Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The man on the roof

By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:29:00 05/26/2008

MANILA, Philippines - Crispin Beltran told me a story I remember to this day. He and several Filipino labor leaders had been invited to a labor conference in Vienna (I think), and the conference had been important enough for them to accept. Off they went on the cheapest flight they could get, bringing with them nothing but their everyday clothes with a couple of long-sleeved shirts and decent pants thrown in for the socials. They figured that since this was a labor conference, the accepted, or expected, attire was workingman’s clothes.

When they got to the conference, they were surprised to see that the venue was a magnificent structure, probably a palace in older times. They were even more surprised—and chagrined—to see that the people who congregated at the entrance to register for the conference all wore suits, many of them three-piece ones. The women wore formal dress and exuded subtle scents.

Deciding that prudence was the better part of valor, they retreated from the scene. But determined as they were to attend the conference—sayang the money their organizations had scrounged up to get them there—they got in touch with some Filipino friends who brought them to Vienna’s version of ukay-ukay. They found what they were looking for in a place not unlike a Salvation Army shop and bought suits and leather shoes for a song. After the suits had been dusted off and pressed, they looked—to them at least—impressive.

Armed thus, they went back to the conference and—again to them at least—burst into the hall like a conquering army. Beltran was so proud of his newly acquired (and polished) shoes, he told me, that he found himself dangling them out whenever he crossed his legs.

That is the image of Ka Bel that I retain to this day. A lot has been said about him falling off the roof of his house while he was fixing it, much of it having to do with the irony of a man who had lived with death and prison as constant companions only to be felled by something completely mundane. He had survived Marcos, he had survived Gloria, alas, he would not survive—his roof. What can one say? Sometimes heaven plays cruel tricks on earth. Warriors struck down not by the sword of the enemy but by the snares of ordinary life. Well, this is one warrior who will gatecrash Valhalla anyway. He has pretty much gatecrashed everything society had decreed was off-limits for him.

But one friend put it down pat. Do you know, he asked me, another congressman who climbs up his roof to fix it? That is the marvel of it, Beltran, who had earned his berth in the Batasan, who was there every day in barong Tagalog, which may or may not have been bought in an ukay-ukay, was not only not spoiled by his new station in life, he continued to live a life only a couple of notches better than the constituents he served. Before he got to Congress, Beltran was living in a P50,000-house in a depressed area in Commonwealth. Afterward, he was living in a one-bedroom bungalow that he bought with a P400,000 loan from GSIS.

Could he have afforded a carpenter or an istambay to climb up his roof and fix it? Probably. But that option would have appeared to him as natural or sensible as attending a conference on labor in the company of other labor leaders in a coat-and-tie. Why waste good money to hire someone to do something that you can very well do yourself? That he was past his prime and was defying the odds, quite apart from gravity, by doing so never entered his reckoning. That’s just the way he was. That was the mettle of the man.

We do not lack for poor people who made good, or made bad, depending on how you look at it, and turned into monsters in the course of it. Ka Bel did not. He did not become corrupt. He remained true to his beliefs, he remained true to labor, he remained true to himself. Congress has not honored him by calling him a congressman, notwithstanding that he got there by the party-list route, he has honored Congress by agreeing to be called a congressmen notwithstanding the laughable meanings that now attach to the word. He has shown that however a contradiction in terms it sounds, it is possible to be an honest congressman.

While paying him obligatory praise, many have also found it a pity that in life he clung to beliefs that were outmoded and ways that were unyielding, which marginalized him in politics and society. What can I say? If it has become outmoded to believe that the poor have as much claim to this earth as the rich, if not more so, that public service is not an entitlement to abuse but a challenge for one to acquit oneself honorably, that honesty and decency and simplicity are marks of high-mindedness and not naiveté, then we can all do with clinging to outmoded beliefs. And if it has become modern to compromise principle for pelf, to barter integrity for a life of ease, to sell one’s soul to gain the world, or an infinitesimal fraction thereof, then we can all do with being resolutely old-fashioned.

Easy to talk, hard to do. Words are cheap, and in this day and age where officials are free to say one thing and do another, they become even cheaper by the day. Ka Bel did not just talk about principle, he practiced it. Ka Bel did not just talk about the people, he walked with them. Ka Bel did not just talk about life, he lived it.

I don’t know that it’s farfetched to squeeze some metaphorical or symbolic meaning from Ka Bel trying to fix the roof of his house. That house might very well be the one where the people he loved and tried to serve—the poor, the tired, the hungry—were huddled in one corner, a tangle of arms and legs, trying to fend off wind and rain. Of course he tripped, and plunged to his death. But who knows?

Maybe his example might just inspire others to try their luck.

i don't know how many people can be like him... I don't know him personally. but the death of this person fascinated me...
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