Rain or shine for the past eight years, Lucia Salazar Ramos, 30, who belongs to the Aeta tribe, has unfailingly walked the four-hour journey up the mountain to reach patients’ homes.
Rather than the typical white or blue uniform of a health worker, she wears plain black T-shirts and shorts, which she said helps because some Aetas fear medical professionals and hospitals. They trust her.
After graduating from Dominican College of Tarlac in 2013, Lucia became a health worker for an international nongovernment organization (NGO). She is responsible for the approximately 5,000 indigenous Mag-antsi and Abelling Aetas living in Tarlac and Pampanga. She treats common diseases like cough, fever, or diarrhea from drinking contaminated water.
“It’s a simple job, but I’m happy knowing that I’m enriching my land,” she said.
From dawn till dusk
Lucia says that being one of only two health workers for these many people can be difficult. She often has to work from dawn till dusk and attributes the lack of medical practitioners in her area to Aetas’ aversion to education.
Many young Aetas choose to work as farmers or start a family early, rather than continue their education. She approximates that most women start having children when they’re 13 and most families end up having five to seven kids.
Aetas as young as 12 will work three to four hours helping their parents harvest banana hearts instead of doing their homework. She says sometimes quitting school is more out of necessity rather than disinterest since families end up earning only P100 a day, maybe P200 if they’re lucky.
Many Aetas don’t speak Tagalog or know how to count, making them prone to getting exploited when selling their produce at lower-than-market prices. “At syempre mas nababawasan kami ng pera at pagkain galing sa mga crops kapag nagkaroon ng bagyo (We lose our money and food from our crops if a typhoon hits),” she adds.
Unlike most Aeta families, Lucia’s family was supportive of her finishing her education. She recalls getting inspired by her grandfather, who also finished his education.
But even when Aetas like Lucia choose to pursue their education, roadblocks such as underresourced schools and discrimination stand in their way. She recalls teachers having to take seven-hour commutes just to go to their school in the mountain, so most teachers will only be able to hold classes from Tuesday to Thursday, rather than the regular five-day schedule.
She also faced discrimination when she had to leave her mountain to attend a high school in a nearby barangay, due to the lack of high schools in the mountain. She was called a “baluga,” a derogatory term used to describe dark-skinned members of indigenous tribes, by other students. She says it implies that she’s a “lazy, small person, eating most of the time and useless to the world.”
Lucia thinks that these hardships significantly contribute to many Aetas’ decision to quit school. She approximates that only 1 percent of Aetas in her tribe eventually enter college.
These didn’t stop Lucia, however. After graduating high school, she worked at an international NGO for three years. The NGO, she says, helped her tribe by building schools and granting college scholarships to train Aetas to become teachers, health workers, or other important jobs for their community. “Ngayon na mas marami na ang paaralan sa mga taas ng bundok, naniniwala ako na mababawasan ’yung discrimination dahil mas maraming Aeta students ang papasok. May mga Aetang teacher na ngayon, kaya mas hindi nahihirapan na maglakad ang mga Aeta at nagkakaroon sila ng mga role model. ’Yung mga katribo namin na kapareho ang salita ay makakatulong sa paghikayat sa mga Aeta na mahalaga ang kanilang edukasyon (Now that there are more schools in the mountain, there’s less discrimination. Teachers themselves are also from the Aeta tribe, so there are more role models for Aetas. Someone who is of the same race and speaks the same language can really help convince young Aetas that education is important),” she says.
Lucia was a recipient of a college scholarship herself. “Hindi ko naman ginusto maging health worker, pero gusto ko lang naman talaga makatulong sa aking tribo. Kailangan ng may magsakripisyo para sa kapakanan ng lahat (I never wanted to be a health worker, but I wanted to do what was best for my community. There has to be that person who makes the sacrifice for the greater good),” she says.
Lucia remembers how, while she was growing up, ambulances had to travel seven hours to reach her tribe, and by then, they’re too late to save the patient. This is where she plays a special role.
“Kailangan kong baguhin ’yung pag-intindi ng Aeta para magamot ko sila agad at hindi sila matakot. Pero kailangan ko rin bantayan ’yung mga emergency cases nang makatawag ako ng ambulance. (I have to debunk the fears of many Aetas toward medicine to treat illnesses. But I also have to be vigilant for emergency cases, so that I can immediately call an ambulance),” she explains.
Lucia says that 10, 20 years from now, she can still see herself walking the four-hour-long distance up the mountain to do her part as a health worker for her tribe. “’Yung paborito ko sa pagiging Aeta ay hindi lang ’yung mga tradisyon, kundi ’yung simpleng pamumuhay. Para sa akin, masyadong marami ang pinagkakaabalahan sa lungsod katulad ng pera at gadgets. Mahalaga na hindi mawala ang mga simpleng bagay sa ating buhay … katulad ng pamilya at komunidad. (My favorite part of being indigenous isn’t the traditions, but the simplicity. City folk, I feel, are too busy with their gadgets and are too greedy for power and money. I just think we must not lose sight of the simple things in life … our family, our community),” she says.
Lucia receives a notification on her phone, packs her equipment and hurriedly puts on her raincoat. Another Aeta needs her help. —CONTRIBUTED
For every P50 you donate, you save one Aeta from fever, cough and diarrhea by helping Lucia purchase the necessary medications. Send donations through her GCash account 09304378351.