The truths I learned at the Ateneo

/ 05:06 AM June 04, 2019

I would like to speak about the larger truths worth defending.

As a journalist, as an editor, I work mostly behind a desk, but on occasion I go out on field. I remember, for instance, when I interviewed two confessed assassins.


When dangerous men are in fear of their lives, they make themselves difficult to find. To interview Edgar Matobato, who confessed to being a hired killer of the Davao Death Squad, and then, months later, his handler, the former Davao policeman Arturo Lascañas, we needed to do the cloak-and-dagger stuff we see in the movies, only without cloaks and definitely without daggers…

But when dangerous men are in fear of their lives, they also speak plainly. The prospect of a hanging truly clears the mind. Expecting to hear them speak obliquely, circuitously, with a lot of strategic hesitation, we heard them speak calmly, candidly.


For instance, when I asked Matobato how many times he personally saw Mayor Duterte kill a man, he gave a straight answer.

“Sa Ma-a, siguro pitong beses”—“In Ma-a,” the site of the quarry where the Davao Death Squad killed many of their victims, “maybe seven times.” Does the use of “maybe” put his admission in doubt? Let’s think this through. I can understand why there will be those who will think that it’s a sign he was not telling the truth. But I think it’s the opposite. The “siguro” is a sign of doubt, yes, but it is exactly the kind of doubt that reinforces the truth. It is easy enough to remember how many times your boss has killed a man, if he has killed only once or twice. But if he has killed more times than that, how can we remember, and how can we be certain?

Here was an assassin searching his memory in real time. Could he have been putting on an act in an attempt to mislead me? Yes. Did he? I don’t think so. Do I believe him? Yes. Is it a fact then that the President of the Philippines killed at least eight men, seven of them in Ma-a? I don’t know; that needs to be independently verified. Do I believe that the assassin Matobato was telling the truth? Yes.

I did not enter the gates of the Ateneo, of the college, back in 1981, in order to learn the skills to determine whether a hired killer is telling the truth or not. How could I have known? But it is precisely the truths I learned at the Ateneo that brought me, circuitously, to that interview, and to my conclusion.

The truths I learned, and which I once committed to writing, in the form of an editorial, were the larger truths, the myths that make a nation possible.

That we have the power of self-definition, a power based on the human capacity for remorse and redemption and reinvention.

That our freedom must not be taken for granted, but rather earned again and again, and won each time through difficult struggle.


That the face of the invader or oppressor described in our national anthem can assume the countenance of a fellow Filipino.

And that we have the power to liberate ourselves, according to our fundamental dignity.

… The Class of 2019 has already made history; you are the first freshman class to follow the new academic calendar—which starts, like revolutions in the Philippines, in August.

And perhaps your revolution has already started with a stirring call to arms. In an

extraordinary essay, reflected in her valedictory speech, your valedictorian (and student government president) has moved all of us to reconsider that most Ignatian of virtues, the spirit of generosity, in the context of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “structures of sin,” or “social sin.” Using our own sense of place, borrowing our own rich source of metaphor, Hya Bendaña has powerfully reminded us that “Inequality in the Philippines means that there is a hill, and the rest is down from the hill.”

The hill we stand on, then, is also one of great privilege. Note the words we use, sometimes instinctively, to describe it: aerie, sanctuary, laboratory, retreat, safe zone. The words already embody a sense of exclusion, or to extend Hya’s own thinking, they suggest the power of isolation.

But it isn’t just the elitism of the educated or the entitlement of the economically advantaged that we must guard against.

As I have written elsewhere, an Ateneo education does not guarantee immunization against villainy. Of many possible examples, let me offer only one. In late 1896, nine clergy of Nueva Segovia were suspected of being part of the Revolution and tortured. Three of the priests—Fathers Adriano Garces, Mariano Gaerlan and Mariano Dacanay—were brutalized by someone who volunteered to do it: Enrique Lete, who was not only a graduate of the Ateneo but a classmate of Rizal’s!

It is necessary for us to reflect on this fundamental truth: that the same school, our beloved school, can graduate, in the same class, a Rizal and a Lete. That is the true context in which we can understand the nobility of our Ateneo heroes and the everyday heroism of the Atenean who does good. I do not mean doing well; I mean doing good.

(Excerpts from my second speech at the 160th commencement exercises of the Ateneo de Manila University, June 1, 2019.)

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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