Lament for Nino

No death in the University of the Philippines in recent memory has shaken the academic community more than the senseless murder of Nino Calinao.  There is much anger and frustration on campus these days.  At various levels of the academic community, people ask what has become of the university.  But even before we have sat down to ponder the answers, we have begun inflicting upon ourselves the kind of wounds often associated with tribes in mourning.

We have acknowledged our helplessness and brought back the outside police to help secure the campus.  We might close some entrances and exits to our buildings, and ask students and faculty alike to take long detours through well-guarded areas.  The wretched hovels and corners that student organizations have claimed as their regular “tambayan” might soon be removed.  Nino was killed while talking to his friends in such a place.  There are proposals to require everyone to wear plastic IDs on their chests, and to allow security personnel to frisk bodies and search bags.  We should soon be choking from the pride we have swallowed as penance for allowing a student like Nino to die the way he did.

Certainly it is not the first time that violence has visited this quiet community.  Over the years, the UP has had a notorious association with hazing and recurrent fraternity wars.  But these have been typically dismissed as the excesses of youthful effervescence. There have also been some tragic deaths in the past, but alarming though they might be, they were seen as largely accidental.  In contrast, the circumstances of Nino’s death violate every known rule of student life, and strike at the core of the university’s self-concept.

From the initial findings that have surfaced, it appears that Nino’s assailant was an outsider who did not personally know his victim.  He was evidently hired to kill him, or somebody who looked like him.  It is unthinkable in the culture of normal fratmen to hire other people to do the fighting for them.  Fraternities with any self-respect would be the first to sanction their members who resort to such a cowardly act. Fraternity differences are regarded as internal conflicts resolvable by traditional means.

Those means exclude the engagement of outsiders and the use of guns.  In an earlier time, even the use of knives and lead pipes in rumbles was considered unsporting, just as the filing of criminal cases against one another was frowned upon.  These normative limits served as a natural barrier to the endless escalation of conflict, as well as a way of protecting the autonomy of the university against institutional interference from outside.

The death of Nino tells us that these rules may have changed, and that the university may well be on the road to losing what remains of its claims to being a self-governing community.   Both faculty and students had fought hard to defend the university’s right to regulate its own affairs.  The fruit of this effort was an agreement with the Philippine National Police that no PNP elements would enter UP premises without permission from university authorities.   In a humbling admission of inadequacy, the UP has now relaxed this prohibition.

There are other aspects of Nino’s death that sparked the kind of rage now fueling the extraordinary grief over his death.  The first is that he was not a fraternity member.  Whether he was the real target of the assault or the unfortunate victim of mistaken identity in a war between two fraternities, his death is invasive of the neutral space that belongs to the mass of UP students who are not fratmen.  At no other time has there been in UP such an incredibly deep resentment for the violent ways of its fraternities.  This event should serve as a wake-up call to all fraternities, especially their alumni members.

If it were just another fratman who had died in yet another rumble, the outrage on campus would soon likely pass.  But Nino was not just a non-combatant in the recurrent wars of rival fraternities, he was also one of the few lucky children of the non-elite who had made it to this university for the elite.  He was on a scholarship, and his hard-working parents had looked forward to seeing him graduate this year.  He would have been the first college graduate in his family, a rare specimen of that rapidly vanishing group of talented students from underprivileged Filipino families who make it to UP.

For, Nino’s kind has long been systematically barred from entering the portals of the State University by a combination of poverty, cultural bias, and state neglect.  The generally low quality of available public instruction at the primary and secondary levels has made it virtually impossible for young people like Nino to be admitted into the UP. Many of his kind do not even finish high school, much less pass the culture-bound UP entrance test.

One can imagine therefore what a great day it is when a university supported by the taxes of the many finds a place for a gifted child from the masses.  It is no mean triumph for such a child, and one would think that a university like ours would do everything within its powers to make sure that such a student, having transcended his context, would be protected and nurtured until he finishes.

It is this that makes Nino Calinao’s death so tragic.  His presence as a student in UP was living proof that UP might also stand for “university for the poor”.  But, by his death we obliterated that proof, and if UP cares to redeem itself, it could only begin by using this outpouring of lament for Nino as a moment to re-examine itself.


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