In the outskirts of Angeles City, Pampanga is a small Aeta community that struggles to keep up with the fast-changing urban life. With the little help that comes from the local government, and some donations from the private sector, Sitio Target still sees a long way to go in embracing what’s new while upholding their culture for their future generation.
Sitio Target is a small community dominated by Aetas and the farthest community located in Brgy. Sapang Bato. Long before the Americans came, Aetas have been living in the area and have stayed even after the war. Later on, the place was made a firing line of Americans during the war, thus the name Target. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, Aetas who have been living in the area dispersed to Nueva Ecija and Tarlac. Years after, Aetas returned to their homeland, while bringing with them other natives from different provinces whom they married.
Fast forward today, with over 782 in population, mixed with katutubos (native Aeta) and some unat (Pangasinense, Bisaya, and Kapampangan), Sitio Target is a community that thrives to keep up amidst culture differences, discrimination, and poverty within Angeles City—an undeniably progressing city with its advance aviation, booming tourism, sprouting Korean establishments, entertainment and gamings centers.
Way of living
Reaching the sitio takes two jeepney rides from Angeles City. In Sapang Bato, either you choose to have a long, bumpy tricycle ride with a costly fare, or take a close to 30-minute walk within the underdeveloped road going to the small community. The cemented pavement ends in Sapang Bato. But what’s interesting to know is that parts of the road to Sitio Target were cemented when the Puning Hot Springs and Resort was constructed back in 2007. This posh resort, which is owned by Korean investors, built its walled first station just beside the poverty-stricken community—a sickly and contrasting sight to see.
It cannot be denied that despite having been faced with issues against the management of the resort, almost 90 percent of its employees are Aetas—a clear manifestation that the business supplies food in the table of their employees.
Apart from working for the resort, many tend to their farms in the mountains to grow crops that they will sell in Sapang Bato’s Sunday market. A small space was allotted for them by the local government free of charge.
Their earnings for that day will then be used to buy their favourite instant coffee for the rest of the week, rice, and other necessary goods for everyday needs.
Some women, on the other hand, make necklace, bracelets, and rosaries made of Binggala and Bangkal tree’s seeds.
Ate Merlyn, 47-years-old, has been making these even before the volcano erupted. She says that making these accessories with her grandchildren and sisters is something she has been doing while she tends to her small sari-sari store. Her customers vary from volunteers who visit the place, Korean tourists, and seasonal requests from the Holy Family Academy nuns.
In dire need of healthcare
In this community which houses about 218 families, healthcare is one major concern.
Jonalyn Ablong, 25, is supposedly a mother of five. At age 15, she was forced to marry a fellow Aeta. They had two children. She was later on abandoned, leaving her with two babies to feed. She then later married another man, whom she had three kids. However, last year, she just lost a child for the second time, due to malnutrition.
Now, Jonalyn is taking care of her three kids ranging from eight to one year old, whom are also in need of health assistance. Just last week, Jonalyn had to rush her eldest to Ospital Ning Angeles due to constant vomiting and flu. This caused her to temporarily stop selling her father’s crops in Angeles City so she can take care of her sick child.
While her child’s hospital dues are covered, Jonalyn had to still shell out money to buy medicines that are not available in the hospital’s pharmacy.
Social worker Rhea Buyucan said that out of 500 children, almost 50 of them are malnourished. The latest who died was early this year.
Beliefs and aspirations
Sitio Target is a community with different religions. Within the area are two Born Again churches built by Korean volunteers.
Moreover, some are converted to Protestants, Baptists, Iglesia ni Cristo, and Catholics.
Prior to the introduction of different religions, Aeta are known to place their faith to Apo Namalyari (God the Creator).
The food they eat from the crops they sow and animals they hunt are their blessings that they thank the nature for. The nature is their home, and Apo Namalyari gave it to them.
The Holy Family Academy, through the initiative of the Missionary of Benedictine Sisters, saw the need of the community to have a place where they can learn catechism, Christian values and other activities for community development.
Thus, the Benedictine Sisters, with the help of the Holy Family Academy volunteer students and alumni in Angeles City, built the Bale ni San Benito—the sitio’s first multipurpose center.
Heading the Bale ni San Benito is Sister Angela Bingan, who has been assigned in the sitio for three years now.
Aries de Vera, 22, is the first Aeta who graduated with a college degree under the Benedectine Student Assistance program of the Holy Family Academy.
Unlike Jonalyn who was not given a chance to study and pursue her dream to become a teacher due to early marriage and pregnancy, Aries was blessed to have been a scholar of the institution.
“I am proud to be an Aeta. I am never ashamed of where I came from,” Aries says.
But his story was a struggle at the onset.
There was the time when he had no idea how to operate a computer. There was the moment when he had to stand up against discrimination while he was riding a jeepney and a women called her offensive names in front of other passengers.
But Aries did not mind these hurdles. Instead, they take them as one challenge to bring a diploma in Sitio Target, and prove that they deserve a place in the society which they have been seemingly set aside.
He got his diploma in Education major in Filipino last 2012. Four years after, he is still on his mission to give back to his community.
“Ito yung paraan ko para mag-give back. Babalik at babalik ako kung saan ako nagmula (This is my way of giving back. I will always come back to where I came from),” he says.
He currently teaches Christian Living Education and catechism on Thursdays and Fridays in Holy Family Academy while being the Indigenous People Apostolate Community Staff in Sitio Target.
But pushing for every native to go to school is a challenge in itself. Aries said not all parents are keen to send their child to school.
“Sinasabi nila minsan na walang mag-aalaga sa mga kapatid nila o walang tao sa bahay nila kapag nasa labas sila para magtrabaho (Sometimes, they say that there will be no one take care of their younger siblings, or there’s no one to man their house while they are away for work),” Aries said.
But this will not stop Aries from helping his fellow.
Having realized that there is so much in store for every youth, he strives to explain this to the community.
While keeping up with the demands of the society, Aries underscores that this does not mean their culture and tradition will be taken away from them.
“Kailangan nating pahalagahan ang kultura natin habang nakikipagsabayan tayo sa makabagong panahon (We need to give importance to our culture while we are keeping up with the modern society),” he says, adding that he even wears bahag to present that there is nothing to be ashamed about where they came from.
Aries is an epitome of a future leader for a community who is in dire need of someone who came from their line, to lead them to change for the better. He is an activist fighting for indigenous people’s rights, an advocate of education, and an inspiration to the younger generation of Aetas not only in his small village but in other places as well.
While the young man knows the government should take a look on their plight, in themselves alone is where the change should spark.
“Ang inaasam ko, sana lahat ng kabataang aeta makapagtapos ng pag-aaral upang ma-empower ang aming hanay sa pamamagitan ng edukasyon, (What I aspire is for every Aeta kid to finish school so we can be empowered through education),” he says.