Just came back from my three-day Quezon-Laguna stint late last night. Five of us AKBAYAN lawyers have been going to AKBAYAN areas around the country to provide poll watching and vote protection trainings to our membership base. I was designated as the Southern (Luzon) Belle, so early Wednesday morning, me and my sister’s Jansport knapsack made our way merrily to the buco-pie belt.
My Quezon stint was a practicum on patronage politics, local level. Listened in as a mayoralty candidate gave his speech in a thunderous reverberating voice. He reminded the townsfolk in subtle and not-so-subtle ways how he had given them personal favors and why he had earned their vote. “Si mayor lang ang bukas araw araw para hingan ng tulong sa binyag!” “Si Mayor lang ang makakatulong sa mga gastos niyo sa burol at libing ng mahal niyo sa buhay!” And so on and so forth. For two hours. Blah blah blah blah.
Mori, my college best friend, told me once that my face is hopelessly transparent. Even when I try to hide my emotions, there’s always some dead giveaway in my face. But when this mayoralty candidate (incumbent councilor on his last term) came over to me to shake my hand and introduce himself, perhaps to court the AKBAYAN vote, there wasn’t even any attempt on my part to conceal my disdain.
“Mayor (insert name here), po, Attorney. Salamat sa dalaw ninyo”.
“Wala pong anuman, Konsehal. Salamat po sa pancit.”
After three sessions that day, three sessions where I repeat the exact same two-hour module down to the strategically-inserted jokes, and after several tiring encounters with Leo Martinez-trapo caricatures, I was raring to sleep soundly in my airconditioned room at a local inn. But no. For the first time after Typhoon Milenyo, the whole of Quezon plunged into darkness. Some pole explosion in Tayabas. Didn’t really care about the details. Since there was no food to be had in the place we stayed, Mark (my driver and expert taga-kabit ng LCD) and I scoured the alleys of Atimonan for a place to eat. There was a solitary inn that was open and looked like it had a generator. We entered, grateful to see an electric bulb flickering defiantly. I looked at the menu — fried chicken, pork chop, chop seuy, barbecue. Standard fare in Manila, but gourmet cuisine in the darkness of Atimonan.
“Naku, wala pong ibang ulam. Pancit lang.”
“Wala pong ulam?”
“Iulam niyo nalang ang pancit.”
And pancit it was. For the second time that day. Beggars cannot be choosers after all.
Next stop: Calauan, Laguna, which was a four-hour drive from Atimonan. We were supposed to have a meeting at the house of “Sanchez”, that was what the text stated. I furrowed my brow, trying to dredge up something from my mental filing cabinet. But maybe all that pancit slowed me down somewhat, no associations were made immediately.
We entered a white marble house with a confusing architectural design of doors and walls and windows in all the wrong places and balconies and intestines and memories jutting out. Seemingly from nowhere, this man in white appeared before me, hand outstretched. Then the folder in my mental filing cabinet jumped out like a jack-in-the-box. The stairwell scene and the wobbling statue of the Blessed Mary. Man in white with mopped hair screaming the vilest of invectives beside the most Immaculate of Virgins. Rape. Murder. UPLB. Eileen Sarmienta. Guilty.
The man in white was not the same Mayor Sanchez, of course. The convicted rapist is serving his time in Muntinlupa. It was his son, the one running for Mayor this election period. They looked exactly the same, from the all-white ensemble to the mopped hair. I felt goosebumps down my spine. We were there to try to broker an agreement with all local candidates for peaceful elections and poll-watching (Though the Sanchezes’ record of guns, goons and gold has made an alliance with AKBAYAN out of the question, it was still necessary to talk to the local leadership and establish one’s presence in the area as a measure of vote protection) and I couldn’t wait to get it over with. I understand that the sins of the father should not be borne by the son, but I have yet to understand why the son insists on the same white uniform and the same bunot-like hair. When I texted my Mom where I was and who I was talking to, she replied in all caps: “STAY AWAY FROM HIM! DON’T STRAY FROM THE GROUP!” From wherever she was, I am absolutely certain that she closed her eyes tight and prayed to her God that her daughter — attending a round-table meeting as a lawyer at 2 in the afternoon with five other people in the broad light of day, at the house of a candidate running for Mayor, and just ten short days before the elections — will not suddenly be gagged by a chloroform cloth, tied up, raped, murdered and buried in a shallow grave under the kitchen sink.
A mother’s love: gentle, constant, steadfast, and prone to intermittent bouts of politically-incorrect hysteria.
Tellingly and quite sadly, when I spoke to some AKBAYAN women after the poll-watching seminar we organized, they told me in whispers to be careful about asking around and that no one in Calauan will tell you that the Mayor is guilty.
From Calauan, we moved to Victoria, Laguna. I was looking forward to this leg the most because I would be with good friends from CARET, Lin and Gari. They were in Victoria to work actively on the campaign of Resty Cacha. Now, this was not a simple alliance. Or a strategic intervention. His was a solid, AKBAYAN-backed campaign — which was why virtually the entire CARET office left UP Village for a month and set up temporary base in Victoria.
The very minute I met him, I knew why. I’ve been speaking to local candidates for two days with very short gaps between meetings. There was a certain sleekness to them, manufactured and measured smiles. Ka Resty, on the other hand, was the real thing. For one, his house was very small. The walls were unpainted and the floors creaked. This after nine years as a councilor and six more years as Vice-Mayor. Second, he had the audacity to say that he would not pay for poll watchers. He trusted that the people would watch his votes because they were sick of the patronage politics and vote buying in Victoria. He could be right: people streamed into the itik farm where we gave three sessions of poll watching trainings, expecting no form of compensation. Unlike the other towns I came from where people asked about money, here there was none. No asking, and no money. Only platefuls of pancit (yes, pancit) donated by a supporter. And lastly, he had a solid platform and solid track record, not of dole-outs or graces, but of workable and efficient programs based on the premise of community empowerment. The way that the people support him is local activism at its finest. They confirmed my faith that everyone just needs to have someone, something to believe in, something to activate that dormant sense of activism always lying within.
So there I was, in the itik farm, waiting for my turn to speak. Edwin Chavez was giving a stirring introduction on the importance of elections and how poll-watchers can be architects of change. When it was my turn, I stood up suddenly, not realizing that I was under a shallow roof that also held (or used to hold) some itiks on top.
Blaagaaaaaaaaaaaak! I hit my head on the roof, disturbing the hardened itik droppings and making them fall on all directions, but eventually, magically, landing on my body. Herald from CARET and I were picking off itik droppings one by one from my hair, ears, face, neck, lips (he was picking, I was whining) while Edwin, perhaps seeing the fiasco from the front, was doing more ad libs (Isang malakas na bagsak para sa magigiting na mamamayan ng Victoria! Isa pa…! Isa pa ulit!…).
And after three sessions that day in Victoria, I went back to Manila close to midnight — bringing back home pineapples in my backpack, buco pie in both hands, pancit to last a lifetime in my belly, hope for the people of Victoria in my heart, and itik droppings in my underwear.