He was a few batches ahead of me, but we were classmates in maybe one or two Journalism subjects in the late 1990’s. We weren’t close friends, but I knew him well enough to be able to tell that he was a good boy who would grow up to become a good man.
I was in CASAA (a cafeteria in AS hall) with some groupmates for a class presentation on the afternoon of February 19, 1999. Suddenly, we heard the sound of gunfire. I remember very clearly that there was one gunshot, a wail, and then a series of gunshots. We weren’t sure at first of what we heard. There was some Chinese org conducting some sort of Chinese New Year celebration, and they were making quite a ruckus so we thought it the explosion was merely fireworks. But when we heard the piercing screams in the air, and when other diners in CASAA scooted under the tables for cover, we knew something bad had happened.
The day after, in my college, the College of Mass Communication, it was announced that Journ major Nino Calinao had been shot dead. He was an unwitting victim of a frat vendetta.
(Fast forward several years. While reviewing for the bar, we took up special tax review weekend classes at a review center in Manila. The seats were arranged on a first come-first served basis. Two friends and I found ourselves seated beside one fratman from an influential Muslim family who was accused of masterminding the slay. Rachel, who took her undergrad in Ateneo, had to take the seat beside him, because Bebang and I were both UP Journ students at the time of the killing, and couldn’t stand sitting beside him.)
And now this. Several years after Nino Calinao, Alex Icasiano, Den Reyes and other victims in the holy name of the brotherhood, comes Cris Mendez, who died because of severe contussions and heavy impact on the back of his knees and the back of his arms. These injuries incurred at the frat house identified as belonging to the Sigma Rho Fraternity.
I am not an angry person. I do not seethe. I do not feel fury in my bones to fan the flames of activism. I recognize oppression when I see it, and I will quietly endeavor to do what I can to help in its elimination. But there is something about fraternity culture that just angers me so much, creating a black ball of rage and fury inside me.
Frat violence just makes me sick. When I hear about frat rumbles sa UP, I catch myself thinking, sige na, go fuckin all kill each other and leave no one alive, so we can start raising a new breed of young men secure enough and mature enough to not need to learn how to use steel pipes to prove their manhood. When I hear about hazing, it makes me puke as well. Eight years in UP have not been able to blunt my disgust or make me feel blase about men breaking each other’s kneecaps in the name of some twisted brotherhood. When my guy friends show me their bruises and their wounds, I’m torn between being nice and caring and solicitous and giving ice or whatever, or getting the closest heavy thing in sight and slamming it hard on their injuries. In college, I went out for a very very brief time with a fratman guy, and I really didnt get the late night hush-hush escapades, the morning-after caucuses, the “warriors and scholars” thing they’ve got going.
But really, when you think about it, the violence is just the tip of the iceberg. I assert that the whole fraternity culture is evil, and is wreaking so much havoc on the Philippine system. There, I said it. Talk about impunity. You don’t really have to look far. Impunity is a bunch of man-boys strutting around campus, breaking car windows brazenly, conducting hazing rites despite the existence of a law prohibiting it, and knowing that they can get away with it because their alumni brods will get them off the hook or because, simply, there just ain’t enough political will to put these boys behind bars where they should be.
Barry and I were talking about it last night. A boy from the province, exhilarated at the thought of being enrolled in the best university of the Philippines but at the same time feeling lost and bewildered, would be the perfect target for fraternities. They offer you an instant support system, help with academics, connections for after you graduate, even financial assistance. In the law school, it’s ten times worse. There are teachers known to give spectacular grades to their brods, and flunk students from other frats. The leaders of the frats are usually law students, so there tend to be congregations or huddles by the law parking lot any given time. There they are, oozing with machismo and a sense of self-entitlement, beside their fancy cars, planning their next initiation rite, or scheming on how to get even with the rival fraternity, while the country’s workforce toil day and night to pay for their tuition through taxes.
And they get away with it. Every single time, they do. The system coddles them. The fraternity culture in a large part represents all that is bad about Philippine system. Palakasan, nepotism instead of meritocracy, bossism, clientelism, impunity. It’s power and political clout trumping everthing else.
Let’s hope the investigation on the death of Cris Mendez will not go the way of other investigations in the past. To the “men of trust and will and love, so fervent with bright hopes”, inom kayo minsan ng kapeng barako, nang kabahan naman kayo.