If you are reading this, Happy Friday! This week marked tulo ka semana, or three weeks, that my partner volunteer Lauren and I have spent in the Philippines. Our first week in Dumaguete, the city where we will be serving for the year, was filled with morning studies of Filipino history led by our site coordinators, and afternoons with a tutor learning the local language, Bisaya. We then visited a local island called Apo to learn about coral reef rehabilitation, an island called Bohol, where we spent five days living with a host family and learning about agricultural living, and the island of Cebu for a two-day urban poor training. Last weekend we rested in Dumaguete before leaving for a five day stay in a fishing village called Escalante. Our last piece of in-country orientation will be a retreat next week before our volunteer placements begin and we move in with host families on October 1.
From our itinerary so far, I’d like to pull out just a few pieces of my experience to share. First, I want to explain that this experience, from my own perspective, has been at times uncomfortable. Discomfort is something I am learning to embrace in order for deeper learning and growth to occur,so I want to invite you to struggle alongside me as you read through these stories. If you find they stir up any particular emotions or questions you may have, please feel free to comment on this post or message me directly on my “Let’s Chat” page. Thank you for showing your support for me and the communities I will discuss below by visiting my page!
The smell of instant coffee and lecheflan, a Filipino dessert similar to egg custard, wafts through a divinity school classroom with chairs arranged in a circle to accommodate professors and guests. It is mid-morning on the Silliman University campus in the heart of Dumaguete City, and the way cars are beeping outside, it’s hard to imagine we are sitting less than a kilometer from the ocean. Presbyterian Church (USA) mission co-workers Hunter Farrell, Ruth Farrell, Scott Hagley, and Catherine Chang are visiting the Silliman divinity school for a church workers’ conference that Lauren and I have been invited to observe. To our less-than-surprise, a conversation that begins as an introduction to the courses offered in the Silliman divinity program turns into a heated debate about the irony of the way American mission work is conducted. One of the directors of the divinity school repeats several times how impossible he finds the notion of Americans forming relationships with communities abroad based on only brief, two-week trips. Often on these trips, band-aid solutions are affixed impermanently to greater systemic problems; I find the Filipino director to be justified in his confusion, and his point brings me to a critical viewpoint of what I am sent here to do as a volunteer from the American Protestant church.
According to PC(USA) mission co-worker Hunter Farrell, “Hundreds of American Christians per year spend billions to travel to communities around world adversely affected by poverty; they have powerful social, political and economic capital and the potential to make a measurable impact in addressing these issues.” Alas, Hunter points out that the tragic flaw in the system is that upon return to the U.S., volunteers return back to their normal participation in global problems that have the potential to worsen the conditions in visited communities. The Filipino director said he approved of the length of time Lauren and I will serve in the Philippines, as ten months will hopefully be enough to form substantial and genuine relationships with our respective communities. However, there is no questioning whether I am a modern-day player in the Protestant mission movement that began as a direct offspring of colonialism. It was the roots of my ability to come here that led U.S. President McKinley to buy the Philippines from Spain for a $20M contract in the year 1900 on the bloody wings of Manifest Destiny. This decision, along with other international powers that seized the Philippines at different points throughout history, led to the massive infrastructural, political and social problems that exist in the Philippines today. Like Farell points out, as I am here, I must “look for ways in which the Spirit is already moving,” to learn from these communities and the ways they are healing the country from our tainted history.
The curtain opens and young actors dash in, some wearing colored t-shirts, others sneakers, and a few with backward hats atop their heads. On their faces are expressions of joy as they laugh, sing, and begin to play a Filipino children’s game where hands are stacked higher and higher atop each other as people are challenge to jump over the growing wall. As they play, a conglomerate of strange figures enter the scene from stage left, foreigners to the joyful island scene. Their clothing indicates their Spanish, Chinese and American descent. They begin to tentatively play with the Filipino children but suddenly seize and drag them offstage amidst a brutal fight. The lights fade and the first scene ends.
This is a show by the Dumaguete NGO Youth Advocates Through Theater Arts, or YATTA. Their piece demonstrates the mosaic of culture in the Philippines with their 26 or 62 ethnic groups that lived in harmony before the arrival of the Chinese in 1368, Spanish in 1521, and the selling of the Philippines to the U.S. in the 1900 Paris Treaty. YATTA’s show goes on to illustrate the problems of trafficking, war, and other forms of exploitation that have endured in the country since conquest by foreign powers. Not only is this group of teens and young adults telling the story of oppression and empire in their country, but they meet monthly to discuss important topics such as the spread of HIV and AIDS and the war quietly raging in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines as I type this post. Reported drug users in the Philippines today are imprisoned and killed daily in the war against drugs, and its scarce to meet someone whose family or communities are unaffected by the current political landscape. This community called YATTA is a form of resistance to the turmoil endured by Filipinos from past to present, and a testament to the willpower of these people to remain unified and resilient.
On an island northeast of Dumaguete, a group of young people ages 13-20 flock to an activity center in urban, industrialized Cebu City. Their energy is explosive as they greet another with chatter, laughs and shoves. As we are visitors to the Fellowship for Organizing Endeavors, Inc (FORGE) center, the group is instructed to introduce themselves to us so they invite us into a tight circle around the tiny room. Each young person states their first name and age, then spins around with flair to share their celebrity alter-ego with the room which is greeted by screams of laughter and joyful claps from the others. Celebrities are named from Selena Gomez to local Filipino actors (mine is Emma Watson, of course), and the group seems delighted to have us present in their special space. It isn’t until after a guided activity involving dividing into teams and managing to blow a ping pong ball across cups of water that the young adults begin to talk about the importance of resilience in this activity and their lives. These young people are victims of sexual exploitation who have been personally sought out by FORGE to be welcomed into this space.
FORGE is a Filipino founded and run NGO that operates on a principle of relationship-building with these young people and various stakeholders in the communities where they are exploited. The level of trust between the clients and staff is tangibly high, as different young people pull aside staff members throughout the afternoon o speak to them individually about things going on in their personal lives. FORGE works with the local transportation sector as well the families of these young people to prevent future exploitation, and in the morning when we visited a community where many of the group members are from, family members ran out of their homes to greet the FORGE staff. Many children are exploited through what is called “pesonet,” a free Internet service available in many neighborhoods where five minutes of online use can be purchased with just one peso, or five U.S. cents. Cyber pornography has become the norm in the past ten years and can even occur unknowingly in family homes with access to technology, and in part of the city we visited, adult photographers invite young women and men to photo shoots under the expectation that the clients will then engage in intercourse with them to receive their photos from the shoot. FORGE seeks to break the normality of these cycles through intervention at various levels, and one of the most incredible sights I have witnessed in my life was the way these young people were listened to at the FORGE center. Many come from homes with separated parents or physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and this space was clearly their own to feel validated, uplifted and loved.
Bullets explode into the air by the town center as a group of Filipino agricultural workers, arms linked in peaceful unity a second earlier, drop screaming to the ground. Their signs and flags in place of firearms fall beside them, yet the military’s machine guns and hand grenades continue to batter the crowd for several painful moments. This is an historical reenactment of the massacre of 21 farmers and fisher folk during a nonviolent assembly in the town of Escalante on Negros island in 1975. When sugar prices plummeted in the early 70s, farmers and fisherpeople came together to seek solutions for the poverty that was rapidly becoming their reality. Over 120 innocent people died from injuries from the massacre in hospitals and their homes afterward.
Today, after the passing of 32 years, sugar cane farmers from this “sugar bowl” region import sugar at prices infinitely higher than they exported. Wealth is in the hands of a few select landlords who dictate a modern slavery based on fear, as they are usually of third or fourth-generation Spanish heritage, and racial inferiority is still heavily engrained into the culture. Workers earn the equivalent of a cup of Starbucks coffee per person per day. In order to keep their jobs, workers are expected to arrive at 6AM and labor in hot fields with little shade until sunset. There is little harvest, and therefore little money, in the “Haciento Muerto” rainy season, so workers are being forced to leave their communities for house help and other jobs in the Philippines and abroad.
Our host mother “Nai” who opened her home to us during our stay in Escalante was a survivor who lost her husband and nephew to the massacre. Members of her fishing community told us stories of the seas 20 years ago, when one catch would bring in 15-20 kilos each time. Today, fisher folk are lucky to find a catch that is 5 kilos, due to laws that ensure more land to both marine sanctuaries and large corporations.
A striking sign of hope we witnessed in Escalante, however, was artists using theater and painting to advocate for and design solutions to farming and fisher folk working under oppressive conditions. The workers’ theater group Theatro Hobrero was started with the goal of relaying messages to audiences in a more enticing format than political speeches or rallies. Young sugar cane workers of this group performed a play raising awareness of child labor on our first night in Escalante and were key actors in the reenactment two days later. Before we had even arrived, seven murals by unpaid Filipino artists had been completed in the city square across from the location where the massacre occurred. I was honored to be invited to assist master artist Egai Fernandez with a collaborative mural which he worked on over two days, which you can watch in the video below. Egai says that art is a way to show people how to think differently about how to solve key issues in society, and thanks to the organizing of Egai, Theatro Hebrero and other barangay communities in Escalante, today, over 2,000 people are involved in the annual reenactment activities.
When we ask our host mother Nai how long she plans to stay involved in the annual reenactment, she responded that she will not stop until farmers and fisher folk gain fair treatment and opportunity. There is much work to be done, but in art and in community, the resilient spirit of Filipinos prevail. Thank you for joining me today- sending love to each of you! I leave you with this video of artist Egai Fernandez’s mural to Remember Escalante, which I was invited to assist with as a visitor to the week’s activities. Enjoy!