‘Whatever happened to your Papa?’

“Whatever happened to your Papa?”

It was 2008, I was as a writer working for a wealthy political strategist who, out of nowhere, asked me: “Whatever happened to your Papa?”

It was less of a question and more of an assertion of dominance. He had known my father since childhood, so the question was actually a thinly-veiled “Look at how much better I am now than your father” statement. And it was as if I’d give him the satisfaction of telling my father about this assertion.

“Whatever happened to your Papa Ruben?” My boss then went on giving me a brief overview of their past.

They had known each other since they were kids, growing up in a poor rural village in the island of Leyte in the Philippines. When they became teenagers, they went to the country’s capital Manila, 900 kilometers north of the island. They rode a ship to chase their big city dreams. They studied in the capital’s major universities to fulfill those dreams.

“People looked up to your father, he was very intelligent, very talented,” my boss told me. “But I don’t know what happened to him, why he never got to be as lucky as I am.”

“Lucky as I am” meant becoming wealthy as him. By 2008, my boss was already a well-connected political strategist. He had become wealthy, unlike my father who was supposed to be better than him (he reminded, but it was more of an insult), who remained poor. By 2008, my boss had already sent his daughters to good schools, then funded their dream business ventures after graduation. He was even able to fund his older daughter’s concert – at a posh music hall.

I don’t know what my boss did from the 70s – when he and my father were still young in Manila – up to 2008. But I know (at least partly) what my Papa did. In the 70s up to the 80s, the Philippines was under the rule of a brutal dictator. Ferdinand Marcos plundered the country’s resources, then killed and tortured thousands who went up against him. Papa was not the type to just sit back and let the injustice unfold. He became one of the activists who bravely fought the dictatorship. Brave, because my father was almost thrown into jail. He could have been killed or tortured as well.

I don’t know exactly how activism had prevented him from becoming wealthy like my former boss, but all I know is from his hardcore activism days, to marrying my mother, to having three kids, we’d always been poor.

We had always been struggling, and the little income that my parents made, it mostly went to our education. I remember our aunts and uncles (even older cousins) complaining about it “You guys can’t afford it! You should send your kids to cheap public schools!” But my parents were adamant about giving us quality education, even if they couldn’t afford it. But this also meant other aspects of our life had to suffer.

For starters, my parents were never able to buy their own house. We spent our childhood and early adulthood renting. We never stayed in one place. We moved from one house to another because we always ended up getting evicted because my parents would miss paying rent. Aside from getting evicted, I also remember our electricity being cut off, I also remember eating cheap sardines and instant noodles for days.

“I remember getting severely depressed, feeling desperate about our situation. I didn’t know how our family could survive. I was tempted to just kill myself,” my father had told me back in 2014, after I got out of the emergency room after a failed suicide attempt.

“Of course, I didn’t take my own life. You guys are my motivation to live,” he added, telling me back then how to fight my depression.

“Whatever happened to your Papa?”

My boss’s “question” reminded me of what my Aunt (his older sister) told me when we were kids: “Don’t be like your father. Look at him, leading labor unions in the office, getting in trouble with his employers.” I am guessing, from that conversation, my Aunt had always been against my Papa’s activism because he continued fighting the system even when he already had us. Activism will get you in trouble, Ruben. Activism won’t feed your kids, Ruben. Activism won’t buy you your own house, Ruben.

“Whatever happened to your Papa?”

It has been 43 days since my Papa left us. He died at the age of 72. His death has plunged me deeper into my depression. His death has made my living feel like an obligation: I continue to live because I have to, not because I want to.

With my state of mind right now, it is a miracle that I can even write about him. But then, I opened my Facebook and saw that my former boss was tagged in a video of him celebrating his birthday in his nice house. It suddenly reminded me of how he looked down on my father, 12 years ago, with his ‘question’ “Whatever happened to your Papa?”

What happened to my Papa was he fought hard to give us good education even as he was fighting the system. That education opened so many opportunities for me, it even took me to 14 countries.

What happened to my Papa was he raised kids who are aware of social issues. This has become my armor, my weapon against all kinds of propaganda flooding all media saying that fascism is good, human rights are bad, sexism and racism is good, equality is bad. He didn’t raise a stupid, gullible daughter.

What happened to my Papa was he handed over his idealism to me. This idealism continues to drive me in the work that I do.

What happened to my Papa was he lived a life surrounded by a loving and loyal family. A wife who stood by him until his last hours, kids and grandkids who love and worship him.  

What happened to Papa was something any daughter can be proud of.

I love you, Papa. You’re the only reason right now why I am trying to believe in the after-life, because I can’t wait to be with you again.

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