July 2007
Alien Nation

Lawyer from the mountain

EVEN AS a child, Renato Zosimo Evangelista knew he was different. For one, he dreaded Christmas. Unlike other children who would get excited at the first whiff of the “–ber” breeze, he would get anxious for the coming days ahead.

FIRST Mangyan lawyer in history: Renato Zosimo Evangelista. [photo by Lala Ordenes-Cascolan]

It gets colder in the mountains during those months. But it was not the cold that bothered him too much; Christmas was the time when his fellow Mangyan would come down from the mountains and ask for money from the lowlanders. As the youngest Mangyan studying in predominantly Tagalog Holy Infant Academy in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, he was often bullied by his classmates who would tell him: “Bakit ka nandito? Doon ka sa mga kasama mo. Di ka ba mamamasko? Nasaan ang bahag mo? (Why are you here? Go stick to your own kind. Aren’t you going to ask for Christmas charity? Where’s your g-string?)”

Indeed, his life would be defined by people telling him where his place was. But he would defy them all.

He says he was conceived in a church. His mother, a Mangyan adopted by a Roman Catholic missionary when she was eight, had fallen in love with a sacristan mayor from Batangas. It was the early `70s, and intermarriage was frowned upon, much as it is now.

He knew little of his father who left, in shame perhaps, even before he was born. But he carried his father’s name, and years later his father’s brother would ask for his forgiveness, and would tell him that they were proud of him.

And they should be, for Renato Zosimo Evangelista, a Mangyan from Oriental Mindoro, beat the odds to become the first Mangyan lawyer in history. When his uncle said his father’s family was proud of him, Evangelista was already the provincial legal officer in Oriental Mindoro.

The Mangyan are an indigenous people who call the mountains of Oriental and Occidental Mindoro home, and whose history is about 3,000 years old. There are eight major tribes of Mangyan, whose population reaches some 390,000, including those whose names do not appear in the local civil registries. Typically of slight build, some of them still wear g-strings made of bark and cloth even today, including the women, who cover their breasts with pieces of cloth or ulango and rattan nito or yakis. Perennial chewing of betel nut, which leaves the mouth looking as if it were bloody, has also left many Mangyan with teeth that blacken as time passes.

Evangelista, now 34, did not pick up that tribal habit, sparing his teeth the unusual tint brought by the betel nut. His mother, from the Hanunuo tribe, was an activist, a trailblazer who would later become one of the first Mangyan elementary school teachers. In school she would always win in extemporaneous public speaking competitions. Her son describes her as being very vocal and a “fighter.” She used her gifts, he says, to fight for her people’s rights.

THEIRS IS a story of struggle, of fighting tooth and nail for every right that was denied, every parcel of land that was grabbed, every dignity that was trampled upon. Yet at first Evangelista’s young mind could not comprehend the scorn, the utter lack of respect for his people. The jeers — how the lowlanders would sneer at them. How they would be cheated of their products — vegetables, baskets, bags, and hammocks — whenever they sold these in town, how they would be displaced from their land, how friends and family would disappear because the military suspected them of being members of the New People’s Army.

Drivers would not let them sit inside jeepneys, other passengers would cover their nose when they were around, they were not allowed to use the utensils in other people’s houses. Once, he remembers, a boy his age threw a tantrum when the boy’s mother let him borrow the boy’s toys.

He says that in Mindoro, when one does something stupid or shows ignorance about something, people would say, “Ano ka, Mangyan? (What are you, Mangyan?)” or “Mamangyan-mangyan ka (You’re being such a Mangyan).” His people were perceived as dumb, partly because they still clung to many of their old ways and partly because so many of them were bereft of education. In time, however, Evangelista says he learned to ignore the jeers and to listen only to his own dreams. He recalls thinking, “Someday, you will look up to me. Someday I can prove that I can do great things.”

BUSY with his law practice these days, Evangelista says he’ll go back to the mountains of Mindoro someday to share what he has learned with the community that nurtured him. [photo by Lala Ordenes-Cascolan]

He knew he wanted to be a lawyer even before his mother asked him to study the law. After all, he had been exposed early on to the reality that he had to fight for almost every bit of what was due them. He saw how his mother, as spokesperson and advocate for indigenous peoples’ rights, valiantly tried to protect them from abuse, using her passion and gift of gab. But passion did not win arguments, and it did not guarantee them their rights. The boy Renato realized he had to arm himself with knowledge, and with the same tools lowlanders used to suppress their rights; he knew he had to study the lowlanders’ law.

The Mangyan have their own legal system called kasaba. It is composed of one or two elders from the community who sit as the judge and jury in a “legal” battle. An accuser has his own defender of choice, usually a friend, and so does the accused. The conflicting parties argue until they convince the elders of their guilt or innocence. Once, says Evangelista, he witnessed a tigian, a Mangyan ritual to determine who was telling the truth. An egg was put in a cauldron of boiling water and the contending parties were asked to reach down and get the egg. In the ritual, he who comes out unburned is declared the victor.

But the lowlanders had a different legal system, and Evangelista knew he had to study their laws if he wanted to be taken seriously. So in high school, he endured walking for five hours — three hours to come down the mountain, and two hours from the highway to the Mangyan Education Center in Mansalay — just to attend class. Tuition at the center was free, but parents brought chicken, rice, fruits, and vegetables to augment the school’s food supply. When the school started, it had around a hundred Mangyan. Of that batch, though, only 20 (including Evangelista) eventually graduated from high school.

THAT EVANGELISTA was able to finish college at all was already a great achievement. Although official data are hard to come by, just 400 or so Mangyan are college graduates, according to the Mangyan Heritage Center, a private foundation. Evangelista was able to attend the Divine Word College in Calapan during the first two years in college, and on to the Manuel Luis Quezon University (MLQU) in Quiapo on his third and fourth year only because he was supported by the same missionary who had taken his mother decades before. And even in college, he had to put up with insults about his people, although some were perhaps not intended to be so. He says that upon learning he was from Mindoro, one classmate asked, quite innocently, “Is it true that the Mangyan have tails?”

Yet this only made Evangelista more determined to plod on, and to do his best. When finances (or the lack thereof) got in the way of his dream, he taught beginner’s piano to children, for he knew how to play, having inherited his mother’s love for music. His mother was a consummate pianist who played classical music and was the first katutubo to have a premier piano recital in Calapan.

Evangelista wrote to various organizations, asking them to “be a part of history” by providing a scholarship and stipend to a Mangyan whose goal was to finish law. But part of the P4,000 he received as stipend from his eventual sponsors, the famed Ayala business clan, he sent home to his mother in Mindoro.

At his MLQU law graduation in 2000, his grandparents were there, in their full ethnic garb, bahag and all, to celebrate the moment with him. It was the culmination of his dream, and it was sweeter, he says, than when he passed the Philippine Bar in 2001, or when he received a master’s degree in law in the United Kingdom in 2005. When he walked up the stage to get his law diploma in 2000, he was accepting it not just for himself, not just for his family, but for his people.

Evangelista has his own private practice now, and is comfortable in a barong or in a suit. He is currently based in Metro Manila, where he sits in the board of the Mangyan Heritage Center, a foundation set up by Mangyan missionaries Fr. Ewald Dinter, Antoon Postma and Jesuit volunteer Quint Fansler. But someday, he says, he will go back to the mountains of Mindoro to be with his people. It is for them that he works hard, he says, so that when he returns home he can share what he has learned and contribute in his small way to the community that nurtured him.

Renato Zosimo Evangelista has not stopped dreaming. He is now working to consolidate the eight Mangyan tribes to form what he calls a Mangyan consultative assembly, which will serve as the Mangyan’s united voice in social, cultural, educational, and economic concerns. He is patterning the assembly after similar groups formed by Australian aborigines and American Indians. He says it’s about time that the Mangyan determine their future based on their own initiative, that people see the Mangyan situation based on the Mangyan’s viewpoint, and not on ready-made solutions “force-fed” to them by the government and other well-meaning groups.

“Maybe I’m too ambitious,” he says, “but I think it’s the only way.”