Arsenio Ilag shocked his children when he asked if he could donate their family’s land in Gabaldon to flood and typhoon victims. His children hesitated at first. They were not a wealthy family, and the land had been allotted as their inheritance. But he told them, “Ipinagkatiwala lang sa atin iyan ng Diyos, kaya dapat lang na magbigay tayo sa kapwa. (God has only entrusted us with that land, so it is right that we should share it with others.)”
Kalinga Luzon (KL) needed the land because soon after the launching and groundbreaking at the original site in Gabaldon, surveys showed that it was high risk. The land sat near an earthquake fault, and lay in the path of possible flash floods and landslides. The government rejected six other sites after later surveys, due to high risks. They finally discovered a suitable area on the eighth site, the property of Arsenio Ilag, who many people fondly call Mang Totoy.
Mang Totoy had tended that land for 30 years, and had little else to bequeath to his children. But finally, he generously and joyfully gave 200 homeless families a safe place to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Mang Totoy came to chilly, mountain-ringed Gabaldon in 1960 to work as a katiwala (tenant) in a plantation. There, he met and married a teacher, Lourdes Tabucalde. In 1974, before the National Development Company left Gabaldon, they awarded him with his 5-hectare patch of land. He took care of it and grew ipil trees on it as his way of nurturing the environment. The site is a pastoral expanse nestled at the foot of a sheltering mountain, and watered by a gentle river. It is a rare sight in Gabaldon: a safe and beautiful place in the heart of a town so often ravaged by the elements. And Mang Totoy planned to leave it as his legacy to his children and his descendants.
Soon after the wrath of typhoons Winnie and Yoyong, Gabaldon residents Noli Anarcon and Victor Dacungos, and Mark Lawrence Cruz, Kalinga Luzon-Ateneo coordinator visited Mang Totoy to ask for 2 hectares of his land. A few days later, Mayor Dominador Mandia of Gabaldon came to explain the urgency of the situation. They needed Mang Totoy’s land, because it was by far the most suitable of eight surveyed sites. Otherwise, the house-building project would have to move to another region.
Mang Totoy’s heart had always felt compassion for those stricken by the typhoons . Most of those who could afford to had already fled to higher ground like Palayan City. He says, “Noon pa lang, pinag-iisipan ko na iyon. Paano yung 80 hanggang 90 porsiyento ng mga tao sa Gabaldon na hindi kayang bumili ng lupa sa Palayan? (I have already been thinking about it. What shall become of the 80 to 90 percent of the people of Gabaldon who could not afford land in Palayan?)”
It took him and his family only four days to decide to give their land. But after they had already agreed to give 2 hectares, Mayor Mandia returned to ask for one more favor. The mayor asked for an extra hectare where a plaza and a school could be built. He also told Mang Totoy that the government would compensate him.
However, Mang Totoy refused to sell his land at market value. He accepted only 300,000 pesos per hectare from local government even if the property is easily worth a million pesos per hectare. He had already turned down an earlier offer from a subdivision developer, and had never meant to sell any portion of the property. The land could sustain his family and provide for them in case of dire need. It also represented a secure future for the entire clan. But Mang Totoy wholeheartedly gave most of the land to GK, so its beneficiaries could rebuild their homes and lives.
Mang Totoy’s inspiring generosity and the greatness of his gift is almost startling. But those who know him well will tell everyone that he has a habit of heroic service. During the tumultuous period leading to the 1986 snap elections, local officials shut down Mang Totoy’s business, a panaderia, because he chose to work with NAMFREL and spoke out against the dictatorship. In the days that followed, deprived of his livelihood, Mang Totoy foraged and worked in the fields as a casual laborer to make ends meet. But he never wavered in his commitment to freedom and democracy. The EDSA Revolution ushered in a new government, and one of the first actions of the newly appointed Mayor Mandia was to reopen Mang Totoy’s bakery.
Earthquakes in Gabaldon caused landslides in 1990. Mang Totoy, other Gabaldon residents, and students from the Ateneo de Manila barred illegal loggers from further denuding the nearby mountains. Students from La Salle later joined them as they held a 60-day hunger strike in front of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
An old Jesuit offered them food after an interview, but Mang Totoy and many others declined. He and his companions asked only for water. Mang Totoy narrates, “‘Paano naman po ’yung mga kasama namin sa Gabaldon, kung magpapakabusog kami dito sa Maynila?’ sabi ko. (‘How will our friends back in Gabaldon benefit if we stuff ourselves full here in Manila?’ I said.)”
There are many other stories of Mang Totoy’s generosity, and over many years, he has grown to love Ateneans for their steadfast cooperation and friendship with the people of Gabaldon. But he did not even realize that the Ateneo de Manila University was a Kalinga Luzon partner before he was asked for his land.
Mang Totoy believes that Filipinos should cherish and preserve the value of bayanihan. And he is grateful that volunteers, most especially the youth, have chosen to leave the comfort of home and dedicate their time to rebuilding Gabaldon. He says, “Daloy ito ng pag-ibig. Ang pag-ibig ay galing sa Diyos, at ito’y pinakikilos ng Diyos para sa mga taong nangangailangan. (This is love flowing. Love comes from God, and he channels it for those in need.)”
“Nandito kayo hindi lang para naman malasap ninyo ang buhay niyo ngayon [na mariwasa], kundi para magkalaman ang mismong kayo na tumutulong sa amin. (You’re not just here to realize how blessed you are to live comfortable lives, but you enrich your own selves, you who help us.)”
And to those who are still undecided about supporting GK and other efforts to help fellow Filipinos, he gives the same advice he gave his children: “Kung ano ang ipinagkaloob ng Diyos, hindi natin maaaring angkinin. Ito lang ay pinagkatiwala lamang sa atin. At dapat lang natin itong ibigay sa mga nangangailangan. (Whatever God has bestowed upon us, we cannot claim to own it. It was only entrusted to us, and it only right to give it to those who need it.)” [FAME CRUZ/ALI FIGUEROA]