Blast from the past: Questions of a budding atheist

(NOTE: Reading fellow columnist Pepito Alvarez’s “Christianization of the North” reminded me of this essay I wrote as a student some years back. Although this discourse got a grade of 1.0 and a generous marginal note of ‘Excellent!’ from revered sociologist Randy David, much of my views have changed and matured since then. Still, I would like to share this with you if only to generate discussion. Instead of chastising the Herdy Yumul of yesteryears, please look closely at the questions he sincerely asked. Many among us have been bothered with the same thoughts at some point. While I may be a thinker out of the box, let me assure you that I have not lost my faith in Bathala, who has always been faithful to me despite myself. If at all, asking these questions led me to an enlightened understanding of my relationship with God, which I will be glad to share with you in a next column.)
“THAT IS A MYSTERY we finites could never understand.” My professors in theology owe it to this statement that they managed to get away each time they failed to answer my questions.
I never pretend to be a profound philosopher or a thinker of some stature. No, I am just a young man full of questions, questions that have been asked many times before. I am a person looking for someone to talk to. If you have time to spare, please have a seat and let’s talk. Let’s talk God. I have a creeping suspicion that he does not exist. Here is my story.
I have always asked questions about God and I have always hungered for answers. I am not exactly ignorant about the teachings of the Catholic Church. As a young boy, priesthood was my dream. From grade school to college, I consistently won in religion and bible quizzes. In San Beda, I got a string of 1.0s in my theology subjects. In our neighborhood in Laoag City, our family is known to be one of the most religious. At the age of 6, I have learned by heart the three sets of mysteries of the holy rosary, the Ten Commandments, and the seven deadly sins.
But I remember that when I was a kid, I wished I were never born. Adults told me horrible descriptions of hell—the never-ending and inescapable fire, the ugly creatures, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Most people, I was told, will go to Satan’s lair. Even Moses, they explained, was not allowed to see the Promised Land simply because he knocked a stone twice when God’s instruction was to knock it but once. It must be virtually impossible to go to heaven then, I thought. As a kid, I always had feelings of guilt and I always thought I would go to hell.
Later, I realized, isn’t God the Alpha and the Omega? So, he must have known even before my birth that I am hell-bound. If he already knew that I would not qualify for heaven, why the hell did he create me in the first place?
“You have free will to do good or bad. In the end, it will always be your choice,” advised Fr. X in class. “But Father, God is not bound by time. He is not only present in the future. He is the future. He knows how I would live this life and he surely knows my fate in the next,” said I. Pushed to the wall, the Benedictine monk replied, “Mr. Yumul, please don’t be so close-minded. Otherwise, you would not really understand.” I was being close-minded? Oh my God!
That made me understand why Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing in something you know ain’t true.” Then the pragmatic me wondered, if God does exist, why doesn’t he come out of the clouds and personally tell us “Hey guys, I’m here. Stop the debate.” Is God all-too-busy or all-too-important to participate in a class discussion?
Among the atheist arguments, I am struck most by the Argument of Evil. It goes this way: If God exists, He is all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good. The existence of evil and suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. Evil and suffering exist. Therefore, God does not exist.
Why is there evil in the world? Who created corrupt politicians, greedy capitalists, drug lords, terrorists, and priests who rape altar boys? Why do people of this kind continue to rule planet earth? Tell me, my friend, why did God create mosquitoes?
Why is there suffering in the world? Let’s take the case of street children. Can’t God help them? Or is He simply unaware of them? Or maybe He doesn’t really care? Would you believe a malnourished street child if he claims to be multimillionaire/preacher Mike Velarde’s son? Isn’t it all the more improbable that the dirty street child has a father who is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing all at the same time? God is perfect, right? So, how could he have created a world so imperfect? Ours is a world of pain, suffering and violence. You want a proof? Everywhere you go, there are hospitals and police outposts. You want more proof? Read the papers.
In many parts of the world, countless people die of hunger, of excruciatingly painful ailments, of crime and violence. Let’s also mention natural calamities like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoons that perennially claim lives and destroy property. How about sea and air tragedies? Why didn’t God lift a finger to melt the iceberg that sent the Titanic and 1500 souls down to the bottom of the freezing sea? What has God been doing? Why has he been so inept on his job? What difference has he to a policeman sleeping on duty or to an energy secretary who acts as spokesperson to greedy oil firms?
This makes me ask. What is God doing in heaven? Is he waiting for anyone to commit mistakes so he could impose punishments? Is he trigger-happy? Why does he always want to be praised? Is he conceited? What is his name, by the way? Is he Yahweh, Allah, Buddha? Or is he Herdy? Isn’t God the main cause of war in Mindanao? What has God got to say? At all, does he care?
Or could it be that when God rested on the seventh day he never woke up again? Why are there born Ayalas while others are born Batumbakals and die Batumbakals? Mendiola St. is a perfect irony. At one end, you would see awful human beings sleeping in the cold pavement above a stinky swamp. At the other end are snakes, crocodiles and other reptiles in the bulletproof presidential palace.
“Life at times is unfair,” concedes Dr. Maxwell Felicilda, my professor in Philosophy of Man. That statement might be a cliché but that is one of the best things I learned in college. We, Filipinos, have all the reasons to resent God. We are a Christian country for nothing. With all the fiestas that we celebrate, the novenas that we observe and the statues that we venerate, we remain a wretched country with nowhere to go.
But resentment is for those people who expect too much of God. People who, when in personal crisis, say “This is just a pagsubok, a test of my faith in God.” Then, when better days come, thanks to their own efforts, these people exclaim: “I thank you Loving Father for your blessings!” In the end, nothing is credited to their own volition, like puppets with pull strings that extend up to the high heavens.
This reminds me of my Mom, one of the most devout Catholics I have ever known. She always tells me that she would rather see me become a Christian scavenger than a spiritually poor billionaire. Seldom would she ask how I am doing in life or how I envision my future. But she never fails to ask me: “Have you heard mass?” Oftentimes, just to make her happy, I am obliged to lie.
I believe that man is the only master of his destiny. If you were really dull and lazy, you’d still flunk the exams no matter how many candles you lit at St. Jude’s Church. I join existentialist philosophers in their belief that the concept of God hinders the actualization of man’s full potentials. Maybe this is one reason why our country is crippled with poverty. We expect too much of God. To everything we say “Diyos na ang bahala” (God will take charge).
It is with these thoughts, my friend, that I suspect that God does not exist. This, so far, is the only acceptable answer to all the questions I raised in this essay. You think I am a miserable man? Maybe, but so is everyone. I join Friedrich Nietzsche in asking you: Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s blunders?
But guess what? When earthquakes rock the earth, my instinct is still to go out of the building, look up to the heavens and mumble with a quivering voice: “Lord, please forgive me. Oh, Lord, please forgive me.” I fear dying. To a great extent, the stories about hell have stuck to my mind. H.L. Mencken was right: Fear is the be-all and end-all of religion.
One time at the airport, I chanced upon a promotional brochure depicting the Philippines as paradise. If the Philippines were paradise, I am afraid to imagine how hellish hell can be.
But what could be more hellish than to live a whole life of fear, deception and resentment because of a God that does not exist. ##

“Farmer son of Batac” writes

This columnist was delighted to receive an email from reader Ernesto Rabanal Lagmay, who calls himself “farmer son of Batac”, although he is now based in Norway. He writes:
“Hello Herdy! I just read your column and I am impressed that you appreciate the farming life of the Daguro Family in Agunit, Marcos. It is true that the younger generation today aspire for white collar jobs simply because farming in the Philippines is not a promising profession. This is because farmers are being neglected by the state leaders who are very much busy working for their personal interests. There is too much corruption everywhere. You know, farmers themselves cannot do all the necessary improvements like irrigation, easy access to modern farm machines, and scientific farming, among other things.
“Prosperity in a society has to start from the top and it must be a team work. Just have a look at those countries which are so progressive because of farming. Denmark, for example, has no oil. It exports mostly agricultural products–wheat, livestock, and bi-products.

“Personally speaking, I really do not know when it will happen in the Philippines. Filipinos are talented and well-educated, but other countries are reaping the benefits of having our well-educated doctors, nurses, and engineers. Will our leaders remain contented to have our teachers work abroad as domestic help?
“Sorry to say, but there isn`t much that you or I can do at the moment. So, I do not blame the mentality of the older generation of farmers that they strive so hard to send their children to college to attain a degree. It is because, for them, it is the only way and means for a future better than agriculture.
“Good luck to your semester in farming!”

*****
Herdy’s Riknakem: It is normal to expect change to start from the top. But, if government is not doing enough, or is burying the people deeper in the graveyard, conscientious citizens must realize their supreme power to make a difference in the national life. Mechanisms for popular participation in policy formulation and program implementation are embedded in a true democracy. Citizens who complain and do nothing are not any better than the leaders who are subjects of their discontent.
The letter sender writes, “Sorry to say, but there isn`t much that you or I can do at the moment”. Given our gloomy scenario, it is easy to feel helpless and inadequate, especially if and when you are alone. Instead of rambling individually, however, ordinary folks like you and me should come together and talk about solutions that can be executed in our own spheres of influence. There is strength (and magic) in collective action.

Profound social change is brought about not by individuals but by movements. Like-minded citizens should come together and feel alone no more.

Qui tacet consentit! He who is silent consents! Mang Ernesto broke his silence. When will you break yours? ###

***
Kablaaw: To all residents of MMSU Coed’s Dormitory, warm regards and congratulations for a meaningful socialization program. Kudos to Men’s Wing President Albert Daguro, Women’s Wing President Jonalyn de Ocampo, Dormitory Manager Corazon Agpaoa, and to my fellow advisers. // Happy Birthday to Professor Michelle Reynera, mathematics department chair in our university, one of the jolliest souls I have met. Keep ‘em bursting in laughter!

A tale of two Glorias

IN AN EFFORT to show that the benefits of the government’s much-trumpeted economic efforts are trickling down to the masses, the president spent a considerable amount of time honoring everyday heroes in her eighth State of the Nation Address which she delivered two weeks ago before fashionable members of congress. Wearing a pale fuchsia pink “modernized Maria Clara” gown created by top designer JC Buendia, our head of state recognized—to the exaggerated applause of a friendly audience—farmers, lady welders, and ordinary folks who made a difference in their lives and, by induction, in the nation’s.
Allow me to follow Her Excellency’s lead by writing about “the other Gloria”, one of my everyday heroes. In doing so, I will juxtapose Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, referred to here as La Gloria and “the other Gloria”—Manang Gloria, our househelp.
Please do not raise your eyebrows, the president herself claims to be a granddaughter of a labandera and is proud to be so. Thus, she is not at all offended when people taunt her with the novelty song: “Gloria, Gloria, labandeeeeera!”. This, I say, deserves our praise.
Gloria Portela Valencia, 51, hails from Barangay Bacsil in Dingras town. Manong Rolando, her “First Gentleman”, is a tobacco farmer who tills less-than-a-hectare of land that is not theirs (makitaltalonda laeng). The eldest among her siblings, Manang Gloria started working as a “kasambahay” at age 13. When she got married and bore kids, this devoted mother quit her job and stayed home to take care of their family. Eight years ago, however, when her children started going to college, Manang Glory decided to come back as a kasambahay so she can help send her children to school.
Honesty and integrity are among Manang Gloria’s many virtues. We could trust her with anything, even the most valuable of our possessions (and secrets). Given her deep sense of fairness and delicadeza, natalged ti riknami iti uneg iti pagtaenganmi. (We feel at ease inside our home). In contrast, under La Gloria’s watch, the Philippines has been largely perceived as the most corrupt economy in East Asia. It does not help that members of her family have been tagged in a number of scams and shady deals. As a result, La Gloria figures in the surveys as the most distrusted post-Marcos president.
On the day of the SONA (for which 200 million pesos of the Filipino people’s money was spent), there were no traces of the national crisis in the newly-refurbished Batasan. La Gloria and her cohorts were in the perfect mood to take a bite of Hollywood by walking on a long, thick, red carpet even as the nation was ailing—very much like dancing the papaya dance in an Intensive Care Unit. Manang Gloria has never set foot on a flashy red carpet but she knows door mats and cleaning rags pretty well—trapos are her tools, but she is not a trapo.
Manang Gloria is no saint, but when she commits a mistake, she says “sorry” and means it. She accepts her blunders and strives to make amends. Such was the case when she broke the glass cover of an expensive cooking pan. She looked sincerely regretful, offered to pay for the damage (which we refused), and promised to be more careful next time (which she did). Two years ago, a teary-eyed La Gloria delivered over primetime national television a well-rehearsed (but poorly performed, said veteran actress Susan Roces) “I.. am… sorry” speech for an offense she would never admit and, ergo, would never rectify.
A Doctor of Philosophy in Economics, La Gloria posits that the E-VAT is one of the best things that happened to the economy. While not claiming to be a financial technocrat, Manang Gloria, who only reached grade six, knows with certainty that E-VAT is a curse to the Filipino masa.

In her SONA, La Gloria declared: “I care…” and “nag-aalala ako” for her suffering constituency. Manang Gloria may not be as eloquent in expressing her feelings but she shows that caring entails sacrifice and self-denial. La Gloria, along with a typically bloated delegation, went on with a junket to the US of A even as Typhoon Frank lashed the country and left hundreds of casualties in the deep blue sea. Manang Gloria would not have been as callous to do the same. In fact, she once volunteered to postpone her day-off when the rains poured heavily and leaks on the roof plagued our abode.

Because of her good nature, Manang Gloria has no known enemies unlike La Gloria whose foes are as abundant as the pirated DVDs sold just a few steps away from the Laoag City Hall.
Wait, Manang Gloria does have two critics: me and my dad who sometimes complain of her salty cooking (naapgad/maalat). But well, saltiness is something very easy to remedy compared to a leadership turned sour.
We want to keep Manang Gloria for as long as we can, but we know that she will have to leave us in due time, certainly when her children become professionals, so she can go back to being a full-time nanang. Yes, we want to keep Manang Gloria beyond 2010!
Her poverty notwithstanding, Manang Gloria says she sleeps soundly at night. We can only hope that La Gloria enjoys the same luxury. ###

Pedaling our way through the crisis


“KAPAG MAIKLI ANG KUMOT, MATUTONG MAMALUKTOT,” goes a Filipino proverb. “Sir, nagakikid met ti ulesen, kasla labacara pay ketdin,” (Sir, the mattress is now as short as a face towel) quipped Christian Aguinaldo, one of my students in Sociology. I was about to dismiss the remark as a joke but there was seriousness in the young man’s voice, so I decided to give it a serious thought. Before I could respond, however, another student commented, “Kapag namamaluktot na at maikli pa rin ang kumot, putulin na ang paa!”.

Soaring prices of oil and other basic commodities, unbearable costs of basic services, and people who blurt out #%^&!$* when they read screaming headlines of more doom for this already battered nation. All these point to one thing: we live in very difficult times, and, no matter how the president paints a rosy picture of the economy in her SONA, the crisis seems posed to stay for the long run.

Turbulence notwithstanding, my faith in the resilience of the Filipino remains unshaken. His indomitable spirit allowed him to endure (and thwart) the rule of colonial masters, the regimes of abusive presidents, and the most destructive of natural and man-made calamities. Matiisin at maparaan ang Pinoy. Today, in an attempt to cope with the crisis, substitutes for rice are being proposed, energy-efficient measures are being promoted, and the everyman is compelled to resort to means, big and small, to cope. Going back to the basics is no longer just an option, but a matter of survival.

On this note, allow me to give my own piece on belt-tightening, something very close to my heart: Bicycling.

It is true that bicycling events are held occasionally to heighten awareness on the environment, on peace, and other areas of concern. Leisurely bicycle tours and competitive races are also organized from time to time. So little has been done, however, to make bicycling an integral part of our everyday lives.

In MMSU Batac where I teach, I know less than five students who ride a bicycle to school. (I am a brother to every cyclist, and so I know them by name. Among them are future civil engineer Richard Jay Cac and the Garcia brothers Ace and Mark.) In contrast, hundreds of motor vehicles crowd the parking spaces at any given school day. Majority are resigned to riding tricycles to, fro, and around the campus, even as another twenty-five percent increase in trike fare awaits. In Laoag, the number of folks who use the bicycle in going to work or in accomplishing their day-to-day errands is insignificant as well. In the case of most towns, one would pay as much as P100.00 on special tricycle trips to reach their remote sitios.

This is sad because by bicycling, we can shoot a platoon of devils with one stone (I would have said shoot many birds with one stone, but I’m a bird lover). Aside from affordable mobility, bicycling also offers benefits to health—ours and the environment’s. The fun and excitement it gives are a bonus. Yes, we should try bicycling as a major means of transportation, not just for leisure, here in Ilocos.

It is happy to note that both the governor and the Catholic bishop are sports lovers. Bishop Sergio Utleg is known to ride his mountain bike whenever he has time, even taking long routes like Ilocos to Isabela. His Excellency looks as good with a helmet as with a miter, the bishop’s cap. It is safe to assume that Governor Michael Keon, a patron of many sports, is supportive of cycling as well. Can you imagine what vibrant a bicycling culture we can nurture if both the church and the provincial government proclaim the good news of pedaling?

Around the world, many proactive cities have advanced the cause of bicycling. Leading the way in this initiative are Amsterdam and Groningen in the Netherlands, where an extensive network of safe, fast and comfortable bicycle routes has been developed. In these cities, where over 50% of inhabitants travel on two wheels, the road safety of cyclists has been intensified, a theft-prevention program was set up, and the number of bicycle sheds was increased.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, 32% of workers bicycle to work. In Berlin, Germany, where less than half of residents own a car, it has become downright common to ride a bike every day. Berlin officials pledged to work toward bikes comprising 15% of the city’s traffic by the year 2010.

Here in the Philippines, the City of Marikina has taken the lead. In a novel approach to solving the transportation challenges posed by rising gas prices, Marikina initiated several infrastructural changes to encourage 20% of the city’s residents to ride bicycles to work every day. Marikina has a program against bicycle theft, with 150 bicycle-riding patrollers roaming around the city. To promote safety, its City Bikeways Office (Yes, a government office dedicated solely for bicycling!) initiated a Safe Cycling Education program. In line with this, around 100,000 guidebooks for bicycle upkeep and usage were distributed to households.

Marikina, which has a cycling track in its sports complex, purchased 500 training bikes for those wishing to learn to ride. The city government conducts Saturday Bicycle Clinics to promote a “Bike-to-School” program. A Bicycle Loan Project is also in place for residents who want to purchase a bicycle. The loan, payable in twelve months, is without interest. Recognized by many organizations as an outstanding local government program, Marikina’s Bicycle-Friendly City Project is not only funded by the city coffers, but also by a million-dollar grant from the World Bank Global Environment Facility. Inspired by Marikina, other LGUs, including the Province of Albay, are following the lead.

They have done it elsewhere, we can do it here. The first order of the day is to encourage people to push the pedal, and urge motorists to respect bicyclers’ rights. Infrastructure can come later.

I concede though that bicycling is not for everyone. The caveat: you should AVOID bicycling if…

1. You suffer from inferiority complex.
In downtown Paris, London, and Seoul, men and women in business suits have no qualms about riding a bicycle to their offices. In the Philippines, however, it is potentially intimidating to park a lowly bicycle side-by-side flashy motorcycles and cars. When you drive a bicycle to work, some people make you feel that you are in the lowest rung of the system of social stratification in the streets. A few remarks are encouraging: Wow, healthy lifestyle, kakainggit!. But many throw the hello-ok-ka-lang look. To many, bicycling to work seems acceptable if you are a carpenter or a farmer, but not if you are doing a white-collar job.
Last semester, however, going around the MMSU campus and occasionally traveling from Laoag to Batac (and vice versa) on bicycle gave me savings of P5, 000.00. My pride costs much less than that, and so I bike.

2. You are the glutha-type-of-person
If you are the typical xenocentric Filipino who thinks that beauty is directly proportional to skin lightness, please don’t bike. This sport is not for the insecure. Of course, you already know that our skin’s melanin content (the substance responsible for skin pigmentation) protects us against the damaging rays of the sun, perfectly fit for those who live along the equator.
3. You do not want to get tired.
Never mind that bicycling heightens your endurance and builds your muscles.
4. You abhor getting sweaty.
Never mind that sweating is a major player when it comes to removing excess heat, waste materials, and accumulated toxins out of our system.
5. You do NOT love life.
How many motorcycle accidents have we heard of lately? One motorcycle brand has gained the reputation as “Killer Wave” because of the numerous mishaps its riders have suffered. In contrast, bicycle accidents are very rare and are generally not fatal. This is because with a bisikleta, you feel more in control. You tend to be more disciplined.
More than just a physical exercise, bicycling is something very spiritual for me. The slow, steady cadence of a bike is like a two-wheeled, human-powered sojourn to utopia. When I am on my bike, I feel so at peace with myself and with the world. I also feel most free when I am pushing the pedal, in stark contrast to my enslavement in front of a computer when I am writing for hours.

True, the bicycle does have some limitations. For instance, when the rains fall, you get soaked. But even biking on a rainy (even stormy) day could be a fun experience. I have tried it several times, and with great pleasure. But, if you are not as adventurous, a raincoat would always do the trick. For every excuse you can think of why you should not bike, I can give you two reasons why you should. But, if you remain unconvinced about cycling, try something even better: walking.

Children and grandparents, students and workers, paupers and businessmen, nuns and politicians—all of them bicycling day after day… that is my dream.

Ariel Ureta, a comic, was penalized in the 70’s for his parody of a Martial Law slogan: Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, bisikleta ang kailangan. Today, we look at Ureta as a prophet ahead of his milieu. Given the current crisis, it is time we take his joke seriously or the joke is on us. ###

***
Kablaaw: To the fifth year Mechanical Engineering students of MMSU: thank you for making the classroom experience a joy. Wishing you well on your continued search for meaning. // Happy birthday to my nephew Lord Jay and niece Sara Diane. May all of your dreams come true.

(e-mail: herdiology101@yahoo.com)

Agunit and the farmer wannabe





(This is my first article in the Ilocos Times. While columnists are expected to be men of notable knowledge, allow me to begin by writing about something I have no expertise on. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know,” says the enigmatic philosopher Socrates, and I am in the mood to believe him.)

NEVER HAVE I FELT MORE IGNORANT in my life than when I went to a farm. Having grown up in urban areas, I have never stayed in an agricultural community. The perpetually neglected ornamental plants in my bedroom terrace would be first to attest that planting is not my cup of tea.

Last year, I left my job in Manila to teach here in the province. Unlike in the nation’s capital where I taught sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, most of my students here are children of farmers. Concerned that having kneel knowledge of agriculture made my teaching less relevant, I decided to embark on a self-imposed immersion in a farm. This happened when Albert Daguro, one of my former students, invited me on a weekend visit to their home in Brgy. Agunit, a farming community in Marcos town. He was apprehensive at first, saying that there was nothing much to see, but invited me anyway when he felt that it was something really meaningful for me.

Aboard a rusty jeepney, I then traveled to Agunit with the excitement of a groom and the curiosity of a child. Passing through the uninterrupted farmland bordered in the horizon by majestic mountains, I realized how little a part of the universe I was and how much space there is to explore. The experience was spiritual. Borrowing Rizal’s description of Dapitan, Agunit easily struck me as “picturesque and very poetic… without comparison.”

There I met Albert’s family. True to the Ilocano mold, his father, Tata Pascual, is known to be a very industrious man. At 68, this former barangay captain remains one of the most active farmers in Agunit. Far from the melodramatic tales of farmers in Sumilao and feudal haciendas, the Daguros are fortunate. With sheer discipline and guts, Tata Pascual and his loving wife started from scratch and gradually acquired parcels of land. Now totaling a few hectares, their farm is more than sufficient to provide their family a decent life.

The Daguros have eight cows, three carabaos, six goats, four pigs, and egg-laying ducks and chickens that were too busy running around their backyard to be counted. A miniature pond also produces fish for their consumption. Add to these the mango and avocado trees that diligently bear fruits. They have their own farm machines: a tractor and a kuliglig. To top these all, their sitio enjoys an efficient irrigation system that allows farmers to plant rice three times in a year. Given these blessings, I was interested to know whether Mang Pascual’s children are building their dreams around agriculture. Or, as with most families, do they see education as gateway to redemption?

Ronald, the eldest among the Daguro siblings, finished criminology and is now a newly sworn policeman. Albert is a civil engineering senior while Russell, the only female, is a nursing freshman. Six-grader Oliver, their youngest, tends their goats, but only Jhoan, the second eldest son, now works full time in the farm. After finishing a two-year technical course, Jhoan was requested by Tata Pascual to help him till their land. Being a good son, the former naturally obliged, although he occasionally resents being tied up to backbreaking work in the fields. Jhoan mulls of going back to school when his siblings graduate so he, too, can be a “professional”.

This reminded me of many students who strive in college, hoping they can eventually turn their backs on farming and do white-collar jobs. They subscribe to the belief that wearing a coat, working in an air-conditioned office, and speaking the language of colonizers are the main indicators of personal growth. Convinced that education is the best legacy they can leave behind, parents are quick to remind their children: do well in your studies, less you become just farmers like us.

I lament at how formal education is overvalued. Our present crop of political leaders proves that honesty, integrity, and unity—virtues that our nation miserably lacks—are legacies not guaranteed by a diploma. I do not say that children of farmers should not pursue other careers; everyone is entitled to see more of the world and discover new things as I do now. I was just wondering if they realize their sector’s worth and promise.

In MMSU, for instance, courses in agriculture register significantly lower enrolment compared to the health and business fields. This situation aggravates the already wide mismatch between our country’s human resource requirements and the graduates produced by universities, resulting to an increase in rates of unemployment and underemployment. Students taking up agriculture bear with people taunting them: mannalon ka la ngaruden, agriculture pay laeng ti innalam! They remain undistracted, however, as many of them have their dreamy eyes set, not in our own land, but elsewhere greener, like New Zealand. Meanwhile, queues for affordable rice now reach scandalous lengths.

In sociology, structural functionalist theory explains social stratification by assuming that positions essential to society’s survival are awarded more than those that are not as important. Of course, the “important” positions’ higher remuneration and prestige are justified by the long formal training and the skills acquired in the process. In this perspective, the lifetime training of farmers does not count because they don’t get any diploma for it. That small farmers are important for the population to survive is taken for granted, especially now that agriculture has become the milking cow of manipulative multinational firms.

In an attempt to convince his people that farming is a good a profession as medicine, Rizal himself became a farmer in Dapitan. Writing to his sister, Lucia, our national hero remarked: “We cannot all be doctors, it is necessary that there would be some who would cultivate the soil.” But who can blame farmers who wish they could do something else? Much is to be desired from government and society at large. While it is true, for example, that the prices of farm produce have skyrocketed, so have the costs of plant inputs. Hence, many farmers are buried in debt even as the “fertilizer scam” remains unresolved and is doomed, as many other scandals are, to be forgotten. The recent distribution of free sacks of fertilizers to farmers may sound commendable, but it is just another band-aid solution in the absence of a well-implemented and sustainable program to alleviate the plight of the mannalon.

When I left Agunit and went home to my place in the city, I felt a vacuum inside me. Aside from the breathtaking sights and subtle sounds of the fields, there were much more to my enchantment. I was drawn to the farm folks’ solidarity with nature, their spartan way of life, and their ability to appreciate the simple joys brought by simple things. I witnessed how members of farming families are tightly knit, how their neighbors are treated as family, and how belief in an unseen God is manifested in their day-to-day attempt at co-creation.

I went to Agunit so secure of myself, but left the place humbled at how little I knew about the more basic things in life. Unlike farm kids who, by taking care of animals and helping out in the paddies, have developed a sense of responsibility and stewardship early on, I was the bratty type of child. Our family has always had househelps who made life easier for us. Our domestic comforts, quite ironically, are brought by folks who come from agricultural families not as fortunate as Tata Pascual’s. Now in her fifties, Manang Glory, wife of a tobacco farmer, works in our household so she can help send her children to school.

With reasons now more personal than professional, I have included in my lifetime’s to-do list working as a full-time farmer, even just for an entire season. As an apprentice, I want to experience all the processes from pre-planting to post-harvest, and feel both the joy and despair that go with transforming nature and being transformed by it in turn. An employee under the tyranny of the Bundy clock, I am not sure how this can be possible. But just as a farmer has faith that the seeds will fertilize, I have high hopes this dream will happen in time. While most academics aspire for scholarships in top universities, I yearn for a semester or two in the farm. Hopefully, in my next visit, the Daguros would let me dirty my hands, and not pamper me the way they did during my first sojourn.

As I nurture this agricultural dream, news are abound that two monuments of materialism will be built in this province known for her people’s frugality and hard work. One mall will rise in the flourishing town of St. Nick while the other will be built in the middle of Laoag City, posing threats of more traffic, pollution, and an empty lifestyle—banes of urban life that Agunit folks are lucky to be spared from.

Each one of us is said to have a rightful place under the sun. I found mine inside the classroom, Tata Pascual found his in paradise. My classroom, however, need not always be four-walled, and I need not always be the teacher. ###

(herdiology@yahoo.com)

The Ilocos Times

A member of the Philiippine Press Institute, The Ilocos Times is the longest running community newspaper edited and published in Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, Philippines over the past 46 years.

The paper was founded in 1920 although it came out irregularly until 1957 when it became a weekly with 90% English and 10% Iluko, the vernacular of Northern Luzon, Philippines.
The Ilocos Publishing Corporation, a family-owned entity having its own commercial printing facilities, publishes the paper.

The Website Edition (http://www.ilocostimes.com/) was constructed on October 2000 primarily aimed at catering to the local news and information needs of Ilocos Norte natives and other Ilocanos living abroad.