The tolling of the bells
Danilo Araña Arao
Philippine Daily Inquirer (Youngblood), 22 December 1994, p. 9
THE Misa de Gallo is ushered in by the ringing of the bells at dawn. People wake up to the repeated sound of joy, signifying devotion to the Blessed Child born almost 2,000 years ago. The bells summon us to fulfill our devotion for nine straight days so that our most cherised wishes will come true. Or so the old beliefs have it.
Government must have had this in mind when the World Peace Bell was inaugurated at dawn last Dec. 10, Human Rights Day. May the ringing of the bells, President Ramos said, "calm the rage in the hearts and minds of some of our countrymen who persist in their belief that change can only be realized through armed struggle."
Blame it on superstition, the Christmas spirit or Catholicism, but we seem to have this passion for signs and symbols. We tend to look up to tangible objects for the attainment of our elusive dreams: Santa Claus brings gifts, the star on the Christmas tree symbolizes a brighter future, and so do the silver bells.
But can we really expect a 365-kilogram bell to make a difference? The cynic will probably say the sound of the peace bell will only fall on deaf ears. From the Quezon Memorial Circle, it will not be heard throughout the city, much less throughout the land.
This is not an open indictment of signs and symbols in general. We often need something to literally hold on to as we try to fulfill our dreams. We need objects to assure us the things we want can be reached.
But our passion for signs and symbols should not end there. Much as we need them to remind us of the future we want, we need them even more to remind us of the present we have. Such is the role the bells play, at least for the remote town of Tartaria, Cavite.
Tartaria is located in the outskirts of Tagaytay and Silang, and just a 10-minute drive from Taal Vista. It has a population of 1,600, all of whom are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, earning income from planting rice, pineapple and coffee.
Ownership of the land is being claimed by a wealthy family in Cavite, whose ancestor is a hero of the Philippine Revolution. But residents insist that they are the real owners of the land, since their great great grandfathers have been tilling it since the early 1900s. All that the supposed landowner did, they say, was register the disputed land in his name.
Over the years, the historical figure tried to win over the Tartaria residents to his side, giving a huge sum of money and promising lucrative employment. Some accepted his offer, but most opted to fight for their rights. They took the case repeatedly to court, but the judges always decided against them. They staged protest actions in front of Malacañang and Congress, and they also tried to get their message heard through the media.
Yes, the jobs given to those who sold out were lucrative. According to a community leader, some of his old friends were hired as goons to coerce the residents to agree to be tenants and recognize their new master's claim.
Oh yes, some were given as much as P10,000 in exchange for giving up their rights, but the money was quickly spent and soon they found themselves begging the supposed owner for more. In desperation, they were forced to work for their erstwhile benefactor at starvation wages.
Now community leaders say the alleged owner only recognizes 40 individuals as wage workers. The rest are considered as squatters, and treated as such.
Time and again, attempts were made to evict the "squatters" from the land. Their plantations were poisoned with chemical sprays. Their pigs and chickens were stolen at night. Armed goons disturbed the residents' peaceful slumber with gunfire, strafing some houses with bullets.
One time bulldozers were poised to crush their homes and destroy their crops, and the residents had to literally stand in the way to stop them in their tracks. Another time, a community leader was reportedly offered a cool P5 million to persuade his constituents to stop their protest actions and recognize the wealthy family's claim to the land. But the bribe was turned down and the struggle continues.
Where do the bells come in?
Since the residents feel very vulnerable especially at night, they take turns serving as lookout for the community. If the lookout notices anything unusual, he rings the bells and residents immediately rush out of their houses to see what's going on. The idea, a community leader says, is to discourage any strangers from disturbing the peace.
This practice has proven to be effective: the harassment has stopped. But the situation remains unstable. Who knows, the bells may not ring at all one night, and only the cries of the dying may fill the air.
In Tartaria, the tolling of the bells echo the people's unrewarding toil. They signify the present, not the future. So how can a bell, no matter how big it is, symbolize peace when its ringing could mean something else?
These days when church bells ring at 4 a.m., my mind wanders to Tartaria and terrible images fill my mind. Quickly, I pray that the bells would stop ringing.
Danny Arao, 26, is the editor in chief of IBON Databank.