The Taggaoa family in front and behind the lines of activism

Despite the crackdown on activists, the Taggaoas lean on each other for support and remain steadfast in their service to the people.

The family of Saint Louis University (SLU) professor Ronald Taggaoa is anything but typical.

As president of the SLU Union of Faculty and Employees, professor Taggaoa lobbies for fair working conditions for educators and possible improvements to the country’s education system. Meanwhile, matriarch Jennifer Awingan currently serves as a researcher of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) Research Commission, but more notable is her role as a founding member of the Asia Young Indigenous Peoples’ Network. Their daughter Kara is the international officer of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a striking, courageous figure in major rallies and workers’ picket lines.

Though they work separately as defenders of their chosen sectors, the Taggaoas have continually been at the forefront of championing activist causes. From asserting the rights of indigenous peoples to the minimum-wage workers, their persistence has brought to light the struggles that common citizens regularly experience but have been left unaddressed.

However, a family of activists can easily become a target of relentless adversaries. Each of them has faced trumped-up charges based on their efforts to speak for the marginalized sectors—a clear violation of their right to free speech. The situation may seem dire; yet amid the darkness, the Taggaoa family serves as a shining beacon of hope and courage for everyone to aspire to.

Shaking the graffiti

For Ronald, his activism started as a way to fulfill the values expressed in the Bible. As a former seminarian, his inclinations for both Christian and philosophical concepts have strengthened his belief in maintaining justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. He summarizes, “People have the right to speak their minds, demonstrate, and petition the government.” This belief led him to become a representative of the ACT Teachers Partylist, which gave him the platform to amplify the demands made by teachers throughout the country.

Ronald first crossed paths with Jennifer through their activist pursuits—a fitting glimpse of what was to come. He and Jennifer would exchange thoughts and convictions from the causes they championed. They understood each other’s perspectives and began to participate in each other’s campaigns, finding common ground in the human rights issues of the labor sector and indigenous groups. The family patriarch narrates, “I was influenced by her and by her organizations, so I also went into [their] campaign.”

While their daughter Kara was always exposed to her parents’ work, she wasn’t an activist from the get-go. Her parents wanted her to determine her career path freely so they didn’t impose a life of activism onto her. One only becomes an activist when “they listen to suggestions. You come to see things, and then you decide to become one of them,” Ronald explains. Now, Kara actively leads KMU in major demonstrations that heed the calls of marginalized workers from different industries.

But beyond their vigorous campaigns and protests, they live by their words and actions through their lifestyle. “I could not imagine a family discussion without politics,” Ronald contemplates. “Over dinner, over lunch—there is no separation of [talking about] family concerns only.” It may come as no surprise that the family lives and breathes on challenging ideas together, but Ronald further jests, “Medyo—lightly—kahit sa samgyupsalan may politics.”

(Though lightly, the subject is still politics even while eating at the samgyupsal place.)

While most families eschew the idea of discussing politics over dinner table disagreements, the Taggaoas consider it their daily bread and butter. Constantly doing so keeps them on their toes in their pursuit of being model progressives and activists. Ronald even believes that it’s come to a point where everything that occurs under their roof makes a statement—even silence. “Everything is political. Nothing is apolitical. Even saying nothing at all is political,” the labor leader presses, taking note that silence can allow injustice to persist.

As a family of activists, the Taggaoas enjoy spending time with each other by reflecting on different social issues.

Fighting with family

The Taggaoas do admit to still having their fair share of domestic issues among themselves, but they say their awareness of the hardships surrounding them and other families makes the problems of the nation their problems too; deserving just as much attention if not more. As Ronald puts it, “Probably, we have more problems than ordinary families because we make others’ concerns our problems.”

Unfortunately, each family member’s advocacy lands them in hot water. Last July 10, Jennifer was among four activists designated as a terrorist by the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC). Ronald reveals that this has caused them severe hardships in their finances; some of their bank accounts and credit cards were blocked by the Anti-Money Laundering Council. He heartbreakingly narrates when, at a grocery store, his credit card got declined and the cashier had to constantly recheck its availability. “Humiliating ‘yun. ‘Haba-haba ng pila ‘di gumagana ‘yung credit card niyan,’ [sa] tingin ko ‘yun yung iniisip nila,” he says.

(It was humiliating. ‘The line is so long but his credit card keeps declining.’ That’s what I feel they were thinking.)

The drawbacks to their cause aren’t just limited to their livelihood but also to the safety of their lives as more and more activists are silenced—permanently, even, for some. Ronald relents, “The government is utilizing its power [and] its resources to silence activists nationwide. Not only to silence them but to really, you know, eliminate them.”

The heads of the family still have to come to terms with telling the rest of their children why they’d get in trouble for their activism and why life is so dangerous for them. “We have to talk about the designation. They have to be informed about the Anti-Terror Law,” Ronald explains. “They had to attend discussions about these issues that concern their mother para alam din nila.”

(So they’ll understand too.)

‘Payt latta’, Tuloy ang laban

For Ronald, activism is more than a family concern. “[It’s] motivated by the desire [that] there [can be] a better world than the current one we have,” he explains, “A world where people’s needs are prioritized, rather than the interest of the politicians in power.” Despite his family being closely involved in advancing public interests, especially in labor rights, the patriarch emphasizes that their activism is not about leaving a legacy under their name—it is simply having the courage to speak when one sees something “unethical [and] immoral” and to remind the government of their responsibilities.

Ronald does not falter even when the government continues to foster a dangerous space for activists with their persistent, malicious red-tagging through the Anti-Terrorism Act. His family and friends in the movement continue to fight despite the ATC’s red-tagging. “When we simply allow things to remain [as they are] where people are being sacrificed, [where] people’s needs are not taken into consideration, it becomes an obligation to be an activist,” he remarks.

He believes that even if the government sets its eyes on eliminating every activist, they could never kill the activist’s heart and drive for a better world. “Death [would] not stop the ideas that we have… Such ideas will persist even after me, after my wife, and all the contemporary activists,” he expounds.

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