Inside Bilibid (1/3): "Ako Si Bunso"
Editor's Note: The House Committee on Justice yesterday approved the measure to reinstate the death penalty. So we thought it fitting to launch this series of stories on the inmates of the maximum-security Bilibid prison, to take a close look at the kind of people most affected by the law.
His name was Bunso. I haven’t seen him in three years. He never missed a class.
“Ako si Bunso,” he introduced himself.
And I said, “Uy, ako rin bunso!”
He smiled. It was a good smile underneath all the ink, which he had everywhere, even on his forehead. Bunso became my pet student, always meeting me by the gate with an umbrella even on days that don’t need one. He walked me to and from the gate and chatted about many many things as we walked past the carcel, the infirmary, turned left onto the row of churches, the mosque on our left, the psychiatric ward (called Ward 4) to my right. We walk more than half a kilometer from the gate to our classroom. I taught in the inner quarter of the Maximum Security Prison.
One day in 2011, Bunso went to our usual Wednesday class and said he had a surprise for me. He lifted his shorts and on the back of his left thigh was a fresh tattoo of a woman’s face with my full name on it. “Oh, wow,” was all I could say as he beamed at me expectantly. I wasn’t sure what the appropriate reaction was for such a situation, so I just said it again: “Oh wow.”
Later, I lightly asked him, “Ba’t ka nagpa-ganyan?”
He said, “Wala. Gusto ko lang mag thank you dahil nagtuturo ka dito.”
“Ayaw mo bang magbigay na lang ng pansit o card?” I joked, and we laughed, because we Filipinos resort to laughter when overpowered by emotion. I wanted to hug him, but it was too weird. I wasn't sure if I was touched or creeped out but now, years later, I think what I felt most was wonder. Humans say thank you the way we know how. He thanked me the way he knew how. And I am all the richer for it.
In 2012, Bunso asked me to be godmother to his daughter. I said yes, but never got to go to a ceremony because of permit concerns. Eventually, he said he was about to be released, and I rejoiced along with him. He said he wanted to visit NU107, the radio station I was part of back then, and I promised him a tour of the place. I told him I would make sure that he would meet Lourd de Veyra, whom he adored. We brought donuts to class that day, I remember—a belated celebration for his new baby girl.
A few months later, I noticed Bunso missed a class, and then another. And then more weeks passed with no sign of him. I asked his classmates if he had been released, or if he was sick; I asked about his daughter. I kept hitting dead ends. No one was telling me anything. To this day, I have no answers regarding Bunso—except for the perturbing whispers: that he doesn’t have a daughter, he wasn’t given a release, no one has seen him. There were rumors, too, that he was pulled out to do “something,” and then transferred. And so on. The "Bunso theories" became a running joke in my class. “Nag-astronaut, nasa buwan.” “Nag-magic, nag-disappear.” “Nakapuslit nakasabit sa ilalim ng truck ng beer.” “Sumabit sa Fiera ng basura palabas."
What surprised me the most about teaching a Creative Writing class to prisoners is this: how they loved to read their works in front of everyone. No matter what they wrote. Very few of them hesitated sharing even their clumsiest pieces, with fractured grammar, awful spelling; but the stories were always so rich and dripping with life. I was at first hesitant to ask, after giving them a writing exercise, “Who would like to read their work?” But always a flutter of large hands flew up. Everyone wanted to go to the front of the room and read their pieces out loud. Then it hit me: They were never listened to as children! Many of them never drew pictures and had neither parents nor space to have those pictures stuck to the refrigerator door. I realized all this crime and regret, all time lost and served, were almost solely determined by the circumstances of their birth, like the horrid mark of Cain. Not for all, I am certain—the complexity of humans can never be captured by one theory, nor by a hundred—but for a great many of them.
I am still not sure where Bunso is or what happened to him, and I think it’s better this way.