Juanito Guarde’s weathered face beams with pride while looking at the five frames of college diplomas hanging on the wall of his house at the foot of Mt. Halcon in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro province.
Never mind that he barely understands what are written on the documents. He cannot read English, much less write it.
For the 57-year-old Mangyan man, the diplomas are badges of honor—proof that he had sent five of his seven children through college with his earnings from making bamboo furniture.
In his community of nearly 1,500 mostly unschooled Mangyan people, Guarde’s accomplishment is not the norm. Only two other families—the Tupazes and Taywans—have college graduates in their midst.
It is no fluke to have educated children in ethnic communities. It is the product of hard work and the belief that only education can deliver the families out of lifelong ignorance, poverty and abuse.
That they live at the foot of Halcon, far from the nearest urban area, is in itself a story of how the natives of Mindoro Island were driven out of the flatlands toward near isolation in the forested areas.
Traveling for almost two hours from the capital city of Calapan, the core of Oriental Mindoro’s economy, and passing through farms teeming with crops and mountains that seem enchanting from afar, one reaches the community of the Alangan Mangyan in Barangay Paitan, once a missionary area of Holy Spirit sisters.
“Magandang araw po!” (Good day!)” the residents greet guests with respect and goodwill, flashing big smiles and humble bows.
The village has a population of 1,426, according to the 2010 government census. Only about 10 percent are non-Mangyan—either migrant Ilokano or Tagalog.
But only in three Mangyan homes—those of the Guarde, Tupaz and Taywan families—are college diplomas displayed on thin plywood walls outside. Like Guarde, the parents in the other two households are school dropouts who were able to see their children finish college.
Education, as the saying goes, is a parent’s greatest legacy. So it is with the financially struggling Mangyan.
Formal education in the ethnic community was popularized by the award-winning Tugdaan Mangyan Center for Learning and Development, which they put up 25 years ago.
Ligaya Lintawagin, overall coordinator of Tugdaan, stresses this point, saying the people must be educated so they can defend their ancestral lands from the “educated, rich and powerful.” Her only child, Maria Vernalyn, recently obtained a diploma on Bachelor of Science in Education.
Mindoro’s original settlers are the Mangyan, who number some 100,000 today and are spread in eight subtribes—Alangan, Iraya, Tadyawan, Tau-buid, Bangon, Buhid, Hanunuo and Ratagnon. They had to move up to the mountains because the non-Mangyan showed them titles claiming land ownership, among other reasons, Lintawagin says.
Many Mangyan who were not able to go to school are often abused and not paid for their work or services. Guarde says he does not want his children to face the same experiences.
He and his wife Cristina, a catechist from Baco town, have seven children, five of them already professionals. John Patrick is an agriculturist; Emmanuel and Juanito Jr. (cum laude at St. Bridget’s College in Batangas) are teachers; James Anthony is the first Mangyan forester; and Cristina is a social worker.
The younger son, Joel, is taking up Psychology, while daughter Celeste is in Grade 9.
A tarpaulin congratulating James Anthony, school diplomas and medals still hang in their house with cemented flooring, ceiling made of galvanized iron sheet, and walls of lawaan and plywood.
The Taywans’ dream for their children was to have college degrees. “We tell them though not to forget our culture because this is our identity,” says Jose, a farmer in his late 60s.
His wife Estelita, 64, a catechist from Puerto Galera town who sells vegetables and cooked fish to augment the family income, remembers the time when their children were about to receive their graduation diplomas on stage, “we could not hold back our tears, after all the hard work.”
It also broke her heart when her two sons had to share a pair of shoes just to be allowed entry into the campus.
All their four children completed college. Rexie, 30, Noel, 29, and Carmelita, 24, are teachers, while Ramil, 25, is a Commerce graduate.
Rexie, who teaches at Malvar Elementary School, says the days when Mangyans would marry early are gone. “(Now) we understand life better and want to be prepared with family life,” she said.
Enrique Tupaz, 54, and his wife Vivencia, 55, also struggled to send nine children to school.
Enrique, who worked as an agricultural technician at the church-based nongovernment organization Mangyan Mission (MM) for 22 years, says he is grateful for the scholarships and interest-free loans from their neighbors. He says he did not have any vice while he was still working as his children served as his inspiration.
“I would talk with each of them heart-to-heart when there are problems, like priorities with money,” he says.
His daughters Mariecris, 29, is a nurse and Benrica, 26, is a licensed social worker. Another, Lorena, 28, finished a Bachelor of Arts course, major in History, with units in Education at Divine Word College of Calapan, while Margarita, 25, finished Bachelor of Science in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development in the Indigenous Peoples (IP) at Pamulaan College at the University of Southeastern Philippines campus in Davao.
Margiorina, 20, and Enrique Jr., 18, are in college; while Diego, 16, and Mary Rose, 14, are in high school.
Carmelita Cruz, administrator at MM which has been helping the Mangyan people through community organizing, capability building, livelihood and educational assistance, says “there are many other success stories of Mangyan graduates.”
The MM, through Mt. Tabor Mangyan Formation Center-Calapan, provides Mangyan college students with board and lodging for a minimum counterpart. So far, it has produced 271 graduates from 49 courses, with Education on top of the list.
Mangyan graduates are encouraged by their parents and communities to serve back. Among them is Guarde’s son, Juanito Jr., who graduated cum laude and now teaches at Bucayao Grande Mangyan School in Naujan.
“My father drives me on his motorcycle for more than two hours, crossing two rivers, to reach the community that is also counting on education for a better life,” Juanito says.
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