Sunday, September 3, 2017

Essay: The art of 'hugot' in our republic of 'sawi'

"...the crater lake at the end of the trail was shaped like a heart."

by Gideon Lasco

Winner, Palanca Awards 2017 (Second Prize, Essay Category, English Division) 


DATELESS AND LOVELESS, I tried to avoid this year’s Valentine’s Day by boarding a plane to Tacloban and backpacking in Eastern Visayas until the craze subsided. In what turned out to be a roadtrip with my Tacloban-based friends, we ended up climbing three mountains - Mt. Kali overlooking the San Juanico Bridge; Mt. Pangasugan in the wilderness east of Baybay City; and, on February 14 itself, Cabalian Volcano in Anahawan, Southern Leyte. With no cellphone signal and roads so rough that it tested the limits of our pick-up truck before the trail itself would test our legs, the volcano was the farthest place I could ever hope to be: deep in communion with nature; lost in its verdant beauty. But if I had expected that it would make me forget about the ‘Day of Hearts’, I was gravely mistaken, for the crater lake at the end of the trail was shaped like a heart.

I would later find out in social media that I wasn’t alone in being reminded of my lovelessness. In fact, there was as much noise on Facebook about being single as there was about being with someone. And the viral videos and posts that people were talking about were not so much about professions of love accompanied by chocolates and flowers; rather, they were about sorrow and tears. It was tablea, not Toblerone; roses with thorns, not just petals.

One of videos, “Crush”, was a story of unrequited love: The protagonist has had many years of sweet moments with his beloved, but in the latter’s wedding, he turns out to be a guest, not the groom - the proverbial best friend who would have preferred to be the boyfriend. Another video, “Vow,” was that of love lost to the unexpected but inevitable finitude of life itself. Dying of terminal illness, the protagonist-husband nonetheless manages to live on in a most bittersweet way: by carefully choreographing his wife’s first Valentine’s Day without him.

All those videos, and all my friends’ posts about how alone (but not necessarily lonely) they are, hint at a different kind of love being celebrated in Valentine’s: one that grows - not diminishes - in the face of obstacles both surmountable and insurmountable. Recently in my hometown of Los Baños, Laguna, people were intrigued by the mystery guy who put up pink tarpaulins everywhere that read: “Will you marry me again, Ms. Janeth?”; my friends marveled at the “sweetness” and diskarte of the guy despite the anticipated futility of his efforts.

Shakespeare, of course, touched on the theme of uncertain love ("For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”); so did Miguel de Cervantes (hence poor Don Quixote) and, for good measure, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose great hero Aragorn spurned the love of Eowyn, shield-maiden of Rohan. In Yukio Mishima’s “Spring Snow”, the beautiful Satoko foretells the doom of her relationship with her sweetheart Kiyoaki:

The path we’re taking is not a road, Kiyo, it’s a pier, and it ends someplace where the sea begins.

But while it is also true for other cultures, I suspect that the trope of uncertain love has particular resonance in the Philippines. Our very first novel, Pedro Paterno’s “Ninay” (1885), involved not one, but two tales of ill-fated love. Jose Rizal, who wrote of the failed romance between Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara, himself experienced what loss of love felt like when he and his childhood sweetheart Leonor Rivera were prohibited from seeing each other by their families, effectively dooming their relationship.

Then there's our original genre of love songs - the kundiman - said to derive from "kung hindi man" (if it's not meant to be): both a reference and tribute to the uncertainty of love. The lyrics of some of the most famous kundimans are revelatory of this inclination to delve in the sorrowful and the tearful. For instance, in Nicanor Abelardo “Nasaan ka Irog?” (1923), the singer searches in vain for his beloved, who seems to have abandoned him. But even so, he pledges undying affection:

Tandaan mo irog / Irog ko'y tandaan
Kung ako man ay iyong ngayo’y siniphayo,
Manga sumpa’t lambing pinaram mong buo
Ang lahat sa buhay ko ay hindi maglalaho’t
Magsisilbing bakas ng nadgdaang tang pagsuyo

(remember, my beloved)
Even if today you have given me pain
And have banished our promises and care
All shall not vanish from my life and
Shall remain footprints of our foregone love

Many years later, in a more upbeat tempo, Eraserheads would echo the same sentiments of loss and longing. “Magasin” (1994) is a reminiscence of a love affair with a girl who later     becomes a famous model. Although she is already beyond his reach, the singer tries to relive their relationship, even joking - quite poignantly - that she was “still a bit ugly back then”. The band's most iconic song, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is likewise of a love that is not realized. In that song, the protagonist relives the past as a way of preempting the future, and the ‘huling El Bimbo’ - the last dance - is the one that plays forever in the protagonist’s head.

Today our popular culture remains full of references and tributes to uncertain love. A few years ago, egged on by a romantic comedy starring Jennylyn Mercado and Jericho Rosales, everyone began debating about the existence of a love that is “forever”. The debate rages on today, but many seem firmly on the side of “walang forever”: a phrase that I see even in  jeepney art- a decent barometer of the times.

Then there’s the recent emergence of “hugot lines”: sentimental expressions 'pulled' from our deep reservoir of emotions that use everyday experiences as metaphors for one's ill-fated romance. This genre, whose genealogy can be traced not just to the kundiman, but also to the bugtong, has been embraced by people from all walks of life - a testament to its wide appeal. Here are a couple of examples:

Sana ang tao parang cellphone, namamatay nang kusa kapag nagloloko. (I wish people were like cellphones, they automatically die when they go crazy)

Ampalaya: minsan gulay, minsan ako. (Bitter gourd, sometimes a vegetable, sometimes myself)

The witticism of hugot draws from its double entendres, the invocation of words that are both emotional and physical attributes (i.e. ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’) - else, human and non-human (a cellphone that ‘goes crazy’ is one that ‘hangs’; a person who ‘goes crazy’ doesn’t necessarily hang himself).

It takes some talent to come up with a successful ‘hugot line’; it works best if it flows seamlessly from everyday conversations and draws from people’s shared experiences. After  a magnitude-5.4 quake shook parts of Luzon, I checked my Twitter account to confirm whether what I felt was indeed an earthquake, and here’s the first thing I saw:

Buti pa yung lindol, naramdaman mo, ako hindi. (I envy the earthquake, at least you felt it - unlike me.)

As a hiker, I have witnessed how these ‘hugot lines’ have become everyday fare in the trails - not just in Mt. Sawi in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija - a recently-opened hiking destination whose christening was not spared from the zeitgeist of the times. As we were trekking in that volcano in Southern Leyte, our guide warned us to take care, lest we be pricked by the rattan thorns. Trying my hand in hugot-speak, I ventured:

Okay lang sa akin ang ma-tinik. Sanay naman ako na masaktan. (Getting pricked is fine with me. I’m used to getting hurt.)

Part of it is of course just for show: Filipino humor has always involved a certain degree of self-deprecation. But there is oftentimes a grain of truth to one’s ‘hugot lines’; one’s own love life is recruited as a subtext that makes them all the more funny and meaningful. Hugot, indeed, allows us not just to pay tribute to the importance of love in our lives, but also to romanticize our states of lovelessness.


WHY IS IT that the state of being sawi (literally ‘Ill-fated’ or ‘doomed’, but nowadays more commonly referring to ‘ill-fated in love’) resonates with many Filipinos? I have a feeling that our collective hugot runs deeper than our personal experiences and draws from something larger that ourselves.

Our very nation, for instance, can be seen as sawi in the sense of the ill-fated loves we’ve had for the people who led or ruled over us. Viewed in this lens, our first love was Spain, which, from the very beginning of our colonial relationship, we looked up to, if not politically or ecclesiastically, then culturally and aesthetically. The ladino Tomas Pinpin reports that as early as the 16th century, Filipinos were copying Spanish ways:

No doubt you like and imitate the ways and appearance of the Spaniards in matters of clothing and the bearing of arms and even of gait, and you do not hesitate to spend a great deal so that you may resemble the Spaniard.

Many years later, Donya Victorina, the wig-wearing, powder-applying social climber in El Filibusterismo, would serve to personify this enduring aspiration. Not surprisingly, her ambition was to have a European husband:

All she really wanted was to “Europeanize” herself…thanks to a few finaglings she had gradually succeeded in transforming herself so much that by now even Quatrefages and Virchow together would not know where to classify her among the known races.

The Filipino regard for Spain, however, was not requited; in exchange for our admiration of their ways, we received heavy taxation and bondage; we called Spain ‘mother’, but she never really thought of us as her beloved child. Thus we were drawn to Jose Rizal, and later, the indios bravos of the Philippine Revolution. But alas, all of them would fail us - or fall into the hands of the enemy. Rizal, who inspired an entire generation to take up arms, was felled by the Spanish in the park that now bears his name. Only a few years after Filipinos got introduced to him and his extraordinary life, the man who represented so much of our aspirations was dead, leaving us with his final love letter:

My idolized Country, for whom I most gravely pine,
Dear Philippines, to my last goodbye, oh, harken
There I leave all: my parents, loves of mine…

Andres Bonifacio, the “Father of the Revolution” who idolized Rizal, was himself ignominiously executed by his fellow revolutionaries in a mountain in Cavite, with not even a grave to mark his remains. And who can forget the “Boy General”, Gregorio del Pilar, dead at 24? His farewell note, written in a cave in Tirad Pass on the eve of his death, may not be as literary as Rizal’s, nor his death as glorious, but it is equally haunting:

The General has given me a Platoon of available men and has ordered me to defend this Pass. I am aware what a difficult task has been given me. Nevertheless, I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. I am doing everything for my beloved country. There is no greater sacrifice.

They were, as ill-fated lovers, too young to die.

From the heartache of the Philippine Revolution and the ensuing loss of so many of our best and brightest men, we tried to move on, and it was during this time that America seduced us with promises of prosperity and modernization. And like a lover who will sacrifice even her own identity for her beloved, we embraced America’s ways, adopted its customs and language: we were afflicted with what historian Vicente Rafael calls “white love”.

It was an unequal, and in many ways unrequited, love to begin with (they patronizingly called us ‘little brown brothers’), but we still pressed on in our adulation of Uncle Sam, with some going as far as to campaign for the Philippines’ inclusion as a state among the ‘United States of America’. Though far away from snow, we dreamt of White Christmas; though far away from apple orchards we allowed an apple to stand for the first letter in our alphabet, ignoring the more common (and more delicious) atis. In her moments of lucidity, my late grandaunt - who was incidentally a case of sawi because she refused to elope with her lover to her eternal regret - would sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, the anthem they used to sing in flag ceremonies, with no small nostalgia.

The Japanese were too violent, their occupation too short, to be considered a love - theirs were a lust for territory and power. Consequently, our response was resistance, not romance. It was only many years later, when they came in the form of emotional and loveable anime characters, and when we had learned to love sushi, ramen and of late, matcha, that we were able to embrace the land of cherry blossoms. The face of that new Japan was not Musashi, master of combat, but Murakami, master of prose - and himself a master of hugot. World World II, indeed, remained a chapter in our love affair in our America: the most trying and yet the most noble. No longer “little brown brothers”, we were made to feel that we were true comrade-at-arms fighting side by side with the Americans.

After the war, we were free at last from foreign rule. But the ones who took their place - our own leaders - likewise failed us, either by choice or tragic circumstance. Ramon Magsaysay, our best hope, was doomed by a plane crash in Cebu. The word “sayang” defies translation, and is the only fitting word to describe moments that are characterized, all at once, by loss, regret, disappointment, and sorrow; it was what the people must have felt when they mourned their “guy” in Malacañang.

Ferdinand Marcos was another bright hope who orated in his inaugural speech that “this nation can be great again”. At first many believed him, but he was ultimately corrupted not so much by lupus but by his lust for power. And so we were once again sawi in our hopes, a state made all the more bitter by our being overtaken, one by one, by our neighbors: first Singapore, then Malaysia and Thailand, and now, even Vietnam.

Indeed, the leaders that we were enamored of failed us, but even so, our capacity for faith and love has remained boundless. In our refusal to give up, we render ourselves vulnerable to false love, but at the same time, open to the true one. Will somebody come to rightfully deserve our affection? Some say that he has already come in the form of the current president, but for many others, the search continues.


OF COURSE, POLITICS alone cannot explain our feeling of being sawi; I also think that it has something to do with the circumstances of many Filipino.

In the first place, inequity - i.e. the differences between the rich and the poor - is so wide that many lovers must have to first and foremost bridge the socio-economic gulf between them and their families. Abelardo’s “Nasaan Ka Irog” and the same-titled film that grew out of it are based on the true story of a thwarted love affair between an impoverished maiden and a rich heir - Abelardo’s friend. This trope of wealth differences between lovers: housemaid and haciendero’s son, houseboy and rich heiress, has been carried on by various actors and actresses, from Nora Aunor to Nadine Lustre.

The primacy of family in Philippine society is also why our love affairs are often beyond our control, and hence, prone to failure. The now-defunct practice of pagtatanan was a sanctioned form of defiance that gave space for lovers to override the dictates of their parents, but it is ultimately successful only after their eventual sanction. That our national hero himself, Jose Rizal, failed to overcome the wishes of Leonor Rivera’s parents speaks of the paramount importance of family. Years after his heartbreak, he would plead for his sisters to accept his beloved Josephine Bracken.

Then there is also the diaspora that displaces lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, the Filipino and motherland; a diaspora that drove Joma Sison to write of his longing for mangoes - and the Pinoys of Winnipeg to brave a frigid winter day for the opening of a Jolibee store. In our Internet age, virtual connections sometimes suffice to take the place of physical togetherness: Once, someone posted an endearing photo on Facebook of a man gazing intently at his iPad, his face betraying the joy of talking with someone he loves.

But just as frequently, physical separation leads to an emotional one: as I have experienced the hard way, willingness to travel from Manila to New York can water down to a point that traveling from one end of Manhattan to the other is too much of an inconvenience. Indeed, feelings are like sand: you can build them into a fairy-tale castle but they can wash away as soon as the ramparts take their final form.

Finally, our country’s being beset with calamity further adds to the uncertainty of our loves and our futures. Yolanda, alas, has been politicized beyond recognition, but to the people of Tacloban, it remains raw - and is populated not by politicians that marred the relief efforts but loved ones that they lost - or lived through the situation with. Indeed, what they remember the most is not the foul stench of corruption, but that of dead bodies lying on the streets for several weeks. After we arrived in Tacloban from that volcano with a heart-shaped crater, my hosts recounted tales of heartbreak, like that of a young man who couldn’t hold on to his wife’s hand as the fierce waves swept away their house and overwhelmed them. Hours later, after having lost consciousness, the man wakes up and finds his wife lifeless. He cries an anguished farewell:

I should have been the one swept away by the waves! I wish I were the one who perished because I can’t live without you.

Because the Filipino condition is so fraught - difficult, diasporic, disaster-prone - love has always been a risky proposition. Our loves, like our lives, are full of uncertainty, and while for some of us, love endures, for many others, it succumbs to the exigencies of fate. Remarkably, however, we are able to say “Bahala na si Batman!” with a sigh and keep going. “It was fun, too,” my friend said of Yolanda as we drank tuba in their house in Tacloban. “We were huddled together in one room, our entire barangay. We had nothing to eat and had to scour the warehouses and desperately wait for the relief goods, just like everybody else. But it was also fun,  she narrated, managing to laugh even as she fought the tears.

Diskarte - the art of ‘making do’ with whatever resources are available - plays a big role in dealing with these struggles, which range from the existential to the romantic. Coming home from Tacloban to Los Baños, I was surprised to see that alongside the pink tarpaulins for Ms. Janeth, another set of tarpaulins have cropped up in response: “Mr. Rodel, Yes na yes! I will marry you again!” Against all odds, it seemed that love has won.

Can my own sense of diskarte redeem me from my own state of lovelessness? When I think of Yolanda and its enormous human toll - as well as the profound heartaches of people all around me - I realize that my struggles are nothing, but at the same time, their life stories give me hope that the heart-shaped lake at the end of the trail is not the end of my journey. Surely, I too can overcome the obstacles that lie ahead.

And when all else fails, I guess there’s always hugot, which may not be a way to find love, but can help find a way out of it - and perhaps back again.


THE STATE OF being sawi does not diminish a person’s worth; if anything, it only enhances his  stature in the eyes of others. Our heroes, thus, could easily be the guys who failed to realize their loves - not just the victors. Similarly, the underdog-ness of the Filipino makes his achievements all the more remarkable, like the security guard who becomes a cum laude graduate in the very school where he goes on duty; the tricycle driver’s son who tops the medical board exams, or the lover who manages to win over his beloved not because of his wealth or physical superiority - but because of his love itself: its passion, its ingenuity, and its capacity to transcend even its perceived limits.

I would like to think that the same is true with our nation. We carry on: a people full of hope, made richer - not poorer - by the tragedies and disappointments we've faced and the handicaps we’ve had to deal with. Through kundiman lyrics past and ‘hugot lines’ present, our emotions have been transmuted into humor and sublimated to art. Undeterred by our failings, we continue; unencumbered by the weight of our feelings, we press on. But even as we move on, we keep holding on to the memory of a past that may yet return in the future - and to the hope of a future that we can almost experience, even as it never seems to arrive.

For the Filipino, indeed, possibility can just be as real as certainty, and memory can just be as palpable as the here and the now. In tapping into this view, the person who does hugot reveals the depth of his emotions and in the process shows his heart intact: an open invitation to those who are willing and able to fill it. Similarly, for all our nation’s hurts and pains, we remain ready to hope, ready to believe, and ready to love.

And therein, I suppose, lies the strength of our republic of sawi.

April 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

[Second Opinion] Japanese punctuality, Filipino time

The author with friends at the summit of Mt. Fuji
by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TOKYO — Whenever I’m in Japan, I cannot help but marvel at the people’s punctuality.

A recent experience was illustrative: My friends and I had just left Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture and were aboard the bus back to the train station, but just as it was about to depart, a passenger rose, talked to the driver, then faced the other passengers. In between apologetic bows, he asked if it was okay for us to wait for his friend who should be arriving in one or two minutes. He hadn’t even finished talking when his friend arrived, running. The friend was late for just over 30 seconds, but such a delay sufficed for him to make a public apology.

How did the Japanese acquire such an acute sense of time?

For a facile answer, one could cite a highly efficient and reliable transportation system — from extensive subway systems to the famed shinkansen — that makes it very easy for people to fulfill their commitments. Because it takes exactly 33 minutes from Asakusa to Shibuya via the Ginza Line, I know exactly which train to take if I’m meeting someone at Hachiko’s.

But even the Japanese who are in the Philippines are known to be punctual, which tells us that there’s more to their sense of time than the infrastructure that enables it.

Surprisingly, scholars aver that the Japanese sense of punctuality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Historian Takehiko Hashimoto notes that Westerners in the mid-19th century actually complained that the Japanese were always late! It was only decades later, as part of the Meiji-era reforms, that punctuality was institutionalized. Children, for instance, were instructed to arrive 10 minutes before the start of class.

A second wave of time consciousness — one that pervaded the people’s everyday lives — came after the war, aided by the proliferation of wristwatches, heavy industrialization, and the inculcation of Western values. Surely, this sense of time, too, fostered the rise of a hyperefficient transport system, making Japanese punctuality a “coproduction” of culture and infrastructure.

As for the Philippines, while it is easy to blame our tardiness on the traffic and the unpredictable weather — or label it as an immutable “mentality” — one way to look at it is to consider how time has always been relative, and not just in Einstein’s sense of the word.

Anthropologists point out that “clock time”—i.e., seconds, minutes, hours — is in itself a modern invention: Until very recently, events dictated the pace of the day in most societies. A colorful example of this “event time” is “alas-puno” — or when the jeepney leaves, not at a certain time, but when it is full. Moreover, temporal categories were broader: umaga, hapon, gabi—allowing for more pakiramdaman (“feeling each other”).

Even in professional contexts in the Philippines today, there is more leeway: Arriving one minute late will likely not merit an apology, but one hour would. Then there’s a “politics of time,” too: Some can arrive “fashionably late” because of—or to assert—their importance. Indeed, people’s conceptions of time are shaped by others’ expectations, even as these expectations also change over time.

Sometimes, I think the Japanese can be punctual to a fault: On a hike up Mount Fuji last year, our guides wanted to schedule everything — including sleeping and waking times — removing the fun in climbing Japan’s highest peak. My Nagoya-based friend Jeion also feels that the overreliance on schedules can lead to a “domino effect” when things go wrong. “Filipino time,” with its flexibility and improvisation, may be suited for situations beyond our control, or when time itself need not be micromanaged — as when one is on vacation.

But the Japanese sense of time remains a valuable trait, not just for self-improvement but also for national growth: It is no coincidence that the 1950s-60s — when the Japanese began to adopt their modern conceptions of time — also marked the beginning of their “economic miracle.”
What we should strive for, then, is neither a full dismissal of Filipino time nor a full embrace of Japanese punctuality, but the ability to make use of both.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

[Second Opinion] In defense of the millennials

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It is human nature to find fault in the next generation. The Baby Boomers were critiqued by their elders for eschewing traditional values, but they in turn critiqued the Gen X-ers for being too carefree, unfocused, even cynical. Although it is fashionable to say “the kids these days,” accompanied with a sigh, the suggestion that the so-called “millennials” are exceptionally different from generations past has little factual basis.

The perceived frivolity of emojis, for instance, can be seen in the context of every generation deploying linguistic playfulness to set itself apart — and adapt to technology. Just as the youth of the ’40s and ’50s inverted words to the annoyance of their ermat and erpat, the youth of today are inventing acronyms and metaphors: I hope they don’t find this essay TL;DR — or worse, boring AF.

Much has also been said about how millennials are addicted to selfies. But self-photography has always been important for Filipinos. In the past, people went to great lengths just to have their self-portraits, even going to studios, and buying albums and photo frames to “display” their pictures — a function now taken over by Facebook and Instagram.

And what of their supposed overdependence on the internet? This I take as a valid concern (more on this later), but take note that every new technology — from electricity to video games — is perceived thus by those who did not grow up with it. Haven’t parents been railing against TV for the past half-century?

Finally, student civic engagement is derided as naive, as if the “grownups” in 1972 viewed the students of their time any differently. Surely, the young ilustrados and the revolutionaries who came after them were likewise derided for their “juvenile” ideas, but today nobody questions the wisdom of Rizal, who incidentally saw the youth as the hope of the nation.

An entire generation defies generalization: There are many “millennials” who do not have access to the internet, let alone smartphones. On the other hand, I know old people who are more hooked to Facebook than their grandkids. However, there are significant social and technological changes today that affect most millennials the most.

Social media, for instance, has created a new way of “separate togetherness:” Folks can be together at one dinner table but worlds apart in their smartphones. It has also created a problematic form of validation—through “likes” and “shares.”

The near-universal availability of information from the internet, moreover, can lead to the complacent idea that everything can be found in Wikipedia, searched in Google, or, as a last resort, crowdsourced through Reddit.

The comforts and technologies of today can indeed engender a sense of entitlement and laziness. But at the same time, they can also create new forms of responsibility. In this age of screenshots and virality, one learns early on to be responsible for what one posts in social media. In an age where teachers can easily check for plagiarism through search engines, one learns that simply relying on a quick Google search for assignments won’t impress anybody. Not anymore. So it always works both ways.

Similarly, while the virtual world may have greatly expanded, the internet has also allowed for an easier exploration of the real one: Traveling and going outdoors have gotten much easier. And while it has given rise to trolls and cyberbullies, it has also given voice to fact-checkers, real-life communities and support groups.

The challenge, then, is to maximize the good and mitigate the bad, of the technologies and trends we are faced with today. And, instead of blaming millennials for modernity’s problems, to think of how education can be responsive in a time of information overload and a dearth of critical thinking.

Throughout this piece, I’ve tried to defend millennials from unfair critique, but critique itself is most welcome. As a millennial myself, I think we need to be challenged more, and so by all means keep challenging us.

Someday, we will also realize our mistakes.

By then, perhaps we would have earned the right to lament the “decline” of the next generation.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

A version of this article appeared in Thailand's The Nation:

Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Human rights are for crybabies"

Some people ridicule the whole idea of human rights, saying it’s only for crybabies. My response to them? That’s exactly why it’s so important.

I had never thought much of babies until recently when I became an uncle. Baby Tori, my sister’s daughter, was four months old when I first saw her, and she was truly precious, a joy to behold. When you hold a baby for the first time, you are filled with wonder at seeing a human being’s frail beginnings—and with an awesome responsibility for someone so innocent and powerless.

Baby Tori, to my sister’s relief, is no “crybaby.” But as with all babies, there can be no predicting her behavior, and sometimes she would cry when we’re in church or a restaurant, raising our anxiety. In medical school I learned that crying can mean many things: It can be a sign of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, fear, or desire for companionship—but as my brother-in-law says, “parents are usually more worried than others.”

Of course, the other churchgoers or diners do not seem to get annoyed at Tori for crying; most of them throw sympathetic glances our way. They understand a four-month-old’s capabilities, because most of them have also experienced caring for babies.

To be honest, I used to hate being seated next to a baby in a bus or an airplane. But when it happens to me nowadays, I find myself more understanding. I think of my niece and I am filled with happy memories. Surely, no one has the right to get in the way of her sense of wonder for a world that to her mind remains beautiful.

Crying babies can be a metaphor for the voiceless and the powerless of the world, who, like infants, can only cry for mercy and justice. Human rights, after all, are not for those who have the ability to exact freedom and comfort with their own means. Our due is responsibility, not remonstration, and life can go on without anyone intervening on our behalf.

But human rights are still important, because others do not necessarily share our experience of the world. Just as it is hard to understand why a baby cries, it can be difficult to comprehend others’ pleas. When people march on the streets to protest unfair wages or indiscriminate airstrikes, we can easily dismiss them as causing traffic, because we do not have hungry children waiting for us, or homes at risk of being collateral damage in a war. Without empathy, there can be no solidarity.
And guess what? We need others, too, if only because someday we may be the ones who are in need. Isn’t life a cycle, and the babies of today the ones who could take care of us tomorrow? When we lift them up and protect them, we are not just valuing them, we are valuing ourselves and the rest of humanity as well.

Some say that human rights are being used as a tool to discredit governments. But isn’t this the very discourse that reduces human rights to mere talking points? Surely the political ramifications are secondary to the very real consequences for people on the ground.

Then there are those who concede that human rights per se are important, but the problem is that the human rights of “criminals” are being prioritized over those of the “victims.” But how can we label people as “criminals” when their right to due process is not respected in the first place? Besides, the issue of human rights is not a zero sum game, in which valuing one comes at the expense of devaluing the other. A strong and credible justice system—and not politicians — should decide whether people are hiding behind human rights as a shield.

If, like Kafka’s Joseph K, you find yourself wrongfully accused, labeled a criminal, a terrorist, or a drug user, will you not protest? And when, under pain of death, your pleas of innocence are dismissed, will you not cry?

And so when it comes to human rights, don’t think of the issue in political terms, or as an abstract and naive concept. Instead, think of the babies and children closest to your heart. For them and for those like them in spirit, we must keep fighting for human rights: the last and only resort for the weak and the defenseless.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: