Ako si Handala

During the first of my travels to the Philippines I had the overwhelming experience of interacting with children of the urbran poor sector in Cebu City. While a number of my travel companions and I ate our dinner at an outdoor food stand I remember quite vividly how a young girl approached me and attempted to peddle her tiny wreaths of sampaguita flowers.  

Magkano?”  I asked her how much her wreaths were in Tagalog.

Lima”  She replied that they were five pesos each ($0.10 USD).  I am not a fluent Tagalog speaker by any means, but I decided to at least feign a conversation and allow myself to believe that I was practicing my Tagalog skills.

Anong pangalan mo?” I clumsily asked her what her name was as I handed her a 5 peso coin in exchange for one of her wreaths.

“Shine!”  She replied with an unabashedly exuberant enthusiasm after which she scurried away giggling.  Moments later I felt somebody tapping me upon my waist.  I turned around to discover Shine along with two other young cohorts smiling mischievously at me.  She motioned for me with her hand to lean closer towards her.

Anong pangalan mo?” she asked me the same question with a tone of precocious audacity.  I could not keep myself from laughing out loud as I told her my name.  She once again ran away giggling with her group of friends.  

I used the sampaguita wreath that I purchased from Shine to mark the pages of a book about the Revolutionary movement in the Philippines.  I sometimes wonder about what may become of her knowing how her life chances are unfairly limited due to her class background and the untenable economic situation of my homeland.  I thought about her today because of an article that I came across on an e-mail listserve.  The article was about an infant girl named Rafaela Polborido and it read:

MANILA: A 16-month-old child was killed and several people were wounded during a government offensive that was believed to have been part of preparations for scheduled military exercises between Filipino and U.S. soldiers, the largest human rights group in the Philippines said Sunday.

The child, Rafaela Polborido, died after soldiers hit her family’s home with grenades on Feb. 19 in a village in Bicol, a region southeast of Manila, according to John Concepcion, secretary general for Bicol of the human rights group Karapatan. He said that eight civilians, including five children, were wounded

An infant child and her entire family.  Killed.  Why in the hell are American troops and Philippine Armed Forces soldiers using weapons in civilian populated areas?  What in the hell are American troops doing in the Philippines,  period?  Why are Filipinos killing their own people?   

There is a possibility that I could easily allow myself the “ease” of forced desensitization in order to ignore the visceral reaction to this horrific incident.  I could only hope that such a numbness would indeed allow me some respite.  I instead choose, if only for a moment, to allow my emotions to consume me.  The memory of the dead deserve at least this modicum of respect.  Knowing that there is a dearth of mourners for this child and her family only serves to further my feelings of anguish.  

  We do not speak of the names of murdered children who shall never have the chance to fall in love, make silly, trifling mistakes, and bear children of their own.  We do not acknowledge the wasted possibilities of so many potentially brilliant minds producing new contributions to the wealth of existing human knowledge.  We will not cry a single tear for the premature and brutal death of a infant who lives light-years away from the realities of our comfortable “middle-class” American life. 

The thought of this ignorance of these tragedies frustrate me and the lies spun throughout the popular American discourse about war and poverty fill me with rage.  It is this frustration and rage that forces me to seek out ways to express these emotions which cannot possibly remain stored inside of my being.  I look towards song, dance, art, and any other artistic possibility to lift my spirits, ease my exasperation, and bring some semblance of an explanation to these seemingly senseless crimes.  One of the symbols that I reflect upon during a tragedy such as this is the Handala.  

handala

Martyred Palestinian artist, Naji Al-Ali, created the image of this child character to express the plight of Palestinians as they are a terribly oppressed and impoverished people living in exile internally as well as externally to their homeland.  As the artist himself describes Handala:

“The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. His name is Handala and he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way.”

Handala provides a sense of comfort for me in as much as the fact that he represents a kind of stubborn defiance which is unyielding and uncompromising in the face of insurmountable odds.  Like many other children of war and poverty he is the paradoxical combination of naïve optimism and battle hardened resiliency.  Handala’s feet are made bare by the same monstrous disregard for human dignity which slaughtered young Rafaela and her family.  Handala’s hopes and dreams of returning home are made of the same kind of radiance that I once received from the smile of young girl who sold me a fragrant wreath of sampaguitas.  As children of war and poverty share common struggles they too share common aspirations for liberation and freedom.  

It is with knowledge of these aspirations for freedom that I find solace in the hope that Children of war and poverty may someday grow up to be the Children of revolution.

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