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Footsteps

I find it difficult to claim that I wanted, much less intended, to follow in my father’s footsteps. Especially when, as a kid, I had grappled with this vague and unsettling impression that his work usually entailed making enemies and getting death threats. When I volunteered to teach at a “lumad” community school after college, I later found myself facing trumped-up charges, along with a couple of death threats as cherry on top. Just like my father.

Papa worked as a radio broadcaster and had served as barangay councilor for several terms. My siblings and I grew up in the shadow cast by my father’s reputation as a sharp-witted journalist and a passionate, if not an unorthodox, politician. Back then, I could already surmise, even in my childhood naivete, that journalism and public office, separately, were already messy and risky. I could only guess how volatile it would be if they were mixed together.

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On the first few occasions when I found myself joining protest actions as a lumad school teacher, I initially had reservations about associating teaching with activism. But the more I spent time with my students and the lumad community, the more I understood how inevitable it was to get involved in the political struggle of the lumad in defending their ancestral land and right to self-determination. After all, the community schools were established by the lumad themselves and became a symbol of their resistance against decades of state neglect and oppression. While my father didn’t impose his politics on his children, I’ve realized he was the first person to cultivate a strong social conscience in me.

My father hailed from a poor peasant family and grew up an orphan. He lived with one relative after another, running odd errands to send himself to school. He got himself through college by working as a scholar for a radio station and had built his career on the airwaves with his unflinching opinions on various issues. We may not have shared the same views, but he was the one who taught me to always take a stand, especially on matters involving imbalanced power dynamics.

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Looking back, Papa’s life choices had inspired me to choose my bias by immersing myself with the lumad and farmers, living their lives, and learning about their struggles. Once, I accompanied my students to a demonstration to commemorate the Marcos dictatorship’s declaration of martial law. The students had firsthand experience of the Duterte administration’s relentless militarization and bombing spree since martial law was declared in Mindanao in mid-2017. When my students wanted me to speak during the protest, I was nervous, despite my years of public speaking and competitive debate tournaments. It was Papa who gave me the courage to speak truth to power.

Growing up, I felt like Papa didn’t have enough time for us because he was always away meeting people. I used to think I heard his voice more often over the radio than in person. In his quixotic quest of exposing corruption and controversies in the local government and big business, Papa earned the ire of several powers-that-be. For a long time, he tried to keep the death threats he’d been receiving a secret. When I started to become vocal about my views as an activist and lumad school teacher, I ended up on the receiving end of Red-tagging, harassment, and state surveillance. Today, a trumped-up case has been filed against me, maliciously accusing me of being an armed rebel involved in an NPA military action in 2013—yes, when I was still in high school!

Like my father, I also kept that secret hidden from our family for a long time before finally telling them. Like the secret about who I really am, a gay man living in my father’s footsteps, content in the life I chose despite the threats and travails. It takes courage to keep our secrets in order to shield our loved ones from heartache, but I’ve realized it’s much more courageous to bare ourselves and allow them to love us for who we truly are and support us in the battles we choose to wage. I find it tragically sad that just when I finally understood my father’s struggle and found courage in my voice, it was too late for me to share my own secrets with him.

And so I did grow up to be like my father. While he didn’t have the chance to see me become an activist and a teacher, I am certain he would have been the last one to dissuade me from my chosen path. He would probably be amused to point out how strikingly similar we had become: both in the student council, as debaters and public speakers, and fighting for important matters that warranted us our own death threats.

For the nth time but especially during Father’s Day, I take out the yellowing newspaper clipping I’ve been keeping for nine years. It bears Papa’s picture on the front page, with the headline “3rd media slay in 2 weeks.” My father, Rogelio Butalid, was gunned down by motorcycle-riding men in front of his radio station, minutes after signing off from his morning program, on the very day that I turned 16.

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Karl Tristan B. Butalid, 24, works as a volunteer lumad school teacher in Mindanao.

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