I USED that lead sentence for a news story several years ago. That was after Thomas Killip, then the mayor of Sagada, Mt. Province, hastily called for a late afternoon press conference at the former Mandarin Restaurant along Baguio’s main street.
Killip, eventually the presidential assistant for Cordillera regional development, was being swamped that morning with calls and text messages from fellow natives of Sagada here and abroad. He and they were bristling over front-page stories in the national dailies about the arrest of suspected members of a robbery gang.
The suspects were implicated in the hold-up and detention of a foreign visitor along the Halsema National Highway. The victim, a woman, was held for five days, during which she was forced to withdraw P20,000 daily from her ATM bank account, then the maximum amount a depositor could take out in a day.
The news reports tagged the suspects as members of the "Sagada-Kalinga Gang."
The police labeled and announced them as such in a press briefing at the regional office in Camp Dangwa, when they presented the suspects to the media. The reporters took the tag hook, line and sinker in their stories, triggering protests from readers who trace their roots to Sagada and Kalinga province.
At the press conference, Killip said he asked the local civil registrar of Sagada to check whether the suspected leader of the arrested, pinpointed as such by the police, was born in Sagada. Indeed, he was Sagada-born but did not grow up there, Killip learned. The “Kalinga” half of the label was apparently due to the fact that most, if not all the suspected gang members were from Kalinga province.
Killip then appealed for cultural sensitivity in reportage, cautioning against labeling of criminal suspects based on their ethnicity or places of birth.
Police beat reporters are used to adopt police tags based on the gadgets or modus operandi of theft and robbery syndicates: "Bolt Cutter Gang," "Salisi Gang," “Bukas-Kotse Gang” and whatever. Not when these labels appear to discriminate against tribal affiliations.
Now and then there are lapses, as when a TV news head announces, “Two Igorots nabbed for marijuana possession”. A more sensitive one would simply read: “Two nabbed in MJ bust”, without the specific ethnic roots of the suspects. This is usually the case if the suspects are Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Pangasinense or whatever.
In the same token, it would be unfair if one or two bad eggs from the police, say, Camp Bado Dangwa, would turn hooligans and be dubbed “The Camp Dangwa Gang”. It would trigger undue embarrassment to the family and memory of the late Igorot guerrilla leader, hero and former governor of Benguet in whose honor the regional command was named.
It took Chief Supt. Victor Luga, a true officer and gentleman, to issue a public apology over the tagging of the suspects in that ATM-related kidnap and hold-up. The arrest and labeling took place before he took over the regional command. Still, one of the first things he did when he took command at Camp Dangwa was to issue a public apology. He himself must have been slighted by the label as his wife is from Mt. Province.
Killip’s appeal came to mind while I was watching the evening news on television. A group of con artists who tunneled their way to ransack a pawnshop in Rizal Province were tagged in the news report as the “Igorot Acetylene Gang”
My theory is that the tag was inspired by a police report on the incident that noted the culprits’ use of acetylene torch in cutting their way to the loot. Someone told me they were labeled “Igorot” because of the tell-tale red betel nut spittle found on the crime scene.
Beetle nut chewing is not limited to Igorots, much less among my fellow Ifugaos. The habit is everywhere, even in Taiwan where non-indigenous but mainstream Chinese are also into the munching habit. Neither was head-hunting a monopoly of Igorots.
I remembered comedienne Candy Pangilinan’s faux pas in May, 2009. “Akala n’yo Igorot ako, ano? Tao po ako,” she uttered during a performance at a mall here. It triggered unprintable expletives, while the city council responded by declaring her persona non grata..
Candy mustered admirable courage and humility. She appeared before the city council and publicly apologized. The local legislature composed of Igorots – either by blood, birth, choice and sentiment – accepted the apology and canceled its declaration. Her manager explained Candy was supposed to say "statue, not Igorot."
In the wake of that “all’s well that ends well” with Candy, my son Johann asked if I thought there was an overreaction to her miscue that prompted a case filed against her by the local chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines then led by lawyer George Dumawing.
Johann earlier wrote on his blog about Hong Kong columnist Chip Tao’s description of the Philippines as “a nation of servants”. My son and his wife Lovelyn work and serve in Italy to be able to raise my two grandsons – Lukie and Dylan.
“I think Mr. Chip Tao was addressing the Filipino fashion designer Boyet Fajardo on the piece he wrote,” Johann wrote. “Probably it dawned on him, when he read about the news on the fashion designer, that Filipinos could now really be a threat in claiming the disputed Spratly Islands.”
In the wake of Candy’s forgetting her lines, I wrote: “They’re bound to be uttered again, those careless, demeaning slants sometimes intended as a joke, yet whip up storms of protest over the speaker’s perceived insensitivity or sheer lack of knowledge.
“Sooner or later, another slur comes, triggering protests and demands for public apology. The public apology will be offered, with the usual qualifier the utterance was not meant the way it’s being perceived.”
I’m proud to be an Ifugao and an Igorot, in the same token that Tagalogs, Visayans, Muslims and the rest of us humans are proud of their ethnic identities. As Filipinos, we’re all proud of pushcart teacher Efren Penalosa, CNN’s (and our) Hero of the Year (2009). As Filipinos, we all bear the shame and grief for that evil most foul in Maguindanao that snuffed out the lives of fellow Filipinos, be they journalists, politicians, lawyers and such.
After all, as Candy would have said, we’re humans, not cold statues.
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Published in the SunStar Baguio newspaper on May 06, 2017.
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