My fraternity story

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By Robby Tantingco

Peanut Gallery

Monday, March 17, 2014


THIRTY years ago the Greek letters of a fraternity in Baguio City seduced me with the promise of bonding, brotherhood, and belonging that only a fraternity could give. Ten years later the attraction turned fatal in Angeles City when I stood inside a funeral parlor’s embalming room, staring at two corpses, both victims of fraternity hazing.

The seduction began when officers of a notorious fraternity waited after my class at St. Louis University (SLU). They were inviting me to become their adviser. They all looked young and attractive and their faces reflected the hopes and dreams of their parents.

I was surprised and a bit offended when they told me that I had to undergo initiation like any ordinary neophyte, although they assured me it would just be a token initiation. I accepted because I had really wanted to get into their secret world, to study the fraternity culture, and maybe influence the leaders to give up their violent ways.

So one night they picked me up, put me in the backseat of a car between two frat officers, and made me wear a blindfold.

The place of initiation was an old cemetery along the long and winding Loakan Road, near the airport. There they took turns whacking me with a paddle, nothing more than light taps accompanied by profuse apologies. They also made me wander around a pine forest, still wearing the blindfold, with a young officer keeping pace behind me to make sure I didn’t bump a tree or fall into a ravine.

As the final test, they made me recite the fraternity pledge, which I hadn’t memorized (the young officer assigned to me whispered practically every word of it).

After that, they removed the blindfold and officially declared me their member and adviser. One by one they hugged me, and we sat down and lit a bonfire and passed around a bottle of gin and spent the rest of the night watching the moonshine on the white crosses turn into the morning sun.

We walked all the way back to the city, on that morning of the first day of my new role as fraternity adviser.

In the honeymoon period that followed, they were at my beck and call, carrying my bag, opening the door for me, and pulling out my chair. They invited me to dinner with their families and sought my advice on problems with girlfriends, teachers and parents. They sometimes slept over and washed dishes. Most of all, they did outreach activities and accompanied me to Sunday Mass. They were not thugs or hoodlums or the dregs of society that I had imagined them to be, just boys in search of a rite of passage that would turn them into men overnight.

Every day I reminded them to stay out of trouble. I had just directed the SLU production of West Side Story and I kept telling them the story of the ill-fated Jets and Sharks and the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria.

And sure enough, not a single violent incident happened during my watch.
I did wonder, however, if they were doing their darker activities behind my back, or if they were only using me to make their fraternity look good, and if beneath the surface of good behavior they were all itching to rumble. Maybe my presence was boring them to tears, maybe I was turning them into wimps, may be they were already regretting getting me as adviser. Still I stayed on because I really wanted to save the fraternity from itself.

I did smoothen the fraternity’s rough edges, and maybe I did soften its core, but I don’t think it was ready for it. I think I made it suffer an identity crisis. Eventually the fraternity realized it had lost its reason for being as well as its will to live. I was secretly delighted because the officers and members resumed their normal lives.

I also eventually left Baguio and moved back to Pampanga where, to my dismay, fraternities were more aggressive and sinister. At school we debated whether to allow or outlaw them. If we outlawed them they’d go underground where they were harder to track and regulate, but if we allowed them their recruitment campaign would go unabated. Fortunately, Congress had just passed the Anti-Hazing Law which penalized hazing participants with as much as reclusion perpetua (life imprisonment) and which required fraternities to give school officials the initiation schedules to ensure that the ritual did not humiliate, demean, ridicule, and cause pain (which was what differentiated hazing from simple initiation).

Despite these, our worst nightmare happened in 1995 when two students were killed during an initiation rite that they had held in secret. As head of student affairs I was the first person notified by the police, so I rushed to Funeraria Pangilinan before the families did, and found myself in the embalming room alone with the victims’ bodies.

Most of us stare death in the face in the unreal environment of a wake, where flowers, light bulbs and condolences soften the unspeakable grief into a manageable sadness. In the cold, dark embalming room of a funeral parlor, however, there’s only the horror of unwashed corpses and the evil of wasted human lives.

That morning at the funeral parlor was only the start of my ordeal: I went into a whirlwind of police investigations, NBI interrogations, media interviews, and the most harrowing experience of all, the court trial where I was put on the witness stand and made to face the victims’ grieving families as well as the accused and their equally grieving families. That was the time I really envied the stress-free life of street beggars and longed to switch places with them.

I don’t think this nation will ever get rid of fraternities. Every incident of fatal hazing sets into motion an entire network of fraternity members, officers, and elders, including their respective families, to close ranks in a conspiracy of silence to protect the reputation of the fraternity and rescue their members from litigation.

No investigation will proceed, no trial will prosper, no punishment will be meted out, and no law will be passed—because many generals, justices, senators and cabinet members are distinguished alumni of their respective fraternities, who probably also hazed neophytes in their universities, law schools, military academies and other traditional bastions of fraternities.

Only last year, the city came to a standstill not once but twice, when hundreds, maybe thousands, of members of two rival fraternities celebrated their separate anniversaries with a massive show of force in the streets. Thumping their chests and letting out a loud roar, they were no different from warriors returning from a battle to celebrate their victory, or maybe the gorillas in Planet of the Apes on the verge of taking over the city.

I’m sure many fraternities and sororities have done really wonderful things for their members and for this country, and I’m sure they all start with great mission statements. However, members eventually become elders until they outgrow the group and focus on their own personal lives and careers, leaving behind immature officers who mismanage the organization and rogue members who form a misguided minority dictating on an indifferent majority.

Fraternities cross the line when they require their members to pledge their lives to the organization, often before anything else and sometimes at the expense of everything else.

Remember that there are only three things in this world that can demand the full measure of your loyalty: God, country and family. Nothing else has the right to make a similar demand, not even your profession, or your alma mater, or your place of work, and certainly not your fraternity!

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on March 18, 2014.

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