It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – this would be a very apt description of the Mary Jane Veloso episode. It was the worst of times for Mary Jane and her family, of course, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, up until that fateful reprieve, the best shone out of Filipinos here and abroad as we were able to unite ourselves and mobilize others to Mary Jane’s cause.
Make no mistake about it (and, c’mon, give yourselves a little credit), it was the mass movement that rallied around Mary Jane that was decisive at that moment. Of course, one can be legalistic about it and say that it was a suddenly arising police/judicial matter (namely, the surrender of Mary Jane’s alleged recruiter) that necessitated the granting of a stay, but let us not be that naïve to give this more worth than what it really is: a procedural loophole the States of Indonesia and the Philippines needed in order to save face (legalistic entities that they are) when confronted by such a glaring injustice that was made possible by their respective bureaucratic set-ups.
At the end of the day it was a political decision that was precipitated by political pressure from ordinary people who had been politicized by the issue. If not for the massive, worldwide, pe ople-powered campaign, how can we believe that Noynoy Aquino would even bother (nay, break protocol! cry his yes-men) with this one woman, a convicted drug mule at that? (Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Noynoy Aquino go out of his way to reach out directly to his poorer constituents, have you? Not Jennifer Laude and her family, not the famers in his own backyard of Hacienda Luisita, and he totally skipped out on the Mamasapano 44, who were his own men.)
The stay of execution of Mary Jane Veloso was a resounding victory of the people’s movement, and it must not be given away.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – unfortunately, the latter has overtaken the former, and is now the dominant flavor of the issue. There is currently a vilification operation against Celia Veloso, Mary Jane’s mother, who has been passionately decrying the government’s neglect of her daughter’s case for the past five years. Their battle cry is “Ingrata!”, and it has been a moralistic free-for-all in the social media and even – in a new low, after they “killed” Mary Jane in their headlines – a supposedly respectable broadsheet such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
I don’t hear the term “Ingrata” often (walang utang na loob sounds more common), and thus, as a word, it sounds more virulent, amusingly malicious and specialized, in the sense that it evokes a landlady caricature (played with much relish by, say, someone of Rosemarie Gil-calibre), on a hacienda patio, furiously fanning herself and using the same fan to periodically hit some hapless servant girl, or daughter of a farmer-tenant, over some measly fault.
What it conjures up are the feudal relations rooted in the unequal access primarily to land that was first introduced by Spanish colonizers, first via the encomienda, followed by the friar estates, then later, haciendas privately owned by families. The unequal relations between master and serf is mainly characterized by the idea that it was only at the behest of the former that the latter are allowed to use resources (such as land, waterways, and everything that grew and lived in them) and are thus able to live, for which the serf must be eternally grateful and obligated to serve the former.
For example, the root word of encomienda is encomendar, which means to take care of – the indios came under the encomendero’s care to be Christianized and educated; in return he collects taxes and demand labor and other favors. While the crucial difference between an encomienda and a hacienda is that the latter is private property, Francisco and Arriola in A History of the Burgis describe latter-day feudal relationships in haciendas in similar terms as the “agreement that the landlord has sole right to the land and that the tenant’s privilege to work for it for a small share of the crop stems from the landlord’s largesse and/or sufferance,” (emphasis is mine).
These relations are disguised to be co-dependent and harmonious (calling tenants kasama or katiwala, for example), but in truth they are designed for maximum exploitation by holding hostage not just the stomachs, but the hearts and minds of those in the inferior position. The feudal relations that have been the lot of majority of Filipinos for centuries has historically resulted in the massive economic inequalities and the asymmetrical distribution of power we see until today.
Behaviorally, it has bred a culture of subservience that has been very hard to shake off, even after many Filipinos have moved away from unequal land-based production under the watchful eye of the panginoong may lupa. Why do you think it is so hard to form unions in workplaces? That a housemaid (kasambahay) rights law was enacted only a few years ago? That OFWs endure no matter how badly they are treated or how much they miss their family? That the company boss expects to be fawned over and personal favors granted without extra compensation or overtime pay for his employees? That some schools can get away with severely curtailing student councils and organs (or doing away with them completely)? That we fall all over ourselves in courtesy and hospitality when a foreigner comesvisiting? Or why all the presidents this country (supposedly sovereign) has ever had have always been beholden to some other foreign superpower like the US?
It was no wonder that Christianity fit so well with this ethos, with its themes of suffering, begging, and thanking the Lord, which was maximized by Spanish and American colonizers. In the Mary Jane Veloso case I’ve seen what I assume to be conservative Christians assert that the reprieve was a miracle in the purest sense, that only, and only, God’s will was able to save her (never mind that thousands of Christians and non-Christians the world over actually used their God-given free will to take action).
And this is the very nature of the vicious attack against Celia Veloso. Calling her “Ingrata” and pressing that the Velosos have a large utang na loob debt to pay reflects that as if it was the Veloso family’s prized privilege that the lord-on-high Noynoywould deign to stoop down to walk among mere mortals. This exposes a very-much-alive culture of subservience among a bourgeois populace that, no matter how hard it fancies itself to be modern (even postmodern), is still squarely in the clutches of feudal thought and culture. (To wit: all those supposed liberals in the academe, the entertainment industry and media practitioners, whose access to Twitter and other technologies notwithstanding are quite clearly stuck in medieval times.)
It is paradoxical that it is the family of Mary Jane Veloso (who is just one generation removed from landlord-tenant relations – her father was a farmer in no less than the Cojuangco-Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita) that has shown the most progressive mindset and spirit in their fight for their daughter’s life. They have taken a personal grievance, and have asserted that the personal is political, and have fearlessly demanded justice, not just for themselves, but for others in the same position.
As a final note, anthropologists will tell you that some cultures, especially those that have maintained a high degree of egalitarianism, lack a term for “thank you”. It does not mean that they are immoral or amoral, but because already having a good sense of what is correct and proper and actually carrying it out need no explicit acknowledgement or special recognition. It is simply the right thing to do.