Her works show the hand of years and practice. The colors of her drawings and paintings, the arrangement of beads on the necklaces and bracelets she assemble, and the fine symmetry of symbols she adorn the clay jars with – which are being displayed at her home in Barangay Ampayon in Butuan City – suggest deep talent. But there’s more – the artist, a girl, is a special child, born with complications and given by the doctor a 50-50 chance of surviving within the next 24 hours after she was born.
She weighed only 2.6 pounds at birth, had abnormal heart rate and respiration, suffered urinary tract infection and wasn’t feeding well. Her late father, Tomas “Tommy” de los Santos, a Martial Law era activist, gave her the name Bagani (tribal warrior) so that she might survive and fight for life.
Bagani Tabilon de los Santos has lived true to her name, fighting for life and filling it with the colors, shapes and beauty of her art. If there is pain and angst due to the disabilities caused by complications at birth such as mild cerebral palsy, limping and being deaf-mute – not to mention blurred vision and difficulty with written language – it doesn’t show in her craft.
But how did Tessie, her mother and constant companion came to discover Bagani’s gift? “I noticed that when she was already 12 years old she would cut out colored paper into precise squares for days, even weeks. She wouldn’t stop unless told to do so. The doctor told me this is called perseverative behavior,” Tessie says. “But instead of getting irritated, I taught her to make paper beads.”
“Then a worker at UCCP (United Church of Christ of the Philippines) Ampayon invited Bagani to an art workshop for children. There she turned paper beads into fancy jewelries. She started with paper arts then to thread work and bead work making bracelets, necklaces, bags, and other accessories. After four and a half years she sold 40,000 worth of her handicraft and netted 30,000.”
For Tessie, discovering Bagani’s talent for the arts somehow vindicated her struggle for her daughter to be accepted as she is. She recalled that doctors and teachers held different opinions about Bagani, at times contradicting each other.
When she turned six, her parents enrolled Bagani at a special education class in Butuan. Tessie lamented however that in all the six years in that school the teachers “never classified her” – no card, no acceleration, no explanation.
“As a mother, it was painful to be told that she is mentally retarded and ‘diha ra gyud kutob iyang level’ (she can’t go beyond that level). Labeling my daughter as autistic is demeaning and humiliating to me as a mother because I’m an extension to the life of my special child.
“What was more hurting to the child, she was not allowed to join cultural presentations like the other hearing-impaired children because of her limping condition. She greatly envied this.
“That’s why I decided to stop sending Bagani to school in 2009. But she demanded to go to school, and every day she would ask why she stopped doing so. She felt sad, became moody and would not eat well.”
Due to Bagani’s insistence to go to school, Tessie thought of enrolling her in the special education class of Cabadbaran South Central Elementary School in Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte. To Tessie’s elation, Bagani’s teacher, Sharon Rose Puyo only had praises for her daughter’s capabilities.
“Ms Puyo found out that Bagani can read words and can respond to her questions using sign language. She explained to me many theories and principles about special education which I didn’t hear from the previous schools that my child attended. That gave me hope that my child can improve herself,” Tessie narrates.
Tessie says she spent at least P130 a day in fare alone in accompanying Bagani to Cabadbaran, about 25 kilometers away, not to mention the physical exhaustion she had to endure. But she condoled herself with the fact that her daughter finally found acceptance.
And it wasn’t only at the school in Cabadbaran that Bagani found acceptance. She has had won in art competitions, and even mounted some art exhibits in Butuan. In addition, she has sold many of her works. “One time some foreigners went here and bought P14,00 worth of her works,” Tessie recalls. “I think she has earned at least P60,000.” She, however, keeps photos of her daughter’s works that had been sold.
Tessie adds she used to worry over how to protect Bagani’s works every time floods hit their place, Butuan being a flood-prone city since way back. The barangay offered its office as display area for Bagani’s works. Tessie, however, says she refused the offer because she could not always go to the barangay office to watch over the display.
Her predicament was solved when, two years ago, members of the Columban Mission built an elevated extension of her house which now serves as gallery of Bagani’s works – aside from being the family’s sanctuary during floods.
As Tessie continues to share the joys and pains of raising someone like Bagani, her daughter, now 22, points to me and my camera, apparently curious about my presence. After an exchange of hand gestures, the girl’s face breaks into a wide smile. “I told her you will write about her and publish it, that’s why she’s happy,” Tessie explains.
But I think if Tommy, her father, were still alive he would be happier to know that Bagani, despite being born with disabilities that drive most people to despair and seclusion, is a picture of a soul who holds no anger for the world. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)