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Maita and the sacrifices of the not so rich and famous

Perhaps one of the worst things about being dead is not being able to have a say on how others mark your passing.

I didn’t know Maita Gomez as closely as her comrades or colleagues did. I got to know her only because I fell in love with her son in college and—in a country that would still not allow me to call her “mother-in-law”—she welcomed me into her home and treated me better than as a son-in-law: She treated me as a friend.

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From the little that I know of her, I imagine that she would probably be annoyed at how we’ve been treating her since she passed on.

The Maita I got to know, after all, always disliked talking about herself. “Ay, naku! Wag na natin pagusapan ang buhay ko!” she’d grumble in forced Tagalog whenever anyone dared ask her about her life story, her palms hitting the edge of the table as if to push it away, her body bouncing off the chair a bit, peeved but half-smiling, resigned to the fact that people will always be fascinated by her storied life.

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Once, she recounted how she sneaked out of a luncheon because one of the other guests was making her life the center of the conversation as if she wasn’t there.

So I’ve been imagining Maita these past few days, with the cascade of tributes coming her way, asking us to please change the subject and looking for the exit. But what can she do? As someone said during her wake, people will likely talk about her a hundred years from now the way we now talk about Gabriela Silang.

And unfortunately for Maita, heroes do not just put their lives on the line, they also give up control over the ways by which people talk about them.

For, as with our other heroes, we who have been left behind will now struggle over how to interpret her life and fight over what lessons she imparted. Without meaning to be dishonest or disrespectful, we will tend, within certain limits, to turn her into who we want her to be, rather than who she “really” was—in ways that tell us more about ourselves than about her.

And though she can have no say in the matter, we will keep asking, based on our readings of the choices she made, what she would do if she were still with us.

How would Maita, I have been wondering, like the movement to invoke her memory?

Though she had gone down from the mountains by the time the bitter splits and bloody purges tore the Left apart, Maita remained deeply affected by the growing polarization of the movement to which she had devoted much of her life. And while she eventually identified with one section of the Left electorally, Maita never advocated sectarian positions.

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Indeed, even in her death, she seemed to have been busy bringing together in the same chapel representatives of the various Left groups like few people alive could.

How would Maita, I keep wondering, too, react to the way she is being depicted by the media?

From what I can remember, Maita was always uncomfortable with that “high-born beauty-queen-turned-guerrilla-fighter” narrative. I guess this was because she recognized that, while it could be a powerful mobilizing tale, it also derived part of its fascination from class prejudices that paradoxically reinforce notions of bourgeois beneficence: The poor and ugly are expected to rebel because they only care about the injustices they themselves suffer, the reasoning goes. But the high-born? They are so virtuous and selfless that even without directly suffering, at least some of them are willing to offer their lives for the greater good. The ruling class therefore deserves to be our master.

Sympathizing with the poor is not enough, Maita once said in an interview. “We have to see them as our equals, if not our betters.”

She thus seemed especially embarrassed by stories that dwell on how much of a sacrifice it supposedly was for someone like her to give up all the comforts of an upper-class life to join the movement.

My guess is that this was not because she belittled her own considerable sacrifices, but because she met, lived with, dodged bullets with, marched with—and likely helped bury—so many people who had given up so much more.

I’m thinking, for example, of all the young people who didn’t come from as privileged a background as hers, but who, in passing the University of the Philippines college admission test like she did, got a crack at being highly paid corporate lawyers, doctors or bankers, and thus finally faced the real chance to live a different, more comfortable, life—yet gave all that up without flinching, because they wanted all families, not just their own, to live better lives.

What is more difficult: to wave away something you’ve already tasted, or to refuse something that you’ve always been denied, but which is now being dangled so close to your face that you can smell it and grab it?

I’m thinking, too, of all the peasants or workers she never tired of telling us about, without any hint of romanticism—simple folk who could have continued to live a simple life, poor but at least alive, and yet chose to risk the little they had to fight a larger cause in different ways. They risked more than she ever did, Maita always insisted, because while they faced the same dangers as she did, they could not count on what she could always fall back on: family connections, wealth, fame.

Maita was humbled, like many of us, by those who couldn’t afford to—who shouldn’t be asked to—make more sacrifices, but who do. I imagine she would rather that we talk about them instead, and support them in all the different ways we can.

Herbert Docena is a former researcher with Focus on the Global South, a policy research NGO.

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