Charles de Gaulle said, “The grave is full of indispensable people.” Last Sunday, Marky Cielo joined them.

He was at the height of his popularity. As I write this, the nation grieves over his unexpected demise. It will take a long time for the Cordillera to come to terms with the death of this young man who will always be a model to peoples struggling with their indigenous identities and against racial and ethnic  prejudice.

Mark Angelo Cadaweng Cielo was an ordinary person with extraordinary achievements the least being that he reshaped the Igorot consciousness of that strange planet called show business. Igorots are not fascinated by the world of celebrities – a world scourged with scandals and intrigues alien to our cultures. Showbiz is like oxygen to us –we know it exists but we hardly notice it. In Baguio City, celebrities come and go but no one mobs them.

To a certain degree, Marky eroded this nonchalance when he joined Starstruck, a national talent search show. On Day One, the boy, all too cognizant that there is an overwhelming ethnic bias against Igorots, declared, “I am an Igorot,” like it was a badge of honor. Articulating on national television the bigotry against indigenous peoples, another contestant revealed dislike for Marky on account of the latter’s “Igorotness.”

The eyes of a people that used to ignore show business got glued to the television screen. The Igorots’ collective heart was touched by Marky’s proud acknowledgment of his indigenous roots while their collective pride was seriously wounded by ethnic discrimination. As their ancestors congregated around their love for liberty to resist Spanish colonization, they united around their ethnic identity to rise against chauvinism. History was repeating itself.

In the 1950s, Carlos Romulo’s effigy was burned in Baguio’s Malcolm Square, now People’s Park. What did Romulo do to whip up impassioned ire? In his book Mother America, he wrote: “The fact remains that the Igorot is not Filipino and we are not related, and it hurts our feelings to see him pictured in American newspapers under such captions as ‘Typical Filipino Tribesman.’” Igorot students, now our parents and grandparents, mobilized one of the biggest mass actions in Baguio City. Aside from Romulo’s effigy, several copies of the book were reduced to ashes. The former UN President, UN Security Council Chairman and Pulitzer prize winner, was forced to apologize. That was a moment for the Igorots.

The opportunity to again rally around our besieged ethnic identity came in 1988. Ramon Labo, then Baguo City Mayor was quoted by Manila Chronicle to have said: “We will not lose (the elections) to those Igorots. They urinate anywhere . . . that is why we club them. . . . The Igorots are traitors. They are civil in front of you, but once you turn your back they stab you.” Like a blitzkrieg, a massive rally confronted him. I was among the incensed young people in that momentous gathering.

With the same outrage that spurred the burning of Romulo’s effigy and book and the protest against Labo in his own kingdom, Igorots, here and abroad, tremendously supported Marky with text and internet votes. The candid, talented boy topped the competition. Right after his victory, Harry Basingat, moderator of Bibaknets, the biggest online Igorot forum, predicted that Marky’s victory, which he helped propel by spearheading an international text brigade, would make Igorots – even those “in the closet” - proud of their ethnic heritage. And it did.

As Marky reawakened the Igorots’ consciousness of their identity, he also helped reshape the outsiders’ awareness of Igorots.

Igorot history has long been a victim of suppression. Historian William Henry Scott wrote: “It is a strange thing that history textbooks commonly in use in…the Philippines never mention the fact that the Igorot peoples of Northern Luzon fought for their liberty against foreign aggression during the 350 years that their lowland brethren were being ruled over by Spanish invaders.”

Because of our ancestors’ record of resistance to foreign colonization, the colonizers cast Igorots as uncivilized people. The word “igolot” which means “from the mountains” was bastardized. It became synonymous to inferiority, backwardness or ignorance. The bigotry became ingrained in the national consciousness, thanks in large part to the educational system and the media that perpetuated it.

When I was a university student, people would express their awe that I, a relatively good student, was an Igorot. My experience is not isolated. Our parents and grandparents talk about how the unenlightened country would goad them about their tails!

The stigma was and remains strong that some feel the need to capitulate to prejudice by denying their Igorot identity. There is a story about a girl who grew up among the Igorot Community in St. Lukes Hospital Compound, Quezon City. Asked if she is an Igorot, she replied, “No. It is my parents who are Igorots.” To this day, many Ifugaos and Kalingas, perhaps to insulate themselves from ethnic bias, refuse to be called Igorots. But since Marky’s victory, many also soared above prejudice and are now proud to claim Igorot roots.

Marky’s success did not totally surface our suppressed history, but it contributed to the rectification of outsiders’ misconceptions and the emergence of many Igorots from their cocoon of cultural inferiority. In media events which are powerful purveyors of consciousness, he would claim his Igorot roots when the opportunity presented itself. And since he lived an unblemished life, the cultural majority’s group psyche long soaked in stereotypes and bigotry against Igorots, underwent restructuring. Marky was the specimen of the Igorots. On the part of the cultural majority, disdain slowly took the form of admiration. On the part of closet Igorots, shame slowly metamorphosed into pride.

In the world of show business where scandals are so generic, Marky was a cut above the rest. There was no smear on his reputation and not a whisper was breathed implicating him in anything disgraceful. He lived his life beyond reproach, and this was itself a war against the prejudices suffered by his people, a war where he had the upper hand. He showed the world that the Igorot is not uncivilized, the Igorot is courteous, the Igorot is humble, the Igorot has talents. And yes, there are Igorots who are evil, but aren’t there such scum in every ethnolinguistic group? The Arroyo administration’s record on human rights violation is a telltale sign of civilization’s erosion, and Arroyo and her henchmen responsible for it are not Igorots.

In death as in life, Marky continues to shatter stereotypes against Igorots. I surfed the net and read hundreds of entries about him. Every article that spoke of the boy’s remarkable character mentioned that he was an Igorot.

Manang Mildred, Marky’s mother said that she hopes that people will remember him for the good he has done. Her son’s life will be fossilized in our memory, if not in future history books for many reasons. He has left footprints that future generations of Igorots can always follow and this is a lasting legacy. But for me, his biggest contribution to our struggle as indigenous peoples is that he united Igorots from all the nook and cranny of the earth around their beleaguered ethnic identity, a reassurance that the Igorots are not a vanishing species, a guarantee that Igorots will not succumb to ethnic discrimination, a ray of hope that the ethnic prejudice will one day be conquered.

Albert Einsten said, “Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life. “

A young star burst but its light will shine eternal in the hearts of a people proud of him for being proud of them in spite of the formidable odds.

Rest in peace, Marky. Thank you for your life.

(This article also appears in The Northern Dispatch.)
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