“Maayo sa kulay, maayo sa buhok, maayo sa katauhan ung sa tao. Kung gusto niyo talagang maging successful, go and go lang po. Go nang go!”
This was the message of the Dionisios to the family-beneficiaries of Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) after winning the grand prize of the National Search for Huwarang Pantawid Pamilya 2018.
The Dionisios are the first indigenous peoples (IP) family who bagged the national award as their story of perseverance and determination amid the discriminations they receive from being “different” in the community made them admired by people, IPs and non-IPs alike.
Education vs poverty
The Dionisios experienced discriminations because of being a Kabihug or Agta. Kabihug literally means “friend” but the Dionisios found themselves not welcome in many areas. Kabihugs are itinerant thus they move from one place to another. The Dionisios were treated viciously because of their skin color, hair, height, and lifestyle.
They were forced to move house at least twice because they were labeled as “magnanakaw, maninilip, mangkukulam,” said Marites Dionisio. People destroyed their home.
After two relocations the Dionisios found a home in Brgy. Gala in Labo, Camarines Norte. Their neighborhood gave the family a chance to live peacefully and show that IPs are human beings too that deserve respect.
Marites shared, “Akala nila ‘yong pisikal naming anyo (na ang buong katauhan namin). Para sa akin, tignan ninyo ‘yong puso namin kasi busilak ‘yan. ‘Yong mga bagay na nakikita panlabas lang ‘yon.”
Kabihug communities are found in the mountains of Camarines Norte and other parts of Bicol where education and health facilities are inaccessible. Wherever they go, Kabihugs are called ignorant or walang muwang.
Wency, Marites’ husband said, “(Gusto namin mabago) ‘yong pagiging mahirap, mahiyain (kasi) ‘pag nakakita kami ng hindi namin kauri nahihiya kami.”
Even before they knew each other Marites and Wency realized this kind of perception had to stop. They looked for ways to get tertiary education. Wency became a working student at Camarines Sur Agricultural State College where she met Marites who, through a scholarship, completed a vocational course in entrepreneurship.
Years later she graduated with a bachelor of science in education. Wency, on the other hand, was able to attend three years of college.
It was a never-heard-before story: a Kabihug getting a college education. A difficult yet possible accomplishment that showed that Kabihugs are capable of attaining education which they could use in improving their situation.
Wency shared that people were inspired by their perseverance and told themselves, “Kung sila na Kabihug kinaya nila, kaya rin natin.”
Before joining the Search, Marites was an alternative learning system volunteer that taught other Kabihugs. Wency, meanwhile, is employed until now as a tribal assistant at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in Daet, Camarines Norte.
The couple’s passion for education was passed on to their three children, Mary June (17), Marvin (14), and Mary France (11). Mary June is now in grade 11 and plans to be teacher. Her younger siblings Marvin and Mary France dream to be a seaman and nurse, respectively.
Unfortunately, they are not spared from being teased in school because of their physical appearance and being IPs.
Despite this, the Dionisio kids refused to be bullied and went to school anyway. Mary June said they did not want to miss a class because “gusto (naming) makapagtapos (ng pag-aaral).” Every day when they go to school they bring with them their parents’ three essential pointers in life: “sipag, tiyaga, (at) huwag kalilimutang manalangin,” said Mary June.
Promoting the rights of IPs through bringing education close to their tribesmen was one of the exemplary deeds of the Dionisios that made them the National Search for Huwarang Pantawid Pamilya champion in 2018.
Less than a year since winning, many changes have already taken place in their lives, including earning the respect of many people and getting through difficult adjustments to give way to a better living condition.
Earning the respect of others
Being the Huwarang Pantawid Pamilya grand winner put the Dionisios on the spotlight. Their story was shared on TV, social media, and various activities in the Bicol region.
Wency said that the Search was the bridge that connected their advocacy to the beneficiaries of 4Ps. Winning was a huge deal, he said. “Dati ‘di kami napapansin na may ganoon kaming adhikain na makatulong sa kapwa. Naging tulay talaga na ma-share namin yung kaalaman namin (sa iba).”
There are 4,695* 4Ps households in Labo, Camarines Norte. In Bicol region, 5,616* 4Ps households have Kabihug/Agta members.
But the Dionisios couldn’t care less about the attention. What is important is that people, especially the Kabihugs, are starting to believe in them and in their advocacy.
Wency said, “’Yong mga katribo namin dito nahikayat na mag-aral at (naniwala na) kahit kami ganito na Agta, (naisasakatuparan) namin ‘yong kagustuhan na makapagkamit ng edukasyon. Noong mapanood nila kami (sa TV nagsumikap) silang mag-aral dahil na-inspire sa kuwento namin.”
Marites, who is planning to take up a master’s degree, encourages her friends and neighbors to never stop learning and acquiring new knowledge because according to her “ang edukasyon naman ay walang limitasyon.”
While the Dionisios urge others to be a dreamer and ambitious, it is also equally important to them to have honor in achieving their goals. Wency gave a compelling insight on this:
“Nakarating kami ng national awarding dahil sa gawa namin na hindi kami lumalamang sa ibang tao. ‘Yon ang pinakaayaw ko ang manlamang sa kapwa ko. Sinisikap kong matuwid ang gawa ko dahil (sa) mga anak ko (dapat) huwaran ako. Balang araw (‘yong tama rin) ang gagawin nila. Gusto ko ang kainin ng mga anak ko ay ‘yong pinagpawisan ko.”
On March 2019, Marites got a new job as an NCIP tribal affairs assistant in Camarines Sur. Having a job that allows her to reach more IPs not only reinforces her sense of purpose but builds her confidence as well. For one, she feels empowered receiving her salary using her ATM card.
“’Di ako talaga nagpindot (cash withdrawal) sa Pantawid. Noong unang suweldo ko naramdaman ko ganito pala ‘pag isa kang empleyado. ‘Pag nagpindot ka diyan tapos lalabas na iyong pera kitang-kita mo kung magkano,” she excitedly shared.
As ordinary as it may be but using an ATM gives her some kind of control in her life as she can decide on how much money the machine should dispense and whether to check her account balance, transfer funds, or change her card PIN. It sounds trivial but she wants all IPs to experience this kind of privilege and confidence too.
These developments in the lives of the Dionisios, however, come with difficult adjustments. Camarines Sur is at least three-hour bus ride away from Labo, Camarines Norte so to save on transportation costs, Marites only goes home on weekends. Her children initially hated this setup.
Mary France was happy that her mother got a new job but she was used to having their mother beside them every time they needed her. “Lagi na lang siyang umaalis. ‘Di ko na siya nakakasama,” the youngest Dionisio cried.
Mary France’s ate and kuya felt the same. Marites missed a PTA meeting and the moving-up and recognition ceremonies of the kids where they got special awards. But the couple had to explain to the kids that it was for their future. They understood eventually and promised their parents that they will always do their best in school so Marites can attend next year’s recognition ceremonies.
It is not also easy for Marites to be away from home especially when self-doubt creeps in. She may be part of a group that works toward the same goal yet she sometimes feels she does not belong: “Pakiramdam ko nanliliit ako. Kasi yung salita (at) kilos nila ramdam ko na iba sa akin.”
But she keeps going because the fight isn’t only for her and her family. Together, they dream that it would be a norm to have education and livelihood opportunities for IPs available at all times, in Bicol and ultimately nationwide.
On behalf of the Dionisio family, Wency wanted to impart a message to all Kabihugs:
“Iangat natin ang lahi natin na isang katutubo. Ang pagiging mahirap hindi ‘yan hadlang sa edukasyon at kinabukasan ng isang tao. Obligasyon ng magulang na suportahan (ang kanilang anak) para sa susunod na henerasyon mabawasan ang hindi marunong.” ###
*Data as of June 2019