Chito Gascon’s legacy in Filipinos’ human rights fight marks CHR 35th anniversary

Chito Gascon's legacy human rights
Chito Gascon is flanked in the background by the image of Ka Pepe Diokno, a defender of human rights during the Marcosian Martial Law in the Philippines. CHR photo.

Jose Luis Martin “Chito” Gascon’s life and legacies in the fight for the human rights of Filipinos were honored as the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) marked its 35th year anniversary in May 2022.

Chito Gascon was the former chairman of the CHR’s 5th Commission (2015-2022) which survived the current Philippine president’s call for its abolition and a move in Congress to defund the office by reducing its budget to just 1,000 pesos, a sum that would de facto freeze the commission’s work that had been heavily involved in supporting victims of extrajudicial killings (EJK).

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The Commission on Human Rights weathered the storm as it is an independent National Human Rights Institution created under the 1987 Philippine Constitution as a response to the rights violations committed during Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who was overthrown by the 1986 People Power peaceful revolution that paved the way for the restoration of democratic institutions in the country.

The CHR was established 35 years ago on May 5, 1987, by Executive Order No. 163, and is mandated to conduct investigations on human rights violations against marginalized and vulnerable sectors of the society, involving civil and political rights.

Jose Luis Martin “Chito” C. Gascon Building

Artist rendition of the newly constructed Jose Luis Martin “Chito” C. Gascon Building of the CHR. CHR video screengrab.

On May 5, 2022, Chito Gascon whose term was shortened by his passing at age 57 due to COVID-19 in October 2021, was memorialized and immortalized with the new CHR building inside the University of the Philippines Diliman bearing his name and a bust created by UP Fine Arts professor Jose Manuel Sicat, the chairperson of the Department of Visual Communication.

The Jose Luis Martin “Chito” C. Gascon Building dedication described its former chairperson as “a visionary and a compassionate servant leader who showed immense courage and firm conviction in fighting for human rights, justice, rule of law, democracy, and the dignity of all, especially for the least, lost, and last.”

“Chair Chito courageously upheld the constitutional mandate of the Commission on Human Rights amid a period of unprecedented human rights challenges in the Philippines. Despite the unrelenting attacks against the institution and to him personally, he was undaunting in the fight for human rights, rule of law, and democracy out of deep reverence to the equal rights and dignity of all,” goes another excerpt of the dedication.

The new CHR building was blessed by human rights advocate Fr. Flaviano Villanueva and houses the offices of the CHR National Capital Region and CHR Region IV-B.

A mural is to be installed on the building’s frontage bearing the Baybayin writing of “Karapatang Pantao”, the Filipino translation for “human rights”, alongside the visual representations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A roof deck is intended to be a safe space where champions of human rights can come together.

Testaments to Chito Gascon’s legacy

Testaments to Gascon’s life of service were heard during the inauguration program, including messages from international and local partners of the CHR’s mission to protect human rights.

The speakers also challenged Filipinos to exercise and protect their right to vote in the Philippine elections while thinking of Chito’s legacy and the continuing human rights fight in the country.

Gascon’s successor, CHR Chair Leah Tanodra-Armamento, recalled how Chito was a UP student leader who led the youth participation in the 1986 People Power and represented his sector in the crafting of the 1987 Constitution which provided for the creation of the commission.

Gascon was also honored by UP President Danilo Concepcion in his keynote address. The new CHR home was a project of Gascon who was able to convince the UP official to allow for its building, Gascon’s former professor at the UP College of Law revealed in his message at the ceremonies.

Gascon’s wife, Melissa Mercado-Gascon, spoke of the gratitude of the family present at the event – their child Ciara, Chito’s mother Cecilia, and his brother Miguel.

Chito Gascon’s bust created by UP professor Manuel Sicat adorns the lobby of the new Jose Luis Martin C. Gascon Building of the CHR. (Left to Right) Melissa Mercado-Gascon, Ciara Gascon, Cecilia Gascon, Miguel Gascon. Screengrab from CHR event.

Melissa Gascon shared Chito’s life and was witness to his many legacies to the Filipino people. Her message captured both aspects of Chito Gascon – the man and the human rights defender.

Good News Pilipinas received the permission of Melissa Gascon to publish her prepared speech that tells the story of how Chito Gascon lived a life that called out the state as a duty-bearer of human rights protection.

To all of you who keep pounding the rock: CHR Chairperson Leah Tanodra-Armamento, Commissioners Karen Gomez-Dumpit, Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana, and Roberto Eugenio Cadiz, Executive Director Jackie Ann de Guia, UP President Atty. Danilo Concepcion, distinguished guests from the diplomatic corps, CHR personnel, fellow workers in government, partners from different human rights groups, friends, and those watching via live stream… I am sad not to see Chito among you. But I am cheered up being with people who have known him, worked with him, and fought with him in the trenches… I greet you with peace based on justice!

Salamat. I speak on behalf of Chito’s family and we say thank you, for honoring Chito with this new building dedication, as we mark the CHR’s 35th anniversary.

It is with great honor and profound humility that we, members of Chito’s family, are here to witness today the launching of the new CHR building named after him and to mark this by the unveiling of Chito’s bust to be housed in this very building.

Today’s event is bitter-sweet, to say the least, as Chito, the builder, would have been so happy to personally see the completion of this building. Although he definitely would have someone else’s bust placed there, not his own.

I am sure Chito, who loved to bring people together, was thinking exactly that when this building was being conceptualized. He would find a corner in this edifice a place where people could come together to congregate, partake of food, maybe even music, while sharing ideas and goals, and discussing deliverables for the human rights community.

Yes, a gathering with a purpose. Just like the projects he implemented in CHR during his shortened term – the Diokno Park, among others – he was always thinking of how a space could best serve the people’s needs and aspirations. In his words, he wanted to ensure that CHR becomes a safe, enabling, and empowering space for the human rights community.

This building was intended to become a home to CHR, which you can now finally call your own, and a place that will indeed redound to the benefit of the CHR constituency – the Filipino people.

Today also marks the end of the term of the 5th Commission – I remember Chito was doing a countdown for this.

Para pala kayong sardinas, 555. I can imagine Chito cringing at my joke. I don’t mean that lightly, though. Ang sardinas ang nagtatawid sa atin sa gutom. Considered the poor man’s meal, a can of sardines can be a life source, a life-saver.

The CHR’s 5th Commission has been serving the marginalized who have been hungry for justice, especially with an unprecedented number of attacks on human rights since Philippine democracy was restored in 1986.

I think the 5th Commission had, to date, the most challenging term in the CHR’s 35 years of existence. It was maligned, unfairly attacked, misunderstood, and even vilified by an army of trolls, much of which was directed at Chito.

During this term, there was even an attempt to bring this institution down to its knees with a measly 1,000-peso proposed budget. But the darkest of times also bring out the brightest of stars. Yes, totoo, may Liwanag sa Dilim.

It was during that moment when more ordinary people became aware of CHR and what it stood for when students even offered their baon in support of CHR.

I always thought it was such a lonely road for Chito and the Commission, but when ordinary citizens were defending CHR, when they started to speak truth to power, I saw courage, compassion, and a glimpse of hope. What a ride that was, what a journey that has been.

Until now, I still wonder where his courage came from. I found a short clip on YouTube where he mentioned Star Wars. Yes, for those who knew Chito well, he loved Star Wars. In that talk, he mentioned what Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (played by Laura Dern) in Star Wars Episode VIII said: “Hope is like the sun, if you only trust in hope when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” In Chito’s words, it was hope that inspired his generation. He said it is in times of difficulty, times of darkness, that we should never give up on hope because hope will sustain us.

His was courage rooted in hope… hope that tomorrow will be better.

Seeing his name and likeness being memorialized and immortalized here, I wonder what Chito would be saying today if he were alive.

I know my words would probably not give justice to his usual eloquent speech, but I imagine, the cheerleader that he was, he would be the first to cheer me on.

For those who are wondering what Chito Gascon would be doing had he survived COVID, he had many plans. But I will share this: In one of the last conversations I had with Chito, he was looking forward to a semi-retired life – the operative word here is, semi because I doubt very much if he would ever retire from pushing forward his advocacies.

He told me he would help build our farmhouse on a piece of land we bought in my home province. In fact, he had already drawn up some floor plans for our place. I intend to pursue his vision and also create a space for him in that piece of property, which I would call Chito’s garden.

I will plant an avocado tree at its center to provide shade and also because his favorite fruit was avocado. He would be tickled pink, I think when that happens.

Early on, I was asked in an interview, how I would want Chito to be remembered.

I was stumped. I never really thought about it. Chito passed so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and I had not imagined a life without him.

I always felt it was not my place to say so. All I know is that I will remember him as a good, generous, and simple man who loved his God, family, and country with passion.

There will be moments like this when we honor his memory, whether through the naming of this building, through this beautifully sculpted bust, through an eloquently written piece of article, a well-produced documentary, or through the planting of that avocado tree.

But more importantly, each of us will remember him in the way he had impacted our lives, and his legacy will continue through us, in the way we live.

Before I end, let me share the story about a carpenter who was ready to retire from the house-building business.

So, he informed his boss about his retirement. Upon hearing his intention, his boss was sad because he was such an excellent craftsman and a hardworking and loyal worker for many years.

So, the boss asked for one last favor from the carpenter to build one more house before retiring. This good old carpenter did not hesitate, tired as he was, as he loved to build.

Because this was his passion, he gave his all, as he usually did, and especially as this would be his last build. He toiled day and night, and when the carpenter finished his work, his boss came to inspect the house.

To the surprise of the carpenter, his boss handed him the key and told him, this is your house, my gift to you.

I hope, as we do, you also see Chito was like this dedicated carpenter who put his best whenever he was given a task, whether as a private citizen or as a civil servant, not counting the costs and without expecting anything in return. I think for Chito, to have lived a life in pursuit of his passions was such a blessing; everything else was just a bonus.

I told my daughter that the most valuable gift her dad would ever give her would be his good name. I hope she carries it with both pride and humility. But knowing Chito, he will probably be the first to tell me not to be burdened by it. Ganun si Chito, ayaw maging pabigat kahit sa mabuting paraan. He would probably throw a Shakespeare line at me:

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

He came to this world with nothing and left with nothing but a good name and, hopefully, a lasting legacy defined by those who recognize the meaning in his life’s work and those who remember how his ordinary life was lived extraordinarily.

Chito’s birthday will be a few days after today. Thank you for this early birthday gift. Thank you to the CHR family and the human rights community. Thank you, Professor Manolo Sicat, for this wonderful piece of art which I will quietly and fondly refer to as “A Portrait of a Cheerful Stonecutter” from Chito’s favorite allegory – to remind us to keep on “pounding the rock.”

On behalf of our daughter Ciara, Chito’s mother–mommy Cecil, his brothers Miguel and Raffy, sister Chim, and the whole Gascon family, we thank you for this honor bestowed upon our beloved Chito. Our hearts are full.

To the CHR and the human rights community, and to all of us citizens of our beloved country, with an unknown future before us, whatever happens, whether we rebuild or we are torn down, the nation will exact more from us. So let me borrow the encouraging words of Paul in Second Timothy, as he reflected on his struggles as he faced death, “let us continue to fight the good fight, let us finish the race, and let us keep the faith.”

Isang mala-kulay rosas na umaga sa ating lahat.

You can watch the CHR 35th Anniversary tribute at this link.

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Angie is a self-confessed reformed news critic who vows she has finally found infinite value in delivering the good news. She teaches students of all ages how to make the important interesting for audiences across media platforms.