A parable for our times

At the height of the street fighting in Mendiola in the morning of May 1st, my daughter Kara, a television reporter, was sent to Edsa to cover the re-occupation and the clean-up of the shrine by nuns and members of the Couples for Christ.  The little story she stumbled upon in that very site of resentment and inflamed passions of the previous nights changed her view of the Filipino.  Her fears as a young mother of a child growing up in a strife-torn land were suddenly appeased, and she came home feeling more hopeful.  This is what she saw.

A heap of rags began to stir at the foot of the stairs leading up to the stage.  “Oh my God,” said one well-clad street-sweeper.  “There’s an Erap supporter here.”  The old woman, a hunchback, wore an orange Erap ribbon around her forehead and a large “JV Estrada for Mayor” pin on her shirt.  She looked hungry and exhausted.  She scanned the curious faces that circled her, and realized she had overslept and missed the march to Mendiola.  Summoning all her remaining strength, she stood up and broke away.

She saw a nun in her blue religious garb sweeping the pavement, and rushed in terror into her arms.  The startled Sister Aida Virtudes embraced and comforted her.  In a soothing voice, she asked what her name was.  “Jessica,” she mumbled.  Lola Jessica seemed possessed by an inconsolable fear.  She looked up to the nun, one of her eyes disfigured by cataract and her face deeply lined by years of exposure to the sun, and sobbed as if she needed to explain why she was there.  “I love Erap.  We love Erap,” she told the nun in Tagalog.

“I love him too, we all love him, and I love you too, as we all love our country,” gently responded the kind-hearted nun.  But the old woman’s fear was great, and in an instant, she passed out. Monsignor Soc Villegas carried her into the church, where Kara and Sister Aida tried to revive her.  When she came to, Lola Jessica took a sip from a bottle of water and thanked the people who had helped her.  Then she quietly slipped out of the place.  But the story does not end there.

In the afternoon, while covering the program that the Kilusang Mayo Uno put up in Liwasang Bonifacio prior to joining the Labor Day celebration at the Edsa Shrine, Kara spotted Lola Jessica among the militant crowd.  The old woman looked well and was selling cigarettes and candies.  Her box was plastered with the signature Erap orange sticker.  Kara asked her if she was all right, and the old woman assured her she was fine and that she was glad she could go back to work.  Kara kidded her if her presence at Liwasang Bonifacio meant that she had changed her mind about Erap.  Lola Jessica smiled, and without hesitation, answered:  “No.  I still love Erap.  I will always love him.  Please thank the nun who helped me.  Our beliefs may be different, but we respect one another.”  My daughter couldn’t say anything; she felt good and she was on the verge of tears.

It would be foolish if not futile to try to change Lola Jessica’s views about Erap.  In her heart, she truly believes that Erap has been good to the poor, that he really cares for them and gives them hope.  He will always be their hero, the one who made good and became president so that he would lift them from their poverty. To them, Erap will remain an emblem of their own self-esteem.  Nothing can change that conviction.

The virtuous nun’s response to Lola Jessica’s undying affection for Erap is the only correct one under the circumstances.  She shows us that dialogues begin with compassion and mutual respect.  She did not argue with this die-hard Erap admirer.  She spent the rest of the day cleaning up the garbage that piled up at the shrine, never thinking for a moment that Lola Jessica had desecrated the place.

In the days following the siege of Mendiola, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo surprised everyone by visiting Erap in his Sta. Rosa Laguna detention cell.  Cynics may scoff at this attempt to reach out to the deposed president as nothing more than a clever public relations ploy.  In the evening, she showed up at the gym of the Western Police District where more than a hundred rioters were being held.  She shook hands and exchanged peace signs with the stunned detainees.  She asked that they be transferred to the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, to be helped rather than punished.  Foreigners will probably hail this as an act of magnanimity.  But it is more than just magnanimity.  It is compassion.

That is what Erap means to the masses.  Oblivious of his many faults, they feel secure in his embrace.  They trust him whenever he speaks to them, though we may think the lines come not from the heart but from a movie script.  In contrast, President Gloria often comes out as a cold, albeit hard-working, person.  She is focused and task-oriented but socio-emotionally detached.

She cannot be and should not be another Erap.  She must craft her own identity in the consciousness of our people.  If she tries hard to locate in her own heart the wellsprings of Filipino goodwill and compassion as she did when she visited Erap and the Mendiola rioters, she may find a role in which she can truly feel at home.  There is no reason why she cannot be both an efficient and a healing president.

Erap is the poor’s buddy and will always be; perhaps the President can be their “Ate Glo,” the older sister who forsook her own personal happiness in order to see the whole family through.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>