by Cesar Torres (April 11, 2005)

Who are they? What are they doing?

This is the story of a people in the  Philippines, in the town of Villareal, in the island of Samar. A gateway to the Christianization and Hispanization of the Philippines, Samar has been classified by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) as a “depressed area”, another term for “poor”.

With practically no assistance from the provincial and the national governments, the people of this fourth class town have been repairing and cementing an almost impassable 8-kilometer public road since October 2004 through voluntary work, known in the Philippines as “bayanihan”. This road connects the town to the Pan-Philippine Highway, which traverses the entire Philippine Archipelago from  Northern Philippines to the Southern tip of Mindanao.

So far, more than one kilometer has been cemented. Voluntary labor is provided by the townspeople. Even those coming from the island barrios or  barangays volunteer their labor. The municipal employees work on the road on Saturdays. Some townspeople, who are not allowed to volunteer to work on the road because it is not their turn yet, are sometimes angry. They think they are being left out. They feel they are not important, hence they feel they do not belong.

Even school children help.

The enthusiasm is unflagging. At the moment, there is a stockpile of cement. More donations are pouring to the town. So far, about P500,000 – a little less than $10,000 – has been contributed to this road-cementing fund. They come from all over the world. The Internet has been an effective medium of communicating with the Villahanons. Civic leaders, some of whom were people who did not vote for the Mayor of the town, keep the donated funds.

A check with Atty. Oscar G. Yabes, Secretary of the Philippine Senate elicits the information that it costs P10 million per kilometer to cement a public road if done by the government. In contrast, the imputed cost of this voluntary, bayanihan, road-cementing project is only P1.8 million. A difference of P8.2 million!

This voluntary road-cementing project of the people in Villareal, Samar is a whiff of fresh air coming from the only colony of the US and the only Christian country in Asia which President Bush has dubbed the “second front” in the fight against the deadly struggle against terrorism.

“Polo” or forced labor for the Filipinos and the Chinese to undertake public construction during the Spanish Regime might have been an ugly reality during those times. But since the occupation of the  Philippines by the Americans in 1901 when Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in Palanan, Isabela, up to this time, voluntary, enthusiastic, sought-after, and publicly-accepted community labor to repair and cement a public road has never been undertaken, except in Villareal, Samar since October 2004. Perhaps, during the three-year occupation by the Japanese of the Philippines, Filipinos might have been forced to work on public construction. But this would have been the exception, rather than the rule.

The implications of what these poor Samarnons are doing are profound. First, they have regained their pride and self-respect. They are not smiling stupidly and sheepishly, holding out their hands to some contemptible public functionary for dole outs where they can divide the spoils while partying in some dingy nightclubs. They are in effect telling their incompetent and corrupt political and governmental officials that: “Go ahead, steal and plunder as much as you can. Nothing lasts forever. There is always a reckoning someday.”

Secondly, if they can repair and cement a public road, they can do other things for the community: build schoolrooms, construct mini-irrigation dams, clean their streets, construct public toilets, protect their environment from destruction, and establish cooperative livelihood projects with the help of their town mates from all over the world.

But the most important lesson of this bayanihan, community, road building, and cementing project is the goodwill, the trust, and the pride that have been generated among the people of Villareal, Samar. They can tell the world: “We may be poor, but we are not beggars. We trust our leaders in our town. They are working together for the common good. So we will support them.”

These are the hallmarks of a democratic society, a people aware of their responsibilities, their rights, and their dignity and willing to sacrifice for them.

But as we are extolling the novelty of a proud, self-reliant, dignified, and poor group of people, in a Third World society, a dark pall is hovering over this land. The Mayor of this town, Renato R. Latorre, has been able to mobilize his town mates all over the world. But he is popularly known to be associated with a pro-poor, pro-Filipino group, Bayan Muna or “Country First”. I don’t think he has the intellectual sophistication to argue with anyone on the various “isms” that characterize the more articulate personalities associated with this group. Highfalutin concepts and pompous ideas of “historical determinism” and “laws of history” are beyond his ken. It is enough that no one can question his passion to help his people. And yet because of an emerging pattern where people who have been very vocal in their criticisms of a weak and ineffective governmental system to provide the basic needs of the 84 million Filipinos, Mayor Latorre’s life can be snuffed any time now.

To say that it would be a waste to kill Mayor Latorre or the father of the child shown in the picture is an understatement. In the Philippines, the killing of those who are aware of their responsibilities as leaders of the people and are discharging them to the best of their abilities while the corrupt, the plunderers, the exploiters, and the criminals are free and are lionized by the powers-that-be who are in uniform or in coat and tie or barong tagalog and using weapons provided by American taxpayers has become an almost daily occurrence.

Indeed, it is not the people of Villareal, Samar or their Mayor or this young girl who have become crazy. And you don’t need to have a Ph.D. from Berkeley to arrive at your own conclusion.

[The author is a regular columnist of “The Filipino Insider”, a monthly supplement of the “San Francisco Chronicle”, one of the major newspapers in America with a circulation of 500,000. This piece is for the April 2005 issue of the publication. He can be reached at]