One of the sad realities of our time is how our idea of greatness gets a little bit more distorted each day. We pin our hopes on the victory of a boxer who spews out homophobia and supports mass murder. We worship a family who drove us into poverty, imprisoned and murdered thousands, and are still literally poisoning us. We elect actors into positions of power and vote for them again even when they’ve accomplished nothing and stolen so much.
We equate power and wealth, most often undeserved, with goodness, while ignoring the people who do the backbreaking work of keeping our economy going. And when these workers speak out against their oppressors, we defend the oppressors because they’re rich and powerful and thus incapable of evil in our eyes.
Consider Negros with its thousands of sugarcane farmers who have been fighting for land reform and justice for decades. Under Marcos’s rule, farmers in Negros Occidental were forced into huge debt, resulting in a famine that affected a million people. When 5,000 farmers and their supporters held a protest in Escalante in September 1985, government forces opened fire on them, killing around 20 protesters.
Bernardino Patigas was a survivor of the Escalante Massacre. Tatay Toto always carried the memory of that day with him. But his grief didn’t stop him from continuing to advocate for land reform and human rights. He was a leader of farmers’ and human rights groups in Negros for decades.
But in a country blinded by celebrity, there are no accolades for people like Tatay Toto. What he got instead was harassment from the military and the police. They would regularly accuse him of all sorts of things, from conspiring to murder local officials to stealing land to being a communist rebel. He constantly received death threats throughout the years he spent educating farmers on their rights.
And yet, like a true hero, he simply carried on with his work. He was elected city councilor for Escalante in 2010, proof that the people whose rights he fought for believed in him.
The military and the police knew what they were doing in April 2018 when they released a poster bearing photos of farmers and activists, including Tatay Toto, claiming that they were NPA rebels. Within months, 23 farmers and one human rights lawyer in Negros would be killed in separate incidents.
A year later, Tatay Toto was on his motorbike after a day of campaigning for reelection. Two men on a motorbike shot him dead.
Because he wasn’t a celebrity, there was no nationwide outrage over Tatay Toto’s murder. He didn’t get a hero’s burial, unlike the man ultimately responsible for the Escalante Massacre and the famine in Negros, just a passing mention in the news of another violent death.
But the people he served selflessly were the ones who knew him best, and they showed the rest of the country what they thought of him by re-electing him city councilor posthumously.
Tatay Toto was 72 years old.