I had just overheard from the radio of a passing jeepney that employers’ groups have offered to raise worker’s pay by a staggering twelve pesos (P12.00) a day. Bring on the brew and celebrate. This is great news! Talk about manna from heaven, a windfall from jolly old Santa at the height of summer – but wait, first things first. Hurry up. Let's all get down to work and invent the time machine ASAP because that's just about the only chance we've got in a billion years to get back to the 60’s – that time in the distant past that we can never bring back ever again, a time when a peso can buy you a hundred king-size pan de sal or treat you and your date to the movies. That time when life was a little bit easier and when it seemed only the misfits were the only ones who starve not because they could not afford food but because the ‘hippies’ of those days think it’s cool to be a walking zombie. But anyway, my message to these employers – capitalists in the socio-economic sense is whoa... wake up dudes and get real. Hello… Most of us will have no problem giving twenty bucks to the parking lot attendant. And those billionaire businessmen are dangling twelve pesos. Give me a break. Twelve pesos is a slap in the face… a bone thrown to the hungry dogs. I would even dare say the offer is inhuman. It’s bullet to the old dying horse’s head.
This is the reason I always dread the coming of May firsts. Ironically it brings floods of very joyous memories to me that only add more pain to nostalgia. May firsts were occasions to the many rites of passage that filled my life. It was I think on the first of May that I painfully transitioned from boyhood to manhood, well, I’m not so sure about the exact date actually, but what I am very sure of was the pain. Just remembering the experience still hurts to this day.
In college, the first day of May offers a perfect outlet to our angst. They make bearable my embarrassment that I am taking summer classes instead of bumming around in the beach because I flunked Algebra in the worst possible way. At the height of summer, we would protest in Mendiola, students like myself who crave for some self-affirmation would find themselves happy to spend sweaty summer days in the company of the starving masses. The unwashed, unfed and disconsolate to the core that we used to ignore when social issues take a back seat to happier times, the people who assume an unexpected significance because it’s May first. When the chips are down, we tend to gravitate towards each other, united under the banner of discontent with society’s double standards. Somehow we all find a commonality in the struggle for better working conditions and higher wages for the working man which, come to think of it, have long been going on perhaps since the beginning of time. Long before you and I were ever born.
This social inequity is as old as the air that we breathe, and the ground we walk on, feeding the greed of the privileged few with nourishment that grows from the servitude of those whose destiny is to live, to work, to die and to be forever forgotten. We would like to believe we could change that. We were young and those were the days.
There were those times when outcasts and activists transform into heroes because of their defiance of the system, the willingness to rise to the occasion at the risk of losing their lives. They were my first role-models. Ka Cris (Beltran) was much younger then but he and Ka Satur, were the firebrand that would energize rallies with their impassioned pleas. I could listen to them all day. They were not especially eloquent but they satisfy my idealism in a way that no politician or celebrity can. They have a cause and to me, it was more than enough. Afterall, I was lost and searching for meaning to my young but empty life. I needed something to lift my lowly assessment of where I stand in the system. These activists showed the way. They take their mission to heart. They have a faith that just like flame must keep burning or darkness shall claim our lives and take away everything that we work so hard to achieve. We have something worth living for, a cause, a duty, a fight to be won.
I wish I could say the same thing to Ka Cris wherever he is now that I am old and my hair gray, now that I am nearing the age that he was when we first met, if indeed there is a way the spirits can get in touch with the living. Maybe I shall confess my lifetime of embarrassment to him, beginning with the way I had transformed from social activist into a corrupted bureaucrat who not only became part of the system but willingly sold out to the system part of his soul. I wonder if he is at peace with himself after the ignominy of his death, the circumstances in which he lost his life, not from the beating of truncheons of anti-riot police or from an overdose of tear gas, which we already accepted as the likeliest end for people like us after every close brush with death during May day upheavals. The closing chapter to his biography is so unfair to Ka Cris how I wish I could do something about it to claim for him the dignity in dying that was robbed from him by fate.
Ka Cris had achieved modest success and joined Congress as partylist representative at the turn of the millennium. But as they say, you can take the man off the street but you cannot take the street off the man. Outside the august halls of Congress, he continued to live the life, the only kind of life that he knew. Having spent most of his life on countless rallies and riots in the streets the blue collar worker in him rules his life, even in a period of relative affluence. One day, the congressman slipped and fell off the roof of his modest house while repairing a leak and cracked his skull on the pavement. At the time of his death, he was lobbying for a one hundred twenty five peso (P125.00)across the board wage increase. Years later and after a series of oil price hikes coupled with the plummeting value of the peso, his capitalist enemies could only offer twelve pesos. They are not content with the knowledge that the man is dead. They want his cause to die with him. Our slave master society never forgives. That's why May first makes me feel sad - resigned to the misery of mourning the sheer ignominy of the passing of a good man. It is not a pleasant thing to remember.
Sometimes the thing I hate about life is life itself...