“Contrary to the stereotype of a youth activist, she was never late to meetings. And what she brought to these meetings! She had the tiniest voice, yet her words had weight.”
By JUSTIN UMALI
SANTA ROSA, Laguna – In 2016, Romina Astudillo proclaimed to the world, “I am here because we have a world to win.”
Sham, as friends and colleagues called her, lived by those words. At that time, she was the second nominee for Kabataan Party-list in the 2016 elections. Shortly after that, she helped organize trade unions around Metro Manila.
Last International Human Rights Day, December 10, elements of the Philippine National Police used a search warrant signed by Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert of the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 89 to raid the unit she was staying at. Police reportedly found firearms and explosives and promptly arrested her alongside two other trade union organizers.
Sham Astudillo’s journey is one of constant questions and what-ifs. It is one of continuing leaps into new things, always unsure of the landing, but never in doubt of the leap.
From campus journalism to activism
By her own admission, she was someone who would never dream of activism. Entering college, she swore never to join those “good-for-nothing and traffic-causing people who are wasting their time with irrelevant slogans and principles,” instead wanting to develop her passion for writing.
She quickly joined her college’s student publication The Trinity Observer, but just as quickly grew to regret the decision when she realized that she threw herself to the very same activists that she detested. She was all but ready to leave the publication when she watched “Sa Ngalan ng Tubo,” a documentary by Tudla Productions about the Hacienda Luisita Massacre.
“[The documentary] somewhat stopped me from committing a big mistake, think things through and observe more,” she recalled. “So I took a step back from the doors of our student publication and made a great leap.”
Slowly, she took a more active role in learning about the country’s social realities. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was quickly losing favor among the masses, and more and more clamored for her ouster. The staff of Trinity Observer was no exception. Sham would be the exception, being unassuming, but no less vigilant.
“When you first see Sham, you’d think she was an ambivert,” said Anna Tolentino, a friend and fellow Guilder. “She’s simple, quiet, soft-spoken, but GND [Grim and Determined]. Once you get to know her better, Sham’s actually very fun to be around.”
Sham came to her own in her great leap. The soft-spoken girl who used to “hate activists” slowly changed into a genuine student leader: spearheading mass actions against tuition hikes, or linking up with workers in picket lines. Once, she helped a family in Tondo pack their things because their house was about to be demolished to make way for the Philippine National Railways modernization project.
Sham recalled wasting little time during her college years, even if it meant sacrificing academic excellence. The days were spent leading mass mobilizations in Makati. Term breaks were for training and seminars. Summer vacations were spent organizing in communities or integrating with workers and peasants.
Taking on the challenge
When she graduated, she could have chosen any job. To her surprise, she received a medal for academic excellence when she graduated. Her mother urged her to find work instead of being an activist, but Sham could only reply that she hopes “she’ll be proud of the daughter [she] came to be.”
Her second great leap came the day she ditched an interview for Viva Films and instead decided to become a full-time activist.
Sham devoted her time organizing her fellow campus journalists as part of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, becoming the secretary general of the NCR chapter, and eventually its chairperson. Fellow Guilders recall her dedication to work.
“Contrary to the stereotype of a youth activist, she was never late to meetings,” said Trina Federis, former CEGP National President. “And what she brought to these meetings! She had the tiniest voice, yet her words had weight.”
She was no longer the unassuming staff writer that first joined the Trinity Observer in 2006. “During meetings, before she’d speak, she’d take a deep breath,” Anna recalled. “Then, she’d passionately give her opinion or suggestion during the discussion.”
Sham was CEGP-NCR’s consummate propagandist. Fellow Guilders called her a “propaganda machine” – able to write press statements, layout posters and publications, and deliver speeches with ease.
“When she arrived early in the office,” Anna said, “she had a lot of time for a quick smoke, or she’d open her laptop and write a press release, or layout a magazine.”
‘A warm and caring individual’
That’s not to say Sham isn’t just like everybody else. “She’s a very simple person, with no pretensions,” Anna said. “Once, when we [CEGP National Council members] had a cultural presentation, she was really shocked at how everybody prepared for the event. She wasn’t ready for that moment and she didn’t bring any extra clothes. Suddenly, one of the council members brought out their bag full of extra clothes, and all she could say was ‘Ay, panalo!’”
Pat Santos, another fellow Guilder and the Vice President for Luzon at the time, remembers Sham as having impeccable music taste. “We became close because of the songs she played in between convention sessions,” she said. “Especially the heart-wrenching ones. She introduced me to Adele.”
To her friends, Sham is nothing short of “caring, honest, truthful, and trust-worthy,” according to Anna. “She’s always there when you needed somebody,” she said. “Whenever I asked ‘Saan ka? Available ka?’ she would always reply, ‘Basta ikaw, palaging available.’ Then we’d go to dinner and have coffee until it’s time for us to part ways.”
One thing that she definitely isn’t, friends and colleagues assert, is a terrorist. Kabataan Rep. Sarah Elago, who was her fellow nominee in 2016, admires her “not only for her wits and hard work, but also her warm and caring attitude towards others.”
Her friends can’t help but agree. “Sham is not a terrorist,” Trina said. “Certainly, she isn’t a gun-runner. She has no use for guns, as her words have enough ammunition to slay the real terrorists.”
In a press conference Dec. 14, Ed Cubelo, secretary general of Kilusang Mayo Uno-NCR, said Sham helped organize workers at the Harbor Centre Port Terminal and Regents Food Corporation. She was recently elected as KMU-NCR deputy secretary general.
In arresting Sham and other labor organizers, Cubelo said the administration wants to cripple the labor movement. “They would never succeed,” he said.