me, it is that every step down your personal ivory tower is
excruciating and stepping out is something from which no one fully
Which leads me to my second point. For almost a year now, I have
lived in an urban poor community. The discomforts aside, I can honestly
say that this has been the best time of my life. After getting over the
excitement of being in an unfamiliar environment, I discovered three
things: First, life is hard no matter what the President says about our
economic growth. Second, to be poor does not mean to be uncivilized.
And third, life offers us an astounding array of choices on how to live
Among the three basic truths that I have learned, the one that needs
the most explaining is the third. Admittedly, my middle-class existence
has been very comfortable. Most other activists I’ve met sneer upon
learning about my school and my social status. But it is only now that
I can admit that I belong to a more privileged part of society. It is
only in retrospect that I can say I had no reason to whine about my
allowance or my wardrobe.
Activism did not fuel my angst, it actually gave it a cold shower.
As I look back on my past, all my complaints were rooted in my sense of
deprivation. I thought that I was being deprived of “the good life.”
While my family insisted that I was indeed privileged, I constantly
thought about the things I did not have, mostly non-essential things,
the accessories to life, things such as a five-digit allowance, the
latest fashion and, yes, my manicure.
If you think this is ridiculous, ask any typical middle-class
student and you will hear the same complaints. But in my case, the only
“real” problem that I had was my nails. My crowning glories must never
be chipped or damaged in any way. But of course, when I started going
to political demonstrations, my nails were chipped every time. And of
course, I was pissed. Very socially oriented, indeed.
But then again, what can you expect from someone who has been raised
on the other side of the economic divide? I had been taught that the
poor were poor because they were lazy and that rallies accomplished
nothing except to cause heavy traffic. I could have thought worse about
activism. Nevertheless, in the beginning, the only thing I had against
activism was my chipped nails.
And what can I say about activism now? It has been a lonely and hard
journey to self-realization. It has been harder still to accept that my
country is not the utopia of shopping malls that I once perceived it to
be. Milan Kundera put it this way: All of us can choose to be in the
grand march of humanity or to step down the road and become animated
The greatest lesson learned from all this? We all must join the
grand march. Everyone has to live for something. We who are in the
upper strata should always remember that though today we are being held
up by the system, no matter how much we justify our actions, we are
still living in a world where the basic human rights of the
underprivileged are neglected. It is because we have been educated that
we have a moral responsibility to stop ourselves from thinking that we
cannot do anything to help the marginalized sectors. Because we have
lived most our lives comfortably, we have the time and resources to go
out in the streets.
But privilege does not confer more rights on us. Underneath our
clothes and pretenses, we are all humans with free will. We can decide
to be passive bystanders or we can make a difference. Social division
creates conflicts. We need to see beyond it and realize that everyone
has the right to live with dignity. There’s a line from the musical
“Rent” that neatly sums up what I mean: “There’s only us, there’s only
So go out and protest against the crushing of basic human rights --
if you have enough courage, that is. That is your responsibility. And
if you cannot, hold your tongue and don’t tell us activists never learn
or that we do nothing but rally. We do learn and it is because we learn
that we never stop shouting to make our voices heard. And when we are
not mounting rallies, we are trying to live lives that are free of
bourgeois sensibilities. So, cut us some slack.
Tish Martinez, 20, is a member of Migrante Youth Philippines.
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