In “A Scholar’s Story,” Ateneo’s valedictorian Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña shares an inspired narrative: a girl from Albay braved the odds and faced down the twin burdens of poverty and inequality to earn her college degree — top of her batch. In a country bedeviled by political and socioeconomic exclusion, she graduates determined to breach the barriers, refusing to give up her dream “to change the world.”
Hya’s story sends a compelling message to the newly elected leaders of our country: The task at hand demands a more inclusive country; our challenge is to “make poverty history.”
Hya reminds us that our government is fighting the wrong wars. Though we must eliminate the scourge of drugs, what we need to focus on are the underlying conditions that make them possible. Today’s priorities are programs that should deal with health care and housing, public education and the creation of structures that address the concerns of the more vulnerable in our society.
As a new Congress will soon reconvene, Charter change cannot be top of the legislative agenda, though the basic law of the land may be imperfect. It cannot be the reimposition of the death penalty, as though the numerous killings inflicted on our urban poor communities are not enough. And it certainly cannot be to further curb the hard-earned freedoms of our truth-tellers.
More than anything else, the country’s new legislators need to heed the cry of the people: Create more meaningful jobs that provide wages sufficient for families to survive with dignity; create opportunities for children to have quality education and for their grandparents to enjoy adequate health care.
What Hya’s story tells us is to focus on the essential: We have to lift up the lives of all — not some, not a few, but most, if not all. Breach the barriers that divide us as a people.
Hya became president of her school’s student council. What that says, precisely because we have just gone through a most divisive election, is this: A level playing field works. What we need today to fix our broken politics is precisely that—a level playing field.
For new leaders to emerge in our midst, we need to prepare the ground. We have to provide conditions to enable deserving people to have an opportunity to be elected leaders.
The time for radical electoral reform has come. Change the campaign laws that allow candidates to spend much more than they legitimately earn in their lifetimes in Congress; consider state financing for electoral campaigns; provide equal access to media for legitimate candidates and organize intelligent public debates; ensure that political parties present platforms of government that will give the electorate real choices; and make sure that the party list groups truly represent the interests of the disadvantaged sectors of the country, and not serve as a backdoor entry for the ambitions of recycled politicians. The party list has become a farce, a violation of the Constitution’s original intent. Lastly, end political dynasties, once and for all.
Hya’s story provides a glimmer of hope. Hope, if it’s real and not merely imagined, requires that we strive to make it happen. It does not automatically arrive when we reach our destination; it can be retrieved even while we journey.
Hard truths, at times, come from the most unexpected places. As Hya put it at the end of her valedictory address, leaving school is not about going “down from the hill.”
It is high time to question, as she did, why there are hills at all. Now is the time to rethink how to breach the barriers, break down the walls and build bridges across generations and sectors of society that for far too long have been deeply divided.
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Ed Garcia taught at the Ateneo and UP and serves as consultant on formation at FEU. He was in the first batch of students in the ’50s who moved from the Quonset huts in the “ruins of Padre Faura” of the old Ateneo to the hills of the present Loyola Heights campus.
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