Mixed Martial Arts

‘This is our story’

David Lozada
'I won’t wish you good luck as that would be too conventional. Instead, I wish you will be broken. I wish you will fail and be defeated...'

This speech was delivered by the author during the Commencement Exercises of the FEU-FERN Basic Education Department on March 28, 2014.

Five years ago, I spoke on this same spot to deliver a message to my batchmates, the graduating class of 2009. Things were very different then – I was a young, naïve and immature student who had no idea of what might happen after my graduation. Contrary to what my batchmates thought then, I did not know what to do with my life. I did not know what course to take in college or what career to pursue after. I never thought that the choices I made and the career I chose would bring me back here to this same podium.

I know that most of you, graduates, now have the same dilemmas that I once faced. What happens after high school graduation? What will I do in college? What does the future hold for me? But don’t worry! Do not be overly hesitant and anxious. You are at a crossroad in your life. You should be excited of what lies ahead. 

I am a storyteller. As a journalist, I tell stories of people, significant events and issues that affect society. Today, I will share some valuable lessons I learned in life by telling five stories – stories that will provide a picture of what life is like in college and in the outside world. Stories that will, hopefully, help you decide in the decisions you will face in the future. I hope the following stories will disturb you and give you the courage to face the future.

1) A story of the bigger picture

The first story is that of an overseas Filipino worker named Arthur Villeta. I met Mang Arthur when I was doing a story on soup kitchens in Manila

For the past decades, Mang Arthur served as the Royal Fashion Designer of the Brunei Royal Family. He was living the life. He had a high salary. He had the favor of the royals. Unfortunately, a stroke ended his career in 2011. After which, his life became a downward spiral. He came back to the Philippines hoping to retire and recuperate in the loving company of his family. But that did not happen. When he had no more financial capability, his family left him. Now, he roams the streets of Manila looking for employment so he can stand up and regain his pride. He goes around soup kitchens and feeding programs so he won’t die of hunger.

He was crying while he was telling me his story. He never got any support from his relatives, even from the government. He told me, “When we are outside the country, we are considered heroes because our dollars prop up our economy. Now that we are useless, they don’t care about us anymore. Hindi totoong mga bayani kami.” (We’re not really heroes.) Mang Arthur is not alone. If you roam the streets of Manila, you can see so many hungry and homeless people, former OFWs or not.

Graduates, we all know that we face a country that is full of problems. Although our economy has been on a boom for the past years, its effects have not trickled down to those who need it most, the poorest of the poor. Most of our countrymen experience extreme poverty and helplessness. Families are separated because parents are forced to go abroad so that they can support their children. I’ve seen fathers cry because they cannot provide for their families. This is while senators and corrupt politicians splurge on expensive condominiums and thousand-dollar meals using the taxes that should’ve been for the poor.

Poverty, hunger, and corruption is widespread in the Philippines. That is a fact and we all know that. The important question that we should be asking is: What are we doing to help our countrymen? What are we doing to address the problems?

Mang Arthur’s story is not isolated. His story is a story of a people struggling to survive. His story is the story of millions of Filipinos living below the poverty line. 

Dear graduates, you experience so many privileges that people like Mang Arthur don’t have. As a part of a privileged class, you have the responsibility to help our countrymen in need.  And I’m not talking about mere financial support, as that is not sustainable. Real help is pushing for and demanding good and honest leadership from our government. Real help is creating jobs that will uplift the dignity of your countrymen. Real help is choosing not to be corrupt, not to cheat and not to lie even when everyone else is doing it. Real help is choosing to be excellent in your studies and representing the Philippines well in whatever country you go to. Real help is serving your country and countrymen in whatever career you pursue.

In life, it is important to always see the bigger picture and the bigger context. We are all interconnected and our actions will always affect those around us. The challenge is to always see beyond ourselves – to step back and analyze whether our choices will affect the greater good or not. In your future decisions, I hope you will always remember people like Mang Arthur, remember your countrymen, remember your country. We are the future leaders of the Philippines. Our decisions will decide the fate of millions. The first story is a story of the bigger picture, of interconnectedness.

2) A story of gratitude

The second story is the story of a teacher, Mrs. Lilia Diaz. I wrote a profile about her last June 2013. 

Nanay Lilia, as her students fondly call her, has been a teacher for the past 70 years. She taught at the St. Ignatius Academy in Culion, Palawan, a Jesuit-run private institution in the small island. The choice to stay and teach in Culion was a difficult decision. For those of you who don’t know, Culion was once the largest leper colony in the world. It was called the ‘land of the living dead.’ Noong panahon ng mga Kastila at Amerikano, doon tinatapon lahat ng mga ketongin. Kapag sinabi noon na galing kang Culion, pinandidirihan ka. Halos hindi tao ang turing sa’yo. (Lepers were sent to Culion during the Spanish and American periods. When people know that you’re from Culion, they abhor you. It’s almost as if you’re not treated as a human being.) No teacher would choose to stay and teach the children. Hence, the life of the people there became an endless cycle of poverty, pain, and helplessness. Nanay Lilia saw the pain of the people.

Despite the low salary, and the stigma against the people on the island, Nanay Lila chose to stay and teach in the school. Because of the difficulty in making ends meet, she put up a stall to sell banana-cue and other snacks during weekends. In addition to her financial difficulties, her neighbors would insult her. “You’re a teacher and you’re selling banana-cue? Why are you putting up with the difficulty? Why stay when you can teach in other schools with a higher salary?” Nanay Lilia retired a few years ago but she cannot let go of teaching. Now, she goes to isolated islands and teaches the illiterate natives, the Tagbanuas.

When I interviewed her, I asked her, “Why did you stay? What did you hold on to?” I was awe-struck when she answered, “I stayed because I wanted to help the people of Culion. I wanted to help heal the people of the stigma they face every day. I wanted to see my students rise above their difficulties.” In 2006, because of the hard work of people like Nanay Lilia, Culion was declared leprosy-free.

The story of Nanay Lilia is the story of almost every teacher you’ve ever had in your life. Her story is the story of every teacher in the Philippines. Teaching is a very difficult profession.  No one gets financially rich from being a teacher. But teachers choose to teach because they want to form the next generation of Filipinos. They are dedicating their hopes and their lives in their students’ future. They teach because they know that it is their role in shaping a better community, a better Philippines. 

The story of teachers is a story of gratitude. You will never reach your goals if you don’t learn to be grateful to those who have helped you along the way. Know that in your journey you are never alone and your successes will never be yours alone, too. 

Despite the many problems we face in our country, we have people like Nanay Lila, and our teachers – modern day heroes who are willing to give their lives to help improve society by passing what they know to the youth. We all have that teacher whose lessons in class and in life, we will never forget. Before you leave later, hug them, thank them, and promise them that you won’t let them down.

In making future decisions, never forget to look back at those who formed and educated you. Your teachers have invested in you to become not only successful but righteous Filipinos. Do not waste their investments. The second story is a story of gratitude, of investment.

3) A story of being grounded

The third story is the story of a 40-year-old single mother named Susie. She was a faithful house wife, who dedicated her entire life to taking care of her husband and children. Despite her best efforts to keep her family intact, her husband left her and her 3 children after 16 years of marriage, a few years back. You can imagine her devastation when her husband left. She had no job, no means of making a living, nothing. 

Pushed down by life’s ugly reality, Susie could have chosen to quit. Instead, she chose to stand up and fight back. Using her entrepreneurial skills and the help of her own mother, Susie faced the struggles and started a business in hopes of creating a better future for her children. She did not fight for herself. She fought for her children, her only reason for living.

Susie says she and her 3 children now have better lives than when her husband was there. She proved to be a better provider and a better father figure to her kids.

Mrs. Susie Lozada is my mother. Her story is the story of our parents and their struggle to give us the best future they can. They are willing to sacrifice everything just to give us the lives we deserve. They face life’s challenges because they have us in mind. 

Graduates, always listen to your parents’ advice. You might not always agree and they might not always be right, but their experience gives them valuable wisdom that we can learn from. As cliché as it might sound, they’ve all been there and done that. When life knocks you down and you’re faced with so many problems and tough decisions, you will always have your parents to go back to. They will always be there to support you – to celebrate with you in your successes, and cry with you in your failures. 

Our parents represent our core, our home, our sanctuary. Always have that something and that someone to go back to. When you’ve gone so far and you feel so strained, your core, and your grounding will help you find your way back.

Aside from being a story of gratitude and investment, the story of parents is a story of being grounded. In life, it is important to always know where you stand and where you came from. Even when you’ve achieved so much, always take time to look back, revisit your core and your history. Keep your feet firmly on the ground and your eyes fixed on your dreams. As the Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”

4) A story of dreaming big

The fourth story is like any other students’ story. It’s my story.

When I graduated from high school, I was confident that I’d conquer college. I did not know what was in store for me and I was excited because for the first time in my life, I was clueless. 

When I entered Ateneo, I was devastated. For one, I was intimidated with my blockmates. I was a scholar and my allowance was only a third of what they were getting. I was used to being the star student since elementary. But I was now in an academic environment where all my classmates were Valedictorians, Salutatorians and Honorable mentions. How could I be outstanding in a school where everyone is excellent? I also had a difficult time with my subjects. As shameful as it might sound, I failed my first Math long exam despite being ‘Best in Math’ for 3 years in high school. I lost my confidence and decided that I just wanted to be a ‘normal’ student – no goals of graduating with honors, no plans of joining an organization. An Ateneo diploma would suffice, I told myself. I luckily got into the Dean’s List during the first semester because of Typhoon Ondoy and the teachers were generous in giving grades.

My perspective changed, however, during the second semester. As part of our homeroom class, we had an exposure trip to Foundling Home, an institution housing homeless boys from Manila. I met Junjun. 

Junjun was 5 years old then. He was battered by his father and his mother could not support him so she gave him away. Despite being 5 years old, the only words he knew then was ‘Kuya’ and ‘pahingi.’ This is partly because he had not been to school and partly because of the maltreatment he experienced from his parents. The bruises on his arms and legs were still visible when I saw him. I only spent half a day in Foundling Home yet I saw something in Junjun that changed my whole perspective in life. In Junjun, I saw life’s reality – not everyone was as privileged as I. Some children go through very horrible circumstances because of poverty and many other factors.

I was so touched that afternoon that when I came home, I asked my mom if we could adopt Junjun. Given our circumstances then, my mother, of course, declined my request. The next time I visited Foundling Home, JunJun was already gone. The administrator said he was taken away by his mom but some said he ran away. I never saw Junjun again. 

I spent only a few hours with Junjun but he destroyed my life for the better. Before meeting him, I just wanted to graduate and land a high paying job and be rich after graduation. But that has changed. Not that I don’t want to be rich, anymore, but I gained a sense of purpose. Despite the temptation to take a managerial job in the corporate world – not that there’s anything wrong with that – I chose to pursue a career in journalism because I saw it as the best way I can contribute to society. I want to tell stories that will inspire and anger people to act. I want to influence policy and people so that kids like Junjun will have a better future. This was my part in creating a better Philippines.

Dear graduates, life often allows you to see a glimpse of what we call the Face – a face that shows other people’s suffering and pain. When you see this Face, you are compelled to act with a sense of purpose and higher understanding. I saw that face not inside the classroom but in Junjun. I think a lot of us gets a glimpse of that Face in our every day lives – that old lady begging for alms in the overpass, that street kid you saw sniffing rugby, that janitor who works so hard to feed his family. But not everyone is able to respond to the call of the Face they see. Is it because we are too attached to comfort? Is it because we are afraid to see their pain that we choose to desensitize ourselves from them? Minsan, hindi natin sila kayang tignan sa mata dahil sobrang nakakasilaw. May batang kumakatok sa bintana ng sasakyan pero pinipili na lang nating hindi sila tignan. We feel the pain but we shut it away.

We all know the importance of dreaming big. Dreaming big helps you see clearly what choices you need to make and which path you need to take. Dreaming big gives you that thirst and drive to succeed. Dreaming big helps you know what you are fighting for, what your end goal is. Dreaming is free and if you work industriously enough, you will achieve your goal.

One thing I learned, however, is that while dreaming big for yourself is good, dreaming for and with others is more fulfilling. Honestly, I never thought I’d achieve many things and travel to different countries. All I did was to dream big, not only for myself but also for others. Sabi nga sa isang commercial, “Para saan at bakit ka gumigising tuwing umaga?” Ako, gumigising ako para wala nang maging Junjun sa hinaharap – so that children will have equal opportunities regardless of their background. What is your dream? Is it only for you or are others included?

5) The most important story

The last story is arguably the most important story. It is the story in which all the four stories are invested upon. It is a story that is only beginning, a story that is being celebrated today. Dear graduates, it’s your story.

Today you graduate from your high school to enter an entirely different world, college. All your decisions after this day will outline the story of the rest of your lives and that of our country. As you’ve learned from literature, not all stories have happy endings. But you have the biggest say on how your stories will end. 

The 4 stories I gave aim to guide you in your journey. They carry very simple lessons that you can adapt. First, always look at the bigger picture, the bigger context before making any decisions. Whatever you do affects your country and your countrymen – the story of Mang Arthur, the story of the poor. Second, never forget to be grateful. You did not make it by yourselves. People have invested their time and wisdom on you. Acknowledge them – the story of Nanay Lilia, the story of our teachers. 

Third, always be grounded. Know the people you can trust the most and never lose sight of where you came from. Be grounded and never forget – the story of Susie, the story of our parents. Fourth, dream big for the right reasons. What is your end goal and ultimate purpose? Why are you doing what you’re doing?

But in the end, it is your decisions that are most important. You will decide how your story will go. Never be limited by what other people say. Pursue what dreams you have and what careers you want for yourself. As Fr. Pedro Arrupe said, “Do whatever you love doing the most and it will decide everything.”

It becomes more and more difficult after this day. You will cry, you will make mistakes, you will fail, and you will be broken. But sometimes, as my Philosophy professor said, failure and brokenness is good because it allows you to be whole again. ‘Minsan kailangan mabasag para mabuo ulit. Kailangan bumagsak para makabangon. Lahat ng hirap kailangan mapagdaanan para malampasan.’ (Sometimes it’s necessary to be broken so that we can be whole again. We need to fall so we can stand up. We must face problems before we can overcome them.)

In your graduation, I won’t wish you good luck as that would be too conventional. Instead, I wish you will be broken. I wish you will fail and be defeated. I wish people will reject you and put you down. But I also wish you’ll stand up from every failure. I wish you will continue fighting despite life’s challenges. In every defeat, I wish you will be stronger, more purpose-driven and thirsty to make a change. I wish you will encounter the Face in other people and find your life’s purpose. I wish you’ll change our country.

Never forget the sacrifices that your parents, teachers, and the people you love have done for you. Never forget Mang Arthur, Nanay Lilia, Junjun and the millions of Filipinos who go through their experiences but continue to hope. Never forget our country, the Philippines. Their future, our future, is yet to be written. It all depends on how YOU will compose your life’s narratives. I sure hope it will be one awesome story. – Rappler.com

David Lozada is a multi-media reporter for Rappler’s MovePH. He was named Young Development Journalist of the Year in the Developing Asia Journalism Awards 2013 in Tokyo, Japan.

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