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Why Father Pops left the way he did

October 18, 2013 · 

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(Editor’s Note: Following is a tribute to Italian priest Fausto Tentorio, who was murdered on Oct. 17, 2011 by still unknown assailants near his parish church in Arakan, North Cotabato.)

When a priest leaves the comforts of his First World convent to go on a mission and live in wooden shacks among the poorest in rugged mountains, you ask why. When the same priest stays in those mountains for 30 years, you ask why. And when that same priest-so gentle and so full of joy and hope-leaves this world in a brutal manner, you ask why.

We, members of the Kaliwat Theater Collective of 20 years ago, then led by Nestor Horfilla, were all very close to Pops (Fr. Fausto Tentorio). His kumbento was our second home for three whole years (1992-1995) when we collaborated with the Tribal Filipino Program for Community Development Inc. (TFPCDI) and the Manobo Lumadnong Panaghiusa Inc. (Malupa) to conduct cultural action among the Manobo communities of Arakan in North Cotabato.
The program’s major output was an ethnographic research contained in “Arakan, Where Rivers Speak of the Manobo’s Living Dreams,” published in 1996. The book closed the chapter on the 20-year-old struggle of the Manobo to reclaim their ancestral domains. The powers-that-be (Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agrarian Reform) needed documented proof that the Manobos knew enough of their territories to call it their own, and the book dug into the Manobo’s collective memories and reached as far back as their mythic past.

Toward the end of the program and months before the book was even published, Malupa was handed its certificates of ancestral domain claims (CADCs), Except for a handful of contested lands, all of the nearly 20 claims were approved. Days after the CADCs were issued, Pops came to the Kaliwat office with a huge grin on his face. He looked amused and humored.

Onion-skin paper
“Kataw-anan kayo (It’s funny),” he said. The Manobo leaders, he continued, were quietly shocked, and then mildly laughed when they saw the documents for which their elders, brothers and sisters suffered and died. All that bloodshed, said Pops, for just a few pieces of onion-skin paper. Onion-skin paper.
Pops, through the TFPCDI, was the bridge that brought together artists of Kaliwat and indigenous peoples. The two gathered in vibrant conversations of amazing proportions-where dances were exchanged, where the sounds of kubing and kuglong played harmonies with guitars, and where once an epic chant lasted overnight.

And so up the mountains, down ravines and through rivers and waterfalls we went, sometimes with and sometimes without Pops. But at journey’s end-after a day or three of meetings with Manobo folks-home was where Pops was, waiting with his silly, elfish grin, perennially amused.

I remember when I and Richard Belar had a minor motorbike accident on the way to the kumbento, we had to walk under the rain, on muddy path for almost two hours. By the time we arrived at the convent, Pops was outside, wearing his signature grin on his face and asking if we were all right. He particularly loved to tease Richard.

Serious advocate
Except during meetings when it was all down to business. There at the long table, on nights of updating and evaluating and assessing, Pops would turn into a serious advocate-smart and full of ideas, passionate and firm.

I remember vividly my last trip to my last community assignment in Arakan. Would I take the three-hour slow climb, or the one-and-a-half-hour pathless sharp incline, asked our lumad guide. It was to be the longest climb of my life. I did the climb alone-we all did in order to cover more ground in the littlest time-and I slept in what I thought was the poorest shack I’ve ever slept in in those three years.


And for the first time, I was noticing how unclean the surroundings were, and I was starting to become unhappy. Coming home, I chose the pathless way. Nobody warned me my face was going to be slapped by grass taller than us, grass that had tiny flowers with sharp needles on it much like the makahiya.
So in the swelter of the noonday sun, I was covered in my black raincoat, sweating like the rain, my arm uselessly trying to shield my face. And as we came onto a hilltop, I asked to rest, tears rolling down my eyes. Down where we were headed, a man was killed by a snakebite.

The cries of women chanting-weeping echoed through the mountains, “My son has just died Š my relative has just died Š”-a chorus and harmony so sad and beautiful I felt a longing for home and a better life.

Life’s purpose
“I am an artist, why am I here?” I wept silently, my grief blending softly with the cries of mourning.
A few months later, Neneng Leoncito would ask the same thing on top of another hill, shouting at the top of her lungs, “I am so tired already! Why am I here?”
And two years later, Richard Belar would ask the same question while riding a nonairconditioned bus, carrying two boxes of chicks for some agricultural project in Lakewood (Zamboanga del Sur), where once again Kaliwat artists would make their temporary home among the Subanon indigenous peoples. “I am an artist, what am I doing carrying boxes of small chicks?” he asked in desperation amid goats and sacks of corn and rice and sweaty underarms.
I wonder if Pops ever asked the same thing, “I am an Italian priest, what am I doing in the mountains of Mindanao?”

Yet Pops was the ultimate artist-he carved and painted the paths that led us to the mountains of Arakan. And from where we all are now-from the coasts of Florida, the congested streets of Manila to the various flourishing cities in Mindanao-we are forever changed.

And maybe, just maybe, the reason why Pops left the way he did was so we can all be reminded that the indigenous peoples’ struggle for their identity and their ancestral domains isn’t over.

In our mad rush to find new meanings in our lives as governments change, economies crumble, and “Wowowee” culture dominates Internet and paper headlines, Pops didn’t want his 30-year-old, quietly tired and weary cause to fade into oblivion.

And I ask for forgiveness for myself if I had forgotten, and for the others who may also have.

“Bathalang Manama, kung kami ay nagkasala’y patawarin
At kami’y sumusumpa na ang banal na lupa ay babawiin
Upang muling itayo ang dambana ng katutubong mithiin”

-From the song “Masukirum” in the musicale “Oya Arakan” (1994), libretto by Al Santos performed by Kaliwat Theater Collective
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