This was read last April 26, 2014 during the commencement exercises of the College of Arts and Letters at the UP Film Institute.
Hello friends, fellow graduates, teachers and parents. I’m Yaki Lerer from Comparative Literature.
In his poem “Pag-Ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa”, Andres Bonifacio writes of the Philippine Nation as a life-giving force, that nurtures and sustains its subjects like a mother:
“Ito’y ang Inang Bayang tinubuan
Siya’y ina’t tangi sa kinamulatan
Ng kawili-wiling liwanag ng araw
Na nagbigay-init sa buong katawan”
Raise your hand if this is how you feel about the Philippines.
Andres Bonifacio lived and wrote in a time when to be Filipino meant to be inferior, to be forced into a life of servitude and degradation. He and many others, some canonized as heroes, sacrificed their lives so that to be “Filipino” could mean something other than to be dominated and to be shamed.
To be proud, perhaps, and to be free.
But we aren’t free. We may not officially be a colony anymore, but neo-colonialism and imperialism continue to shape the textures of our day-to-day lives. We are still so constrained by old prejudices and old systems of domination—whether these systems manifest themselves in discrimination against minorities, or the structural asymmetries of the capitalist system. So many of us continue to live with poverty and shame. It is easy to feel alienated from the kind of urgency that Bonifacio expressed so clearly in his poem. It is easy to imagine that the fight has been won, to imagine that we’ve arrived at the utopian vision of freedom that Bonifacio and others once died for.
But we’re still so far from that. Every moment of complacency and forgetting is a step backwards.
I first entered the University in 2009, fresh from high school and pretty sure I had life all figured out. But as I took more and more classes—first, my GEs; then, my majors—I realized that I really didn’t know much to begin with. More and more, I began to question the things that I thought I was sure of: the ideological bases of the class system, the idea of literature as “self-expression”, and many other things. But, paradoxically, the more unsure I became about the world around me, the bolder I became in my ideas. The more willing I became to think with my imagination.
But this is probably true for most of us graduates. Let me give a more personal example. To be frank, there isn’t a lot of literature, theory, or philosophy written by trans people. Looking through anthologies and readers can be an exercise in frustration. I remember weeping bitterly at finding only one trans author out of 25, in an anthology of queer theory. This made me feel so small, as though my only importance to the world of intellectual production was as the object of somebody else’s study. It was disappointing, and degrading, and it continues to be so. But I am not defeated by it. Why? Because I’ve been given the most valuable gift I can think of. I can write back. I can write my own story, write my way out of the coercive double binds that attempt to circumscribe my identity and my life, write my own vision of a just society.
There is power in this.
Not everybody here is a trans woman, or biracial, or interested in theory, like me. But all of us, as students of the College of Arts and Letters, know what it means to encounter injustice in the field of discourse—whether as women, as queer people, as subalterns, or as Filipinos. We have all encountered the pain of looking through an index or a table of contents, and not seeing ourselves there. We have all experienced the alienation of watching a play, a film, or reading a novel, that grievously misrepresents us. And we have all experienced the real life traumas that accompany this kind of epistemic violence. But we aren’t powerless before its onslaught. We can question. We can imagine. We can write.
If my time at the University has taught me anything, it is that countless people died so that I could live my life freely. And that, in their memory, I am ethically obligated to do my part, to continue the struggle for freedom, in the way that I can. For some of us, this will surely mean the kind of political engagement that requires radical commitment and readiness to die. But for others, the willingness to question conventional opinions, and the willingness to imagine new ways of being, can also take us closer to the ideal of freedom Bonifacio and other heroes have sought to make the birthright of each Filipino.
We may not give our lives to this ideal in the same way that Bonifacio did. We need not die for our nation. But we should give our lives just the same, through our actions, through our writing, and through the various questions we ask about power, freedom, and the sacrifices we must make to bring about a just society.
Maybe, we will remember these obligations when we move beyond the university.
Maybe, as students of art, writing, and criticism, we will realize that we’ve been fulfilling them all along.
In dedicating ourselves to working towards freedom, freedom for everybody and freedom for ourselves, we are memorializing and honoring the sacrifices others have made for us. But we are also moving towards the kind of nation—national community, national belonging, national sanctuary, and national love—that Bonifacio envisioned in his poem. We are helping to bring about this vision into reality.
Some will surely say that the time we’ve spent studying art and culture is a detraction from more serious issues, from the starvation and humiliation so many Filipinos continue to face. In a world of chaos and torment, they will say, the humanities have nothing to offer beyond luxury and distraction.
But they will be wrong. As Bonifacio shows us, art and revolution, culture and politics, cannot be so easily separated. Indeed, his poem reminds us that our time at the University has been spent interrogating, exploring, and imagining the freedom that inspired our greatest citizens, and that continues to elude us today. His poem reminds us that our studies at the College of Arts and Letters have not been an abandonment of revolutionary ideals. They have been a remembering.
Thank you very much, and congratulations, class of 2014.