Ateneo Graduation Speech - Architect Gerry Esquivel

I got to hear the speech delivered by Arch. Gerry Esquivel during the Ateneo High School commencement exercises last March 30, 2008.

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It was Freddie who showed me the Mozcom url link that was streaming a video feed of the various speakers in the AHS covered courts. It was almost 5:30 in the afternoon when we "tuned in" online, and I think it was the Valedictory address of Viktor Fumar (or at least the closing stages of it) that was being shown on the monitor.

After just a few minutes, Architect Esquivel filled the screen, complete with his toga and all. He then held the attention of four adults, two teenagers, and a couple of pre-teens all huddled around a 17-inch flat panel LCD monitor.

I remained standing the whole time, not wanting to go and find a chair lest I miss some of the things he was sharing...

NOTE: In Philippine culture, we place a lot of importance on luck. Perhaps it's our religious background, the strong need for prayers, the sign of the cross before we undertake something difficult or dangerous... Whatever it is, we Filipinos rarely attribute our successes to our own efforts.

Either our friends or people around us helped us achieve our objectives, or if we were working alone then it was sheer dumb luck. Or in Tagalog: CHAMBA (or TSAMBA).

Anyway, enough of that. Here's the speech, [with some translations enclosed in square brackets].

Magandang hapon sa inyo.

Bumababa na ang standards dito sa Ateneo high school. Pati ako pinagsasalita na sa commencement exercises.

Tinanong ko si Father RB kung puede makipagswap sa ibang commencement speakers. Sa Prep na lang sana ako magsasalita. Hindi siya sumagot... Parang nagsesecond thoughts na yata.

It has always been my job at home to tell stories to my younger children before they go to sleep. I still do this especially to my 8 year old son. Stories about warriors. Giants. Hidden treasures.

This graduation talk is nothing really more than that, silly stories. Of Tsamba. Fools. And silent walks.

Bago ang lahat, meron lang akong aaminin sa inyo:

First. I did not graduate from Ateneo high school. Mabuti pa kayo. For whatever reason I found myself completing 4th year as an exchange student in a public school 20 miles south of Boston.

Second. While I have always bragged about my belonging to the honors class, I wasn't a very bright student. Pagsi at one point gave me a 74 in English. Cheekee gave me a semestral grade of 72. And I barely passed Physics.

Third. High School wasn't all fun and games for me. I was bullied and insecure. I was nowhere near as intelligent as my classmates. 4A produced graduates from Harvard. Stanford. CalTech. I even have a classmate who hangs out with Nobel Prize winners in Economics.

And yet, and yet, my dear graduates, life has its own crazy way of coming full circle. Funnily enough, I find myself a non-alumnus, a mediocre student, and a loser by high school standards giving this commencement talk.

And this twist of destiny, itong biro ng tadhana, I like to call tsamba.


I asked Enzo's friends what they thought tsamba meant and they said... Luck. Swerte.

Right after high school I told Tatay of my plan to be a Jesuit. He told me "Gerry take any course in UP, the easiest course you can find."

So I decided to take a 4 year course, BS Foreign Service.

Sinabihan na naman ako ng Tatay, "Gerry, mag-architecture ka na lang, magaling ka namang magdrawing."

I said yes. I found myself completing Architecture in UP, passing the board exam, and shortly right after entering Arvisu house as a pre novice.

Finally, I said. My heart rests.

Shock no 1. The Jesuits wrote me a letter of rejection to Sacred Heart. I was devastated. I planned priesthood since high school. Pinagbigyan ko na ang Tatay, it was time I said that I pursued my own.

Lesson no 1: No matter how noble your goal in life is, it can never be a substitute for God's Holy Will.

Reality no 1. Shattered dream. No plans. No money.

My career break came in when I got a job to build a kitchen cabinet. I had no experience in construction. But my initial assignment led me to build bigger kitchen cabinets, chapels for funeral parlors, and garage renovations.

Since then I have abandoned design and architecture. And after that first job, that small kitchen cabinet, I have taken on bigger and more exciting projects. To think that all this started with no experience, no plan, and no capital.

Luck? Swerte? Tsamba!

And of course the greatest tsamba of my life, Beng. She belongs to the sister class of my section. She knew all my classmates.

Syempre puera ako. [Of course, except for me.]
Di ako nagpaparty. [I don't party.]
Wala akong kotse. [I don't have a car.]
Wala akong magarang damit. [I don't have nice/expensive clothes.]
Wala akong pera. [I don't have money.]

But one clear day, 11 years after high school, I accidentally met the most beautiful woman in my life. I fell in love. I am sure that the best decision I have ever made, was to marry the girl of my dreams, the school girl that I should have met in high school.

Luck? Swerte? Tsamba.

At itong mga nangyari sa akin after high school, at itong mga puedeng mangyari sa inyo, tsamba ba talaga lahat ng ito. Luck? Swerte?

Tsamba I believe is about an overwhelming and powerful spirit of thanksgiving. That Tsamba is all about trusting. That tsamba is all about grace, and God's providence.

Some of you may not have gotten in to the university of your choice, you may have worked real hard and barely made it today, you may be terrified that you still are unsure on what to do after graduation. Relax. To all this, you must say thank you.

The world is open to those with a grateful heart. There is an infinite layer of tsambas in this world. And while some events appear to be fueled by accidents and luck, Carl Runner put it so rightly when he said, "Accidents? ... there are no accidents in our lives. Only grace."


I am sure that in your 4 years of high school, you have done some pretty silly stuff. Some form of prank. Some kind of mischief that got you in trouble. And during these years you have also made fools of yourself.

Fr. Macayan would stop by EAPI on his way to the JR and talk to the trees that he planted. He would point an angry finger at the trees and tell them... "You dumbbells... why are you not growing as fast as I want you to?" He was a silly man.

But you know, my dear graduates, what is sillier and more foolish is that Fr. Macayan died a few years back alone in the Jesuit infirmary. While some of his siblings and Jesuit brothers were there, he died without family. How silly when he could have used his higher math to be an engineer and raised a family and built a career of his own.

And yet this silly and foolish man chose to live a very boring life. Teaching first year Algebra. Checking papers. Talking to trees.

I remember Pagsi. He was always so engrossed with his story telling. While reading to us the story, The Most Dangerous Game, he was like an actor auditioning out for a play. His saliva spurting all over.

But what is sillier and foolish is that I remember visiting him in his house when I was in first year as I visit him now. He still lives in the same house along Esteban Abada. No major improvement. No major expansion.

Walang gaanong pagbabago. [No changes.]

And yet Pagsi has taught Presidents of companies, corporate leaders, movers and shakers. I am sure he does not mind. He is happy with his work, happy with his boys, and at peace to be a founding member of God's army of fools.

Let me now share stories of silliness after high school.

For the last three years, Enzo and I would visit my carpenters in a squatter's area on Christmas day.

Medyo off yung timing because it's the day when then there is much revelry, gifts, visitors, when there is food and drinks in abundance in our home. There we would drink beer and eat tilapia with them and they would tell Enzo their own kwentos.

I am not sure what this does to my men. Not too sure what this does to Enzo. All I know is that the timing is off, the schedule is tight, and the activity is rather silly.

I was skimming through scripture, when I read a verse about feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. And visiting those in prison. Right there after closing the Bible, without thinking, (which I often do), I immediately called the Jesuit chaplain in New Bilibid Prison and asked him if I can visit him the following day.

In that meeting I decided to finish the chapel in the minimum security area. It took me close to 2 years to finish. But before I left that first visit, Fr. Willy toured me around.

(Let me share a side side story)

And there tagging along our tour was a man that kept asking how I was.

Nabigla ako ng tanungin niya ako... [I was surprised when he asked me...]

Kamusta na po si Enzo? Si Ina? Si Ma'am Beng? [How is Enzo? Ina? Ma'am Beng?]

Patay. [I'm dead.]

"Sino ka?" [Who are you?]
"Driver po niyo ako." [I was your driver.]
"Bakit ka naman nandito?" [What are you here in prison for?]
"Carnapping po." [For carnapping.]

Young men, there are 16,000 inmates in New Bilibid Prison. I was Bombay's first visitor. Silly and foolish stories.

I have made several trips to Payatas. Not so much to fix a school in Payatas 13. To reflect. To ground myself. To stand on a hill.

There I met Josebeth. An 11 year old who lives in Samar.

Nagbabakasyon daw siya sa Payatas. Kasi nanduon ang kanyang pamilya.

[She was vacationing in Payatas, because her family was there.]

I asked her what she wanted.

"Wala po. Ok ako dito." [Nothing. I'm fine here.]

Her direction was clear. Nothing distracts her. All that she wishes is to be with family. No wish of toys, clothes, or special food. Such a silly and foolish girl.

My dear graduates. Please. Do not think that I ask you now to drop all your dreams. Join the Jesuits, join an NGO and be amongst the poorest of the poor. No. No my dear graduates. This is not what I wish to say.

Dream. Be happy. Live. Excel. Express. Tell the world who you are and who you can be. Profit from this world.

Create a life deserving of your visions. There must be no boundaries to your dreams. There must only be drive. Direction. Desire. You must be hungry to achieve. To commit to nothing else but the very top. To try.

All that I wish to share with you today is that together with the drive, direction, and desire is that you sprinkle your journeys with tiny moments of silliness and foolishness.

To reach. To share. To give.

To find it in yourself the foolish thing that makes you true. And while your journeys take you to the glamor of business and profession, find time to bask, to sun bathe and spread your arms wide enough to dance and sing to the beautiful music of fools.


I visited Father Joey Fermin in Medical City and asked permission if I could share this story with you. He said yes.

I am sure that all of you know that he is ill. Fr. Joey went out for a walk inside campus. His best friend Fr. Aydee accompanied him. They went around the Ateneo grounds for close to 45 minutes. But what is interesting is that they returned to the Jesuit Residence after that long walk without uttering a word to each other. They didn't talk.

But I am very sure that Fr. Aydee wanted to tell Fr. Joey that he was praying for his recovery, that all would be well in the end, and that should he need anything, he would always be there for him.

I am also very sure that Fr. Joey wanted to tell Fr. Aydee that yes, I really need your prayers and support; that I am scared and unsure of this illness, and that I appreciate you taking this walk with me when I know you may have some concerns of your own.

And why do I share this with you? Because there may be some similarity with this story and our journeys together, you as adolescent sons and us your parents. That there may be moments when we will both take these long and silent walks. When it is unclear whose pace we follow, yours or ours. When there is only respect, and love shown in every step. When words cannot capture that which we both feel inside.

Like Fr. Joey's and Fr. Aydee's long and quiet walk, we will all need to return to our own JR.

But remember that the Jesuit Residence is not a place to return to but a quiet corner in your heart tucked away where the noise of this world cannot reach.

Siguradong hindi kayo lahat magkakasama-sama sa college. Iba iba ang inyong pupuntahan.

[For sure you will not all be together in college. You will go to different places.]

And during those years, the phone calls will lessen, the text messages will not be as frequent, and you may have developed some new friendships of your own. There will be silence and long walks.

You must return. To the 4 years of friendship, the victories in band competitions, the exciting dates you had together, the defeats in intramurals, the first taste of beer. The fun. The laughter. The friendship you will take forever.

You must also return to your mentors. Those who formed you these high schools years. These silly Jesuits. Your foolish teachers. They who taught you everything they knew. And not held back. Whose only desire is to produce brave men that will pay forward the luxury of a solid education.

After several years, when you have built your empires, you MUST return to the ATENEO.

And I advise you to physically take these long and quiet walks. By yourself. Or with your best friend.

And recall the steps you freely took before and realize that your deepest desire really and without doubt is to be the high school student you once were. Excited. Full of life. Idealistic and free.

I visited Fr. Macayan 3 times before he passed away. I shared stories with him even if he can hardly talk.

I told him, "Father, si Gerry Esquivel ito. Estudyante niyo sa Algebra." [Father, I'm Gerry Esquivel. Your student in Algebra.]

He was weak and could not respond.

"Fr. Si Gerry ito kaklase ni John at ni Patrick." [Father, I'm Gerry, the classmate of John and Patrick.]

His eyes lit up and he murmured: "Yes. John. Patrick."

I left JR feeling a little bad. My Algebra teacher did not recognize me. He did not remember me. But then I realized that it was not so important that he failed to remember me but what is more important, I remembered him.

Congratulations young men. This is your moment of glory. Throw your cares into the wind. Do something really silly today. Approach the teacher that gave you your lowest grade.

Sabihin mo, "Babalikan kita Ma'am. Babalikan kita sir."

Not out of spite or revenge but out of gratitude for keeping you awake at night studying.

Go to Fr. RB and the Jesuits. Magyabang kayo. Sabihin niyo sa kanila "Father, pag successful na ako sabihin mo sa akin kung ano ang puede kong ibalik sa High School."

Yabangan niyo. Shake hands and greet all your batchmates. Especially those whom you hardly know.

Those that you have not talked to. Sabihin niyo sa kanila, "Pare... Congratulations... KitaKits."

Because today, after this graduation there will no longer be a 4A. 4B. Or 4C. Today, your badge of honor will be, "Atenista ako! High school batch 2008."

Magbarberohan kayo sa isa't isa.

Last few days to see each other.

Sabihin ninyo ... "Pare. Pag doctor na ako... gagamutin ko kayo. Pare. Pag abogado na ako... ipagtatanggol ko kayo. Pare. Pag arkitekto na ako... idedesign ko kayo ng magarang bahay. Pare pag film director na ako... gagawin ko kayong artista. Pare pag Heswita na ako... ipagdarasal ko kayo palagi.... Pucha Pare kahit ano man ang mangyari... Magkaibigan tayo."

Good luck to all. It's your turn to weave your own foolish stories.

Pakitandaan lang ninyo... Na kahit ano mang paikot-ikot ng kwento ng buhay ninyo, ano mang akyat at baba... Ay di kayo maaring makaalpas sa higpit ng yapos ng ating Panginoon.

I end with a blessing to you.

"Humayo kayo. We release you from being a child. From being within easy reach of our tight embrace. We will watch you from afar. We will hide our tears when we see you fail. We will share our smile when we see you prevail. All that we ask, is you take these walks with us. It may be silent. But God will allow us to savor it... because it is in silence that we hear God the most."

We are proud of you. We love you.

Hanggang dulo. Habang buhay. [Till the end. For the rest of our life.]

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

(Congratulations to all the graduates of 2008! And when you surprise yourself with your future successes, when you experience the jolting and reassuring feeling of luck, know that Someone may have had a hand in it.

And what remains for you to do, is to give thanks.

To Architect Esquivel, thank you for that speech "Storeys" of tsamba, fools & silent walks. I learned a lot.)

[ First posted on 04/01/2008 by Manuel Viloria ]

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