Sunday, July 22, 2018
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The Learning curve

Peta continues to transform lives

What an uplifting experience it was to witness the conferment of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards on the 2017 laureates. (Why, one even forgot how hard it was to get to the Cultural Center of the Philippines.) The palpable spirit of renewed hope and confidence in humanity strengthened us all to confront the bleakness of Philippine society again with our shared dream of a country for all, especially for those who have less in life. The words in 1955 of our third president, Ramon Magsaysay, rang with more eloquence and moved us to near tears that night: “…[G]overnment exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation… He who has less in life should have more in law… the majesty of constitutional and legal processes, in the inviolability of human rights….” What has happened to such a credo?

The ceremony may have given us a temporary refuge from all things disturbing in our midst, but the true greatness of spirit manifested by the awardees left an enduring impression: Japanese Yoshiaki Ishizawa empowering the Cambodians to preserve their cultural treasures like the Angkor Wat; our own Lilia de Lima proving that public servants can be honest and truly serve the people; Indonesian Abdon Nababan taking up the cudgels for his country’s neglected indigenous communities; Sri Lankan Gethsie Shanmugam caring for women and children, war’s most vulnerable victims; Singaporean Tony Tay distributing hot meals to the needy 365 days a year for 14 years now; and the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) keeping its vision of a people’s theater in touch with the realities of everyday life.

Many of us Peta fans were still on celebratory mode after its 50th anniversary concert “Singkwenta,” which told its story through words and music. Yes, it was like an annual report in the medium Peta knew best—and it was such frosting on the cake to be counted among the RM Awardees this year. A total surprise to Peta, but a well-deserved one.


In a way, I can say that I was there when it all began in Fort Santiago, a lovely and storied theater venue but subject to the vagaries of weather. My mother was an ardent fan of my cousin Cecilia Bulaong “CB” Garrucho, so we went to her plays, from her first bit role in Nick Joaquin’s “Larawan” with Lolita Rodriguez and Rita Gomez to her first major role in Ionesco’s “The Chairs.”

CB received the award as Peta’s current president, and Peta stalwarts Beng Cabangon and Maribel Legarda stood with her as she delivered her response in true Peta-worthy fashion. She recounted her mind-blowing introduction in 1967 to the theater that would be her home. It was a Filipino translation of Virginia Moreno’s “Straw Patriot,” directed by Peta founder Cecile Guidote-Alvarez. “It was a powerful and stunning lesson about Philippine history and heritage,” CB said. “It was my very first time to watch a play where the actors spoke in Filipino. I sat there overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of our own language… How have I become a total stranger to my language and to my culture? That play changed the direction of my life journey. It made me feel that as a Filipino I had finally come home.”

CB’s experience is shared by her fellow artists and even by the audiences who watch Peta plays and feel a deep affinity for home. It was there in the successful “Care Divas” musicale which captured the lives of overseas Filipino workers and even in last weekend’s “A Game of Trolls,” a play on martial law where torture is portrayed like a TV game show and where the ploy of trolls is exposed—just repeat, just confuse…. This production again shows how close the theater gets to the lives of people and how current the storylines always are.

In CB’s words, the award highlights the power of theater and the arts to build a nation, to transform lives. As a song by the late Jose W. Diokno goes, from the moving Nationalist Suite of the Peta Choir that night, “So that the voices of my people will resound/ I shall not remain silent/ I shall not be stopped/ Nor overcome by fear.”

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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