Lack of gratitude

Gratitude, the kind that wells up in every Filipino’s heart when prayers are answered, gripped the nation like a fever when the news came that Mary Jane Veloso was spared from execution. It was as if Pacquiao had knocked out Mayweather. But if this was a blessing that touched the millions who did not know Mary Jane yet prayed for her, the last-minute reprieve seems to have moved her family in a perverse way. Instead of gratitude, antipathy toward President Aquino, who had gone out of his way to secure a stay of execution, dripped from every statement that Mary Jane’s relatives made to the press upon their return from Indonesia.

Here was her mother, Celia Veloso, speaking arrogantly in Filipino: “We’ve returned home for payback…. This is not about money. The government owes us because they tricked us.” Zeroing in on President Aquino, she continued: “He is telling the whole world that he helped save my daughter’s life. That is not true. Get ready: We are here to collect on your debts. We will fight you.”

Mary Jane’s sister, Marites, echoed these hostile sentiments, faulting the government for not providing her sister a more competent interpreter during her trial. “Had the government not been remiss, my sister would not have been in trouble,’ she declared.

As puzzling as they are, one can only try to rationalize these angry words as remnants of scripted statements that were suddenly superseded by events. Having been prepped to participate in a post-execution ritual of necropolitical lamentation, Mary Jane’s shell-shocked kin may have found themselves unable to sort out their emotions during the short plane ride back to Manila.

The government had facilitated their passage to Indonesia to enable them to see Mary Jane, who was sentenced to die before a firing squad following her conviction for smuggling 2.6 kilograms of heroin into Indonesia. If they could not find it in their hearts to acknowledge the government’s assistance or President Aquino’s personal efforts, that is their call. But, if they were so minded, the decent thing to do in the first instance would have been to reject the government’s offer to pay for their travel to Indonesia.

Maybe they thought Mr. Aquino made the appeal for Mary Jane because he was just trying to save his own political skin. Or, maybe they believed that this was the government’s duty anyway, and that the money to be spent comes from the welfare fund of overseas workers. Indeed, this is the least the government could do for the families of thousands of Filipinos who are languishing on death row in various prisons abroad. Even so, watching the resentment of families like Mary Jane’s turn into righteous entitlement is deeply unsettling.

When it is most needed, empathy has been eroded. From a focus on those issues of public policy that have made us a labor-exporting and remittance-dependent country, public attention has shifted to the private troubles of a personal milieu in which overseas workers often find themselves. People begin to wonder what expectations Mary Jane faced in her own family, or what kind of pressures she experienced at home, such that she seemed unable to stay put even after a previous traumatic stay abroad.

I saw it for myself in the late 1980s when I started studying the culture of migration that was rapidly taking root in our communities. The town of Betis, a small village of craftsmen and carpenters where I grew up, was one of the first communities to send construction workers abroad. First it was the young fathers who became swiftly accustomed to being far away from home for extended periods. They seldom came home, but were not missed so long as they sent money regularly to their families.

Then it was the mothers who were enticed to work abroad, mostly as domestic helpers, leaving their young children in the care of their parents or siblings. The remittances doubled, but the family savings never increased. Only their needs multiplied. Families became addicted to a way of life where they traded the intangible values of family life for the nonessential acquisitions made possible by remittances. Those who stayed home usually stopped working, waiting for their own turn to leave for abroad—as if it was the only path laid out for them.

All past administrations—from Marcos to Aquino—must surely bear responsibility for this state of affairs. But, we forget that no one is coerced to work abroad. In our culture, to work abroad is a decision that is arrived at typically in consultation with one’s family. It is the family that either dissuades the individual from leaving or persuades him/her to go with the flow. It is also the whole family that usually raises the funds needed to pay the recruitment agency in expectation of future returns. Is the Veloso family blameless? Why is it taking the position of a creditor out to make the government pay for its perceived neglect of Mary Jane?

Whoever put that crazy idea into the heads of her family has done Mary Jane a great disservice. She is not off the hook yet. This is not the time for arrogance. Public pressure can only go so far in persuading foreign governments to respect the rights of overseas Filipinos. In the end, it is the diplomatic representations made by governments—and sometimes the discreet and courteous personal appeals made by leaders—on their citizens’ behalf that makes the difference.

What was the point in thanking everybody—Migrante, the National Union of People’s Lawyers, Manny Pacquiao, the media, the Church, the international groups, etc.—for their help and solidarity, while spitefully dismissing the significant effort made by President Aquino to reach out to the Indonesian president to spare Mary Jane?

* * *