(Note: This article was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on November 30, 2006. Google Alerts (which uses my name as one of its keywords) sent it to my inbox. Quite a timely reminder for me as I ponder leaving the corporate world for good.)
A 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 manicured nails.
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 bourgeois selves.
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 recovers.
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 it.
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 machines.
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 this.”
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.