Sister Mary Paul: Heaven-sent defender of Aetas.
Capas, Tarlac - Here in Barangay O'Donnel lives a nun who is a passionate and fierce defender of Aetas - a group of indigenous people who are in a constant struggle to better their lives.
This nun, named Sister Mary Paul, isn't even Filipino, having originated from Flores Island in Indonesia. But she definitely deserves the title of honorary "Pinay" after spending the last 20 years helping educate the country's katutubo and teaching them to fight for their rights.
She is as heaven-sent to them as her name implies.
"All my lifetime here in the Philippines I'm all around with the indigenous people, in different tribes,"the 52-year-old Paul said in serviceable English. Her Tagalog is just as good, if not better.
"Dapat marunong sila mag-isip, maglaban (They should know how to think and fight for themselves)," she said, referring to the Aetas.
"Kaya ang sabi ko sa kanila, dito matuto tayo na marunong maglaban para sa ating sarili, para sa ating karapatan bilang katutubo (That's why I told them, here let's learn to fight for ourselves, for our rights as indigenous people)," said Paul, a member of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and director of the Holy Spirit Aeta Mission.
Paul bared that her passion is teaching. "My profession actually, I'm a teacher back home. After studying I went back to Cagayan Valley, also with the indigenous people. From Cagayan Valley to Mindoro."
Dormitories with a purpose
The Missionary runs two "Paidyanan" or dormitories for Aetas in Capas. One, intended for high school students, is in O'Donnel.
Established in 2002, this particular dormitory gives free board and lodging as well as educational materials to Aeta students who come down from the mountains to attend classes in a nearby school.
Donations and the missionary's own money sustain the Paidyanan, which houses several sleeping quarters, a shared washroom, an open "dirty kitchen," and a receiving area that can double as a classroom.
"Most of the time we in the congregation spend on it. There are donations, of course. Donations don't come in daily, that doesn't happen. But I hope it does," Paul said.
The second dormitory in Maruglod some 30 minutes away caters to elementary students.
"They are more eager to learn because of this dormitory. They know that they're safe here, number one. Second, they don't have to worry about carrying rice when they go down. They know that we have rice for them here," Paul said.
"There are 36 children here. The others have married and left. Early marriage is a problem here. Just a few days ago, one of the students was married," she shared, noting that the age of 12 is already a marriageable age for Aeta girls.
"Their lives in the mountains don't revolve on anything else," lamented the nun.
Given the hardships that the Aetas have gone through the past years, especially after the June, 1991, Mount Pinatubo eruption that drove them to unfamiliar territory in the lowlands for at least a decade, education has all the more become a luxury for them.
And to an extent, these people shun luxury because they aren't excessive by nature.
"They are not greedy. Their mentality is, 'nature will give us what we need for this day'," Marlon Pia, one of the formators of the Office for Social Concern and Involvement of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), said of the Aetas.
Pia has spent years rubbing elbows with the katutubo under the college immersion program of ADMU where he is a professor. Like Paul, he is a beloved individual by his highland brethren.
Pia is the founder of non-profit organization "Project Liwanag," which works closely with the missionary in finding ways to improve the living conditions of the neglected Aetas. He holds the Aetas in very high regard, despite their abject poverty.
"They have this innate responsibility to take care of the mountains. Once they till a patch of land for crops and made harvest, they give the land respite and refuse to plant on it for the next two years," he shared.
"They are nomadic so they simply transfer to another area where they can till the soil,"Pia noted.
For her part, Paul said of the Aetas: "They don't ask for so many things. One only - to respect their rights."
More than just mountain stewards
The nun believes that the Aetas here can become much more than stewards of the mountains. She cited the example of her native Indonesia wherein the indigenous peoples aren't looked down upon by city-dwellers.
"I'm a foreigner but I'm also a katutubo. Back home most people are katutubo. All the missionaries spread all over the world, katutubo," Paul said.
"The katutubos are braver than the people in the city. They feel that they are of higher stature than those in the city," she continued.
She then underscored: "Because they are educated. Those in the Senate are indigenous people. I told them here, you can also do that. Number one, you should study."
If only the lowlanders would show a bit more kindness toward the Aetas, then the latter might have a surge in self-esteem and shine as a people.
However, Project Liwanag volunteer Victor Lorenzo Villalon claimed Aetas are subjected to exploitation from their fellow Filipinos "for the most part."
"Sometimes they loan money worth P100 for planting. When it's time to pay, they [lowlanders] add one more zero, so the loan becomes P1,000. That's the kind of exploitation that they experience. They're illiterate so they can't defend themselves from this," said the 23-year-old ADMU communications technology management graduate.
"By culture, the Aetas don't like conflict. So they just nod even if they know they've being duped,"Villalon said. "What's happening is very frustrating. They deserve much better."
An outsider's appeal
This cruel treatment of Aetas - referred to as "Kulot" (curly haired) and "Baluga" (dark-skinned) by lowlanders - doesn't sit well with Paul. In fact, it hurts her.
"Of course [it hurts] because for me, I feel one with them. I'm one with them. They look down these Aeta. They are not educated people so everything they can manipulate it. They can just play, disrespect to them," she said.
Paul cited the sale of crops as another instance where the katutubo are usually fooled. "You know they will buy from the Aetas P2, P5, P10 [per kilo] but they will sell almost P30 profit. That is too much. Stop taking advantage of each other."
The nun taught the Aetas this powerful retort to anyone who would disparage them for their physical features.
"Bakit, hindi na kami tao?Pareho tayo anak ng Diyos, number one. Pangalawa pareho tayong Pinoy. Pangatlo, pareho tayong tao eh.Kaiba lang ikaw unat, ako kulot (Does this strip us of our humanity? Number one, we're both God's creation. Number two, we're both Pinoy. Third, we're both humans. The only difference is you have straight hair, I have curly hair)."
Sometimes, it takes an outsider like Paul to make us realize just how badly we have been treating each other.
"We should treat our countrymen fairly. Because we're all created by God, we're all God's children.
"Stop this practice of taking advantage of each other," she appealed to the country that has adopted her.