Monday, September 2, 2013

Gone Too Soon

As Christians we are taught as an article of faith that the ways of God are often mysterious and far beyond our limited and mortal comprehension, that there are many painful hurtful things and events that transpire in our everyday lives that may prove difficult for us to accept as part and parcel of the divine plan that we believe determines the direction and course of our existence in this world.

One such event was the passing away of Lianga Vice-Mayor Robert Lala Jr. (known affectionately to his relatives, friends and constituents as Jun or Junjun) last August 17, 2013 as a result of complications arising from a short but deadly bout with dengue fever.  His death was a sobering shock to all those who knew him because there were few men like him who lived life to the fullest and who found joy and laughter in everything he did.

I knew Jun intimately not only because he was a first cousin but because we virtually grew up together.  In Lianga and later on in Cebu City, I saw him grow up from being a lovable, tousled-haired and pint-sized kid with no hint of the seeds of greatness laying dormant inside him to the much beloved and much esteemed public servant that he eventually would became.  In the course of the long and difficult process that characterized the period between these two different stages in his life, Jun never lost the innate optimism, the unquestioning and limitless zest for life and the yen to help others that so distinguished him from his contemporaries and for which, in my view, he will always be remembered.


Like so many people who knew Jun when he was much younger, I could never have anticipated or could have predicted that he would metamorphose into the effective politician and much loved public figure he would later become. Perhaps we were too distracted by his too obvious love for fun and laughter and the fact that in public he was known more for his abilities as the natural comic, the consummate all-round entertainer and the perennial life of the party.  It seemed then to those who thought they knew him best that he was not serious enough and lacked the focus, the clear goal and the commitment to that goal that was necessary to become truly successful in life.

In 2007, he quickly proved to everyone who had underestimated him that underneath the fun-loving and seemingly unpromising exterior he had the guts, the motivation and the vision to become, in his time, Lianga's most promising political leader.  In him everything came together, the affable easygoing personality, the hereto once underestimated yet naturally astute political skills, the dedication to public service and a manifest sense of destiny, all giving rise to a meteoric ascent to political preeminence yet unprecedented in Lianga's long and colorful history.

After gaining a seat in the municipal council just barely six years ago with the highest number of votes an aspiring council member had ever gotten in any previous local election in Lianga, Jun Lala began to distinguish himself not only as politician's politician but also a leader with that most rare and sought after of qualities; a politician who felt compelled to adhere to a deeply held core of moral and ethical principles that exclusively guided and determined all his actions and the direction and thrust of his public life.

In many instances, the compulsion to do what he felt was right even when it went against the norm and against the needs of political expediency would lead to him being beset by obstacles and challenges (and in one case at least caused threats to be raised against his own life) which he could have easily avoided had he been content to remain merely "one of the boys".  That he was still able to inspire and mold, when needed, an effective consensus among his political peers and achieve many of the goals he had set for himself and the municipal council he would eventually lead and then go on to become Lianga's most outstanding municipal vice-mayor to date was a clear testament to the persuasive force of his personality and the latent leadership skills that many thought he never had.

He would also from time to time bank on his considerable populist appeal and personal popularity especially from Lianga's outlying barangays and communities to be able to push through policy initiatives and government programs that more timid and tentative town officials could not dare to suggest much less espouse and actively support. This vast reservoir of goodwill and mutual affection among the ordinary people was something he carefully and meticulously nurtured and in many critical instances it was able provide him with the political clout that few municipal officials in this town both past and present ever had.

The massive outpouring of grief and the deeply felt sense of loss among the townspeople of Lianga that Jun Lala's sudden demise generated was humbling in terms of both its scope and intensity. In the wake held at his home in Lianga that lasted for over a week, the multitudes came, the crowd filling the house to bursting and spilling over into the lawn and the street beyond it, to pay their respects, mourn his passing and condole with his family.  They came from near and far, from all walks of life, and all of them expressing the same feelings of great personal loss.

On the last night of his wake last August 25 , thousands filled the cavernous interior of Lianga's municipal gymnasium in order to pay their last respects to him and his memory.  It was an event never before witnessed in Lianga, a spontaneous manifestation of the affection and respect for a fallen leader, the depth and breadth of which caught even his family and close relatives by surprise.  Many of those who came stayed until the early hours of the next day and still chose to accompany the massive throng of mourners who joined the funeral procession that finally laid him to rest at a cemetery plot he himself had acquired over a year ago on the southern end of Lianga public cemetery, a location close to to the town's sandy shoreline and sheltered by coconut trees, aptly appropriate as his final abode because of the serene beauty of its windy isolation.

Jun had clearly touched a multitude of lives in one way or the other.  He had been kind to others and had helped many when they needed help.  Their grief was touchingly honest as well as intensely personal.  Yet for the majority of them, Jun Lala was also the immediately recognizable face of an honest, conscientious and concerned local government looking after their needs and fighting for their welfare, something that many of us who have become jaded and inured to the rampant corruption and venality in the public service have come to believe, before he entered public service, no longer existed.

His death has in effect become a double tragedy for the people of Lianga.  On one hand, there was the personal loss felt for a man who was loved because he was a good man who loved others and who took upon himself the opportunity to serve his community unstintingly and wholeheartedly.  Yet in life he also helped revive and restore our faith in honest and responsible governance, in the hope that good and principled political leadership is possible when the right men and women are elected to office.  With him gone from us, therefore, we have come to realize how much more than the man we have lost.  We have lost a symbol, a rallying point and a visible embodiment in human form of all our hopes and dreams for a better and brighter Lianga.

In the end, the question of why such a tragedy has occurred and how it can be explained, understood and finally accepted begins to pale in significance and importance as we, who Jun Lala has left behind, begin to address the more relevant issue.  How do we insure that his life and his personal and political legacy will continue to have meaning and relevance in the weeks, months, years and decades to come.  For it is not enough that we all merely mourn and grieve for his memory.  Surely there is something more to remembering him than just that.

Perhaps it behooves us who are still here to realize that Jun's death points us to the very reason why he was so loved and esteemed and why his passing away has become so much of a personal tragedy for all of us. During his short yet remarkable public life, Jun has always and consistently made it a deeply personal mission the unenviable task of convincing his constituents that the greatness of Lianga, whether in the memories of the past or as a much desired goal for the future, has never depended and will never depend solely on the quality of its political leadership but more importantly on the collective character and attitude of its people.

Time and time again, he would decry the worrisome predilection of the local people to put too much of the burden of leading Lianga to progress and prosperity on the shoulders of its elected leaders.  He had always believed that the town in particular and the country in general will never truly move on and achieve true growth and development unless the ordinary people take up the cudgels themselves, endure and make sacrifices, and do their share in the massive work that has to be done.

In countless public speeches and in private talks with friends and confidants, he has always made emphatically clear his conviction that it is never enough for a community or a nation to have good leaders.  It must ideally also have good citizens who are all committed not only to their own small and petty concerns but even more so to the achievement of what is to the greater good and what was in the greater interest and the better welfare of all.

Much has been said about Jun Lala, the man and the public servant, as being in the same mold as that of another deceased yet also beloved government official, in particular the late Jesse Robredo, the former Secretary of the Interior and Local Government, whose first death anniversary was incidentally commemorated just a day or so of Jun's passing away.  Both were much admired political leaders who died tragically too young and who were widely known for their personal integrity, humility, charisma and dedication to a brand of people-centered "tsinelas" public service that runs counter to the arrogance, amorality and corruption that is the norm in the political life of this country.

Indeed we must mourn and grieve for such good men and good public servants because in life and even in death they gave us more than hope in our country and its future.  They have shown us clearly and by the vivid example of their lives how our own lives, whether we be leaders ourselves or merely ordinary citizens, should be really lived.  We mourn then because deep down inside, in our hearts of hearts, we see in them our very own selves at our very best, at our most noble and at our most inspiring.

If and only for that very reason then, the question of why Jun Lala had been taken so soon from us can be set aside and laid to rest like him.  His life of only four decades and of it just less than a decade lived in the arena of public service does seem startlingly short and abrupt and even incomplete.  But in one sense it was more than enough.

More than enough to awaken us and open our eyes, more than enough to shake us out of our lethargy and apathy, more than enough to inspire and motivate us to become better and greater than what we already are and more than enough to make us realize that we too can rise to excellence if we choose to do so.  Good men and good leaders may come and go but their memory and legacy lives and continues in those who follow and emulate them.  Jun will forever continue to live in those who, in tribute to him and in recognition of his greatness, will strive to live by the same principles he had always lived by and in doing so move heaven and earth to see to it that all of his hopes and dreams for Lianga will finally come true.

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    Congratulations Benjie!I'm happy i found A Lianga Diary thru Junjun Sarmen my nephew-in-law.You are a very good writer. Are you the son/grandson? of Dr. Otagan? Robert/Ana were ahead of us in LHS. I feel very sad for them.Jessie Lala n Liwayway Layno were my classmates.- PTB(Los Angeles,Ca).

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