Photo and text by Meeko Camba
For Gretchel Atiao, a 16-year-old Lumad student from Lianga, Surigao del Sur, clothing is more than just a form of self-expression. As a community, it is a way of asserting their identity as indigenous people.
But in their haste to evacuate after President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to bomb their schools for allegedly teaching kids to “rebel against the government,” she and the others had to leave their homes, and this particular part of their culture, behind.
“Sa kultura namin iyan (mga damit). Bilang Lumad, ito yung sinusuot ng mga kabataan kapag may ritwal… (Gamit nito) makilala ka bilang isang batang Lumad o katutubo,” she said.
Which is why come Lakbayan 2017, a protest caravan of the national minorities which calls for the end of militarization in Lumad schools, among others, Gretchel and the Lumad youth’s case inspired a group of UP College of Home Economics (CHE) students to help out in the best way they knew how: clothes.
Being the only clothing organization in the university, the UP Association of Clothing Technology Students (UP ACTS) volunteered to make cultural attires for the Lumad youth to use in representing their community during their stay in Manila, and beyond.
“Nung una worried talaga kami kasi for one, very small organization lang kami—under 15. Kaya maliit lang talaga yung manpower sa organization,” UP ACTS President Auie Aurelio said.
Coupled with a lack in financial resources, this made them think twice about going through with the initiative.
What they did not expect was the amount of support, both in effort and in cash, they got from fellow students, faculty and alumni, as well as outsiders who heard about the project.
“Nung nagpost na kami online nung call for donations, overwhelming yung response, and kahit yung almunis [sic] naming nagsasabi na gusto nilang tumulong, magdonate at maki-sow, so we decided na kaya nating ilaban yung project,” Aurelio said.
Eventually, what started out as 20 sets of traditional clothes doubled and can now cover all the 33 lumad youths in the Lakbayan.
Each set consisted of two pieces: a long-sleeved blouse and skirt for the girls, a vest and pants for the boys.
All were in bright blood red, symbolizing their continued struggle, embroidered with rickrack patterns of white, black and yellow that represent the mountains back in their communities, Aurelio said.
The project began in July, a month before the national minorities arrived in UP Diliman, when Aurelio asked volunteer teacher Chad Booc of the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV), a secondary school for the Lumad, what they could do to support the cause.
“Isa sa mga vision or mission ng ALCADEV ay mapaunlad at mapreserve yung culture ng mga lumad. Tapos part [naman] ng mission ng clothing technology na tumulong sa pagpopromote ng indigenous clothing so nagtagpo yung mission nung dalawang institution, kaya hindi siya naging mahirap na bumuo ng isang project na ganito,” Booc said.
After a two-day integration in the camps, Aurelio and the others proceeded to take the kids’ measurements, which for her, was quite a memorable experience.
“Na-realize nung mga members na yung mga batang ito, wala silang chance na may magawang damit para sa kanila, unlike tayo na nasa Manila na kapag prom or kapag may debut, nagagawan tayo ng damit,” she said.
But for Gretchel and her fellow Lumad, who merely want to return to their homes, it is rare that people pay attention to them individually, which gave the experience a different appeal, Aurelio added.
Ever since, the kids knew her and the others as “mga ateng gumagawa ng damit.”
After a little over a month of cutting and sewing, UP ACTS will turnover all 40 sets of lumad attires at the cultural night tomorrow, Sept. 15, in a special ceremony at the Kampuhan in Sitio Sandugo, CP Garcia.
For Aurelio, the project not only succeeded in reaching out to the Lumad, but also allowed them to prove that, contradictory to popular belief, clothes do matter.
“[Yung project na ‘to] hindi siya para samin or hindi siya project na parang ‘ganda lang.’ May cause siya tapos hindi lang siya nakakatulong, it helps people be awake din na there’s so much more to clothing than what people see it to be as superficial,” she said.
Booc reiterates this, explaining how clothes are deeply integrated in Lumad, and indigenous culture as a community.
“Siyempre bilang mga katutubo, ito (damit) [ay] bahagi ng kanilang identidad na mas makilala sila bilang mga lumad; bilang bahagi siya ng kanilang kasaysayan na habang umuunlad yung kanilang kultura ay napapanatili yung mga ganitong bahagi ng kanilang kultura—na nasusuot pa rin nila,” Booc said.