Questioning the hill
ATENEO DE MANILA CUM LAUDE. Bicolana Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña, class valedictorian, with her father, a jeepney driver, in the other photo.
The following is the valedictory speech delivered by Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña (AB MEC ‘19), cum laude and valedictorian of the Ateneo de Manila University Class of 2019, during the Loyola Schools Commencement Exercises on May 31 and June 1, 2019. She was Ateneo de Naga High School 2015 salutatorian before proceeding on scholarship to the Ateneo de Manila University for her college studies.
To the Superior of the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus Primitivo E. Viray Jr. SJ; to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mr. Ernesto Tanmantiong; to our University President Jose Ramon Villarin, SJ; to our Vice President to the Loyola Schools Maria Luz Vilches, PhD; to the Vice President of the Ateneo Professional Schools Antonette Angeles, PhD; to the Vice President for Administration Nemesio S. Que, SJ; to the Vice President for University and Global Relations Jose M. Cruz, SJ; to the Dean of the School of Social Sciences Fernando Aldaba, PhD; to the Dean of School of Humanities Jonathan Chua, PhD; to our commencement speaker Mr. John Nery; and to parents, faculty, staff, fellow graduating students, good afternoon!
LET’S TALK about barriers. In Ateneo, we have a no ID, no entry policy. Students with hold orders cannot enlist in classes, and in some cases, students are sent out if they don’t follow the dress code. In one way or another, we all experience barriers that make it difficult for us to achieve certain goals. But in the real world, the biggest barrier to education is not forgetting our IDs, having hold orders, or violating the dress code, but poverty.
Dumating ako sa mundo bilang panganay ng isang construction worker at isang SM saleslady—parehas hindi regular at underpaid, kaya kahit nagsisikap, parehas hindi sapat ang inuuwi. Ang kabataan naming magkapatid ay maghanap ng tindahan na mauutangan ng pagkain dahil pagod nang magpautang ang mga tindahan sa kalye namin. Ilang beses na nag-sorry sa akin mga magulang ko kasi hindi sila makakabayad ng tuition in time for the exam o dahil sa susunod na linggo pa sila makakapagpadala ng allowance. Anyone can understand that for my family, my graduation from any university, let alone Ateneo, is not a realistic dream.
Sa totoo lang, baka nga nakita niyo na ako dati habang dumadaan sa may Service Road. Ako yung batang sumisigaw sa gilid ng jeep,“Alabang Alabang Alabang FTI FTI Bicutan! O sa wala sa wala. Meron pa po, pakiusog naman nang konti pa. Sampuan po yang upuan.” Isa po akong barker ng jeep, tumutulong sa tatay ko sa pasada. At sa pag-uwi, tumutulong naman sa nanay ko magtahi ng basahan para maibenta kinabukasan.
O baka nakita niyo na rin yung kapatid ko. Dati syang naglalako ng kakanin sa bahay-bahay, kumakayod para may dagdag-baon. In one way or another, you may have seen my family in the faces of our jeepney drivers, barkers, and street peddlers, the poor that are invisible to most. Yung Hya na barker ng jeep at nagbebenta ng basahan sa kalsada, yung batang hindi napapansin ng lipunan, ay kagaya rin ng marami pang bata na hindi niyo nakikita ngayon. I am here as a reminder that the unseen poor are real.
My story has been celebrated, even romanticized, for its sheer improbability. Kahit mga magulang ko, hindi pa rin makapaniwala. But a story like mine is the lucky exception, not the rule. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be standing here today if it weren’t for the generosity of those who helped me get here. But generosity is not enough. Generosity means inequality. Inequality means that there is a hill, and the rest is down from the hill. At hindi makatarungan ang hindi pagkapantay-pantay. Sino bang makapagsasabi na dapat tayo lang ang nandito ngayon? Marami tayong kasabay na nagsisikap, pero hindi natin kasama dito ngayon.
Nung high school ako, nagkaroon ako ng pagkakataon na magvolunteer magturo sa isang public school. Doon ko nakilala si Noynoy. Sa pagkakaibigan namin, nasampal ako ng katotohanan na hanggang ngayon ay dala-dala pa rin ng konsensya ko. Grade 1 si Noynoy noon, pero siya’y 12 years old. Apat na beses na siyang umulit ng Grade 1 noon kasi lagi siyang absent. Kailangan niya kasing kumita ng pambili ng pagkain para sa kanyang pamilya. What reason could there be for someone to persist, and repeat Grade 1 four times, if not for a better life? Kung hindi pa ito sapat na katibayan ng kanyang kagustuhan para sa mas magandang buhay, ano ang sapat? Ano pa ang kailangan?
Pero hindi lang kahirapan ang hadlang sa edukasyon. Maraming kabataan ang hindi nakakapag-aral dahil sa gulo at giyera, kagaya ng nangyari sa Marawi, at iba pang lugar, lalo na sa Mindanao. Maraming kabataan ang kailangan pang umakyat ng bundok at tumawid ng mga ilog para lang makapasok sa paaralan. At maraming kabataan, kagaya ng mga Lumad at iba pa nating kapatid na katutubo, ang hindi makapasok dahil sa karahasan sa kanayunan. Their distance from us here in Metro Manila makes it easy for us not to see them. But these unseen people are also real.
There are also barriers closer to home. Many of us here are scholars too, and even among those who can pay for tuition, there are some who barely managed to. Many of us struggled with separation and homesickness, on top of the rigorous demands of school. Your parents, who moved heaven and earth so you could take your place here—this is their victory too.
There are children of OFWs present today, whose parents could not be here to see them graduate. And there are those who still grieve the loss of a beloved parent. If they were here, I’m sure they would have been very proud to see you in your togas today.
Many of us here struggled bravely with trauma and mental health issues. There are some of us who would not come to class for fear of coming face to face with our abusers. Marami rin sa ating halos mag-overcut, hindi dahil tamad o batugan, hindi dahil ayaw bumangon, pero dahil hindi kayang bumangon.
We faced all of these with unspoken bravery. Difficulty has been our shared experience. And because we are not strangers to pain, grief, and struggle, we have been able to share in the broader fight for social justice.
This is the batch that protested over various social issues—for the first time in years, different student organizations and unaffiliated students grabbed the megaphone and spoke out. This is also the batch that submitted a petition to the Senate against the lowering of the minimum age of criminal liability. This is the batch that strongly condemned sexual assault and asserted the inviolable dignity of a human person, regardless of gender. This is the batch that does not forget. We have done all this united in the struggle against unjust realities.
This is why I believe that this batch understands why these realities are not acceptable. Hindi dapat kailangan maging barker ng jeep, magbenta ng basahan, o maglako ang bata para makakuha ng dagdag-baon. Hindi dapat kailangang um-absent ng isang bata para tumulong mapakain ang kaniyang pamilya. Hindi dapat kailangang mangamba ang isang bata para sa kaligtasan niya. At hindi dapat kailangang maramdaman ng isang bata na nag-iisa siya sa laban niya.
For all our efforts and our struggles, and all we have done so far, we deserve to march proudly today. But while graduation marks the end of our academic lives, it also marks the beginning of a deeper commitment to working with others to transform unjust social realities.
These realities are systemic, complex, and intertwined. It will take more than one batch of graduates, or even one generation of Filipinos to even begin to unravel the knots that have been tied over and over for decades until we no longer see where one problem ends, and where another begins. We are called to do better than this.
Every graduation, Atenean seniors are told to go “down from the hill.” This year, perhaps it is time to ask why there is even a hill at all. Though we worked hard to be here, we know that this hill exists because there is much work left to be done. As long as society has not overcome bigger, deeper problems—social discrimination, stark economic inequality, and the concentration of political power in the hands of the few—there will always be something better to struggle for.
Sa isang makatarungang lipunan, hindi na natatangi ang kwento ng isang iskolar na gaya ko, pero isa nang realidad sa sinumang nangangarap. Sa isang makatarungang lipunan, ang edukasyon gaya ng atin ay hindi na para lang sa iilan. Sa isang makatarungang lipunan, mas marami pa sana tayong kasamang magtatapos ngayon.
Pero kahit hindi makatarungan ang mundong minana natin kasama natin ang kapwa kabataan, mga magsasaka’t manggagawa, mga guro’t kawani, mga lingkod-bayan, at marami pang ibang sektor ng lipunan, sa paglikha ng mundong ito.
At ito ang hamon sa ating lahat. Bumuo tayo at mag-iwan ng isang Pilipinas na mas makatarungan kaysa sa lipunang dinatnan natin, isang lipunan na ikararangal nating ipamana.
Maraming salamat po! Dios mabalos.