Sherwin Dane Haro
Nov. 3, 2020
San Jose, Antique, Philippines
Audio narration by Shane Haro
All too often, we hear stories about people who experience a painful childhood and come out the other side too broken to ever enact positive change in the world. Mutya Valenzuela, HAPI Board of Trustees member and one of the organization’s first members, knows that pain but it never broke her, and it certainly did not keep her from doing a lot of good for Filipinos.
Growing up for Valenzuela was, to put it lightly, not easy: abandoned by their parents before she was even a teenager, the panganay Mutya and her younger siblings were forced to work at a vegetable garden where they picked tomatoes, corn, and other plants so they could sell them for food.
Although all of them were strictly raised Catholic, little Mutya was especially inquisitive, questioning her religion as early as she was seven years old. “My first question to myself [was], ‘If God created us then who created God and who created that God?’,” she recalled. When she received her very first Bible, she was able to point out the inconsistencies in the book of Genesis to her Auntie pretty quickly, like when God put a mark on Cain’s forehead to warn people that they shouldn’t hurt him. “Where did those people come from?” Valenzuela remembered asking. “I thought it was only Adam, Eve, and their two sons at that time.”
While these thoughts might have signaled her future embrace of atheism and secular humanism, it was her own father who would violently speed up the process. While she was at prayer one day, he sexually assaulted the nine-year-old Valenzuela. She remembers begging God to make it stop; however, as many assault survivors will tell you, the all-loving, Almighty Father made no such intervention. “That was when my doubt about his existence [began],” Valenzuela said, “and made me realize that he really isn’t true.”
Other people might have turned to drugs or worse vices as a result of the horrific act; instead, Valenzuela turned to gaining success as she grew into adulthood. Working as a pork barbecue seller at a local cockpit arena (a “fun job!” as she recalls it), she paid her way through a General Automotive course at TESDA to become an automotive mechanic. Eventually, she got hired as the first female mechanic at ISUZU Philippines; a year and a promotion later, she also became the company’s first female service advisor and received national media coverage over it.
“[That] was my favorite memory,” Valenzuela fondly tells me, partly because she made Philippine history but mostly because she could finally buy food for her siblings. “To be honest, the hardest parts of my life are my favorite moments as they are the reason why I am still here. It’s hard but meaningful.”
Other jobs after that took Valenzuela to various parts of the world: to Dubai as a head cook on a yacht; to Singapore as a liaison officer; to right back home as a BPO agent in Taguig City.
After she let go of her faith following her assault, Valenzuela was convinced she was alone in her unbelief. “I thought there [wasn’t] any person like me who stopped or don’t believe in God,” she shared.
But like many modern people, social media changed that for her. In 2011, Valenzuela was scrolling Facebook when she came across an anti-religious page and reality dawned. “I am not the only one,” she thought to herself. “[There’s] a lot of us and we are called atheists.”
That was how Valenzuela first got to connect with HAPI Founder Marissa Torres-Langseth, who herself was a burgeoning atheist at the time. The two struck up a friendship and Langseth quickly became a close confidante of Valenzuela’s, who was eager to pour her heart out to someone who truly “got” her.
“How did it feel? I felt free. I didn’t feel afraid anymore, it’s more of a relief,” Valenzuela says.
By the time Langseth established HAPI in 2013, Valenzuela was one of the first people she invited to join the organization; as you would expect, Valenzuela said yes. Working abroad, Valenzuela wasn’t able to be active in HAPI’s first few years but she did regularly donate to its events and projects.
It was when she decided to take a long vacation here in the Philippines that Valenzuela finally “strapped her boots up” for HAPI. “They suggested that I should become part of the Board of Trustees as I was one of the [original] members and knew the history of HAPI,” she said. “And because I am from Region III, I was assigned to be the Assistant Lead Convenor for HAPI Central Luzon.”
Valenzuela, the activist, was born.
Like everyone else, the onset of COVID-19 in March stunned Valenzuela, but it also lit a fire under her activist butt. “I [was] the one who asked the HAPI Officers to [start] the Campaign for Frontliner Assistance, and I couldn’t be happier of the outcome,” she said.
Along with HAPI Central Luzon Lead Convenor Filipinas del Valle, Valenzuela coordinated a major donation drive for the Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center after her niece (who was a nurse frontliner) alerted her to the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the male surgery ward. The campaign “overperformed”, you might say, and ended up assisting four additional hospitals thanks to the generosity of donors. In addition, Valenzuela and del Valle were able to gather food donations for troops of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Reserve Command and face masks for on-duty Philippine National Police – Southern Police District members.
In September, Valenzuela joined forces with EVO Riders Club – Muntinlupa to deliver PPEs to tricycle and pedicab drivers and trolley operators in Muntinlupa City. “[They] are also frontliners,” Valenzuela wrote in her coverage of the event. “[A]nd now that we are fighting a battle no one can see, they too need some protection.”
Implementing these projects, especially under lockdown and quarantine restrictions, was a major problem for Valenzuela. “It’s very saddening as we are fighting something we cannot see,” Valenzuela bemoaned, “and it’s hindering us from doing what we [could] do to help other people the fastest way.” She laments how she and her cohorts were forced to rent a car or van to deliver donations, especially when that money could have been used to buy more aid.
Nevertheless, Valenzuela pulled through (and having Filipinas del Valle, who was also pushing her own projects during the time, there to help execute everything certainly helped).
More than any of her other achievements, becoming a mother to her son Shawn is the one Valenzuela is proudest of. (Well, that and her massive Deadpool merchandise collection. I kid.) Navigating their relationship while she worked abroad was particularly tough. As she puts it, “My son grew up without me by his side. I left him when he was only one year old, barely talking.” Shawn’s caretakers while she was away were good people but also deeply religious, which was challenging for the atheist mama. “I [could not] share to him the difference between fact and fiction [on top of] not being able to raise a boy to be a good man.”
Still, the two managed to build a solid mother-son relationship after she returned home. I often see them attend our weekly HAPI Scholar meetings together. Valenzuela called Shawn her “inspiration in life” during my interview with her and of course, the feeling is mutual.
When I ask her to look back on her life, Valenzuela doesn’t mince words. “I have been through a lot. I know exactly how it feels to have nothing, to be treated like trash. I don’t want other people to be treated like that because it hurts.”
“But,” she notes, “not everyone is like me, who is a fighter. That’s why I want to help them not just by [giving aid] but [also] education, so they can use it for their future and face others with dignity and honor.”
And that right there is the mantra of not just a survivor, but a world-changer.