Sayang — No direct English translation — an expression of regret
What a waste.
It’s a shame (and/or) pity.
In the past weeks I have lost two friends, one at the north of the archipelago, and the other at the farthest south. In early September, Recca Noelle Monte, a 33-year-old mother of one, died in Lacub, Abra. Two months later, last 4 November, 23-year-old Rendell Ryan Cagula, better known by his nickname Perper, was killed in Maasin, Saranggani.
Recca and I belonged to the same cultural organization back in UP Diliman. She sang with a rich, deep tone with a tinge of huskiness that contrasted with her light and lilting conversational voice. She was a couple of years ahead of me, and at that point in her life when I knew her you could already sense the heavy struggle inside of her that was only settled when she resolved to devote herself completely to the struggle and eventually head to the mountains.
Perper, on the other hand, was the hugely popular University Student Council chairperson the school year before I began teaching in UP Mindanao. By the time I arrived, he was already working full time in the urban youth sector outside of UP, but he never ceased to be a role model to his other schoolmates. He spoke in polite, measured clips; his only disobedience was persisting in calling me “Ma’am”, though I told him dozens of times not to.
Both Recca and Perper were members of the New People’s Army; they were continuing a revolution begun many years ago by young, idealistic students not unlike themselves. They were both assigned to regions that were part of the traditional domains of indigenous peoples, among the poorest and most marginalized, in far flung areas that have suffered the brunt of decades of militarization by successive regimes away from the eyes of mainstream watchdogs and media. Indeed, hidden away and without fanfare, they carried on with their work until their martyrdom’s thrust them back to the middle, starkly present in the minds of all those who knew them.
Perper had been shot four times in the back and once in the head, while
Recca had been beaten to death in what is certainly an appalling transgression of the rules of engagement, even during the middle of a war. The military personnel responsible were, according to media reports, awarded medals and rewarded financially.
That Recca and Perper were both iskolar ng bayan who lived up to the true meaning of the Oblation, and that they both died violent deaths at the hands of the State in what many say should be recognized as a civil war is only a couple of things that they have in common. Another is that they were both exceptionally bright, even outside the context of the movement.
Recca was a Manila Science High School scholar who enrolled in the College of Engineering under another scholarship – this time from the DOST – when she was accepted in the UP. Perper excelled in all his classes as an Anthropology major in UP Mindanao; he would have graduated had not the teacher in his last remaining subject prevented him on a technicality. He may not have been under any of the classes I taught, but I saw his caliber when, way before this happened, I was editing his batch’s final ethnographic manuscripts for possible publication. Written with a maturity and sensitivity beyond his years, his paper stood out from his peers. I placed it in the “OK na ito” folder and not in the “Needs work” one.
Given their youth and their talents, Perper and Recca share one last thing in common, and that is the instinctual response of many who, upon hearing of their demise, would shake their heads and utter “sayang”. Sayang that they did not finish their studies, sayang that they had no careers, sayang that they never experienced a normal family life with a spouse and children, even sayang that they died with no reconciliation with the Lord, for those who still believe communists to be godless heathens.
It is hard to break away from such thoughts of regret, for these are the aspirations that society has imprinted upon us for generations. It is easy to dwell upon them, and to ascribe them upon the image and memory of loved ones who can no longer speak to us, especially as images and memories are the only things we have left.
That is why, in a way, Recca’s and Perper’s struggle continues even after they have passed – they now become the struggle of those they have left behind. As such, it would be worth retracing the steps that these two remarkable persons took, from their comfortable, middle-class backgrounds, to their college days in (what they took to heart to be) the University of the People, to their involvement in student activism, full-time engagements, and finally, the armed struggle.
And to honor their memory, we must remember that in the course of this they have become those extraordinary individuals who were able to dream beyond the dreams to which the majority aspires. Little joys are not enough, only profound social change would do. Life demanded much from them, as it does to all of us, but they demanded much more from life. They may not have called upon god in the same names most of us do, but no one would disagree that making the decision they did must have required an exceptional amount of spiritual fortitude, a fortitude that certainly must have been tested again and again as they trod the path they chose to take. And in the end, whose passing can be more Christ-like, more manifest of the greater love that no man hath than when he lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13)?
Their leave-takings are sad, but not sayang. Never sayang.