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Pretty enough: ‘Badjao Girl’

HIGH CHEEKBONES, a lean frame, caramel skin, a piercing stare—Rita Gabiola has the physical attributes of any fashion model. These very attributes are what prompted photographers to pluck her off the streets, where she was found begging, and rocket her to social media fame. “Badjao Girl,” as she is now known, stuns in her first photo shoot, gains praise for her modeling, and sparks discussions on beauty.

She also belongs to an ethnic group that has long suffered from poverty and marginalization, but not many people are talking about that.

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The Sama Dilaut, or Badjao, have been described as “a people nobody wants.” Scattered across Southeast Asia, they are seafaring people who have traditionally made their living by fishing, diving and trading. Over the decades, the Filipino Badjao have had to abandon their lives at sea because of armed conflicts, piracy, and environmental issues, not to mention the gnawing, largely-unaddressed poverty among their communities.

Many tried to escape to the neighboring islands of Malaysia, but they soon faced the sanctions of being illegal immigrants. Here in the Philippines, it is common to find these “sea gypsies” now braving city streets, begging or busking. Unsurprisingly, they are now discriminated against as lazy, unhygienic and a nuisance—things many of us would have said of Rita the Badjao beggar, but not of Rita the rising model.

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Perhaps it’s only human nature to gloss over the unattractive portions of Rita’s story. Who wants to talk about an ethnic group’s continuing plight when we have a happy ending with the young girl’s modeling career? Politicians and celebrities have promised to help Rita go back to school, and her prospects only seem to grow brighter.

Rita, who spent her tender years begging in the streets and living on only one meal a day, now finds relief and help from all the people whose attention is focused on her.

That, however, is the sad part of this story: that we care enough only when someone is pretty enough. Had Rita not been discovered as a photogenic subject, she would likely still be roaming the streets right now, having only the faintest of chances to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

It’s unfortunate that we anchor our concern on the superficial. But again, maybe we can excuse ourselves by chalking it up to human nature: We are naturally drawn to the beautiful, the physically attractive. How can we help that?

Perhaps we can’t, but is that all we can come up to? We instinctively worship physical beauty, yes, but we can’t allow ourselves to be so shallow that we can’t dig a little further beyond our initial fascination.

We ought to see Rita not just as a pretty face but as a girl whose background needs our attention. Her popularity should have opened up more discussions on the Badjao and other indigenous peoples in our country.

A number of Philippine ethnic groups still find themselves stifled by the stigma that surrounds them, affording them minimal chance to succeed outside their communities. Yet the rest of us perpetuate this and remain ignorant because we don’t care to learn more than the single-paragraph descriptions in our history books.

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Thousands of lumad continue to lose their lands, their education, and their homes due to violence against their tribes; their leaders are murdered, their schools burned, their farmlands wasted. Yet the rest of us remain indifferent because they get no more than a few minutes on prime-time news, and there is no pretty poster child for them.

The needs of our indigenous peoples remain as they have been for decades and decades: economic programs for the marginalized, legal and social empowerment for the displaced and the stateless, and education curriculum improvements for the rest of us who so often misunderstand them.

But we don’t talk about these, not as much as we need to. These needs, fundamental as they are for the preservation of the rights of countless indigenous Filipinos, do not become viral social media posts. Compared to the number of people talking about Rita’s modeling career, the number of people fighting for the rights of Rita’s people seems almost negligible.

What’s more unfortunate is that Rita, like most internet sensations and good-looking celebrities, will eventually slip away from the limelight. We are likely going to forget her. And with that, the words “Badjao” and “indigenous people” will fade away from our conversations, too. We’ll continue to give the cold shoulder to the Badjao in the streets, not even remembering that once upon a time, one of them captured our interest and got us buzzing. Life goes on as usual.

Rita is our chance to pay attention to what really matters in this story. Not high cheekbones, not caramel skin, not piercing eyes, but the misunderstood history, longstanding struggles, and forgotten rights of people. These are the people who we have long ignored, sadly, because they—and their stories—are just not pretty enough. It’s high time we got past that.

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TAGS: Badjao, Badjao Girl, opinion, Rita Gabiola, Sama Dilaut, viral
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