A Short Life

by Psyche Roxas-Mendoza
Originally published in Philippines Graphic (Notes) on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 12:45am

Five-year-old Kristof Tejada did not know his Ate was dead. Pressing his tiny palms together to form a pillow under his tilted face, he smiled, closed his eyes and casually said, “Natutulog [Asleep]” to explain why his eldest sister lay still inside a white, glass-covered, wooden “bed.” He said he did not know when her Ate would wake up.  

Dressed in a Divisoria-bought wine-colored terno blouse and long skirt embroidered with red flowers and green leaves, Kristel Pilar Mariz Pangilinan Tejada, 16, wore her fate with serenity –– a far cry from the tuition-harassed Behavioral Sciences student of the University of the Philippines (U.P.) in Manila who took her life last March 15 by swallowing silver cleaner.
Kristel Pilar Mariz Pangilinan Tejada 
Kristian, 8-years-old, the third child in the Tejada brood of four (not five as repeatedly reported in the media), has fond memories of his eldest sister.

Mabait na Ate si Ate Kristel. Kapag nakagawa siya ng kasalanan, nagso-sorry siya. Pag pinapalo ako ni Ate Krizia, pinagtatanggol niya ako [My Ate Kristel is a kind eldest sister. When she makes a mistake, she says ‘I’m sorry.’ And when my Ate Krizia spanks me, she comes and defends me],” Kristian said.

He turned serious when talk drifted on what became of his Ate Kristel. “Nag-aaral po siya sa UP Manila. Gusto niya mag-aral [She was studying in UP Manila. She wanted to study] tapos dun nga, sa tuition, (he points to the coffin)ganun na siya [she is now like that].”


Krizia, the daughter who came after Kristel, could not hide her anguish at losing her older sister. “Unfairsila. Hindi naman bobo ang Ate ko o nagbubulakbol para di payagang mag-aral. Ang ginawa na lang sana nila, pwede naman i-hold na lang yung grades kaysa pina-forced leave siya. Tapos, kung kailan nawala na ang Ate ko, saka nila pinayagan ng ganyan [They (UP officials) are unfair. My Ate was not a dull student. Neither was she a malingering one. They could have just withheld her grades, instead of forcing her to take a leave (of absence). And now that my Ate is gone, now, they decide to allow (the lifting of the ruling of not accepting in class students who have not paid their tuition)].”

She made it clear, however, that she bears no ill will toward U.P. “Sama ng loob sa U.P. meron, pero galit, wala. Sayang lang po kasi siya ang pag-asa namin. Ilang years na lang, magtratrabaho at magkaka-sweldo.[I have hurt feelings (for UP), but bear no anger. It’s just that it’s such a waste because Ate Kristel was our hope. A few more years and she would have gotten a job and a salary].

The cause of their Ate’s untimely demise did not dull the Tejada children’s love for study and dreams of finishing a college course or acquiring a skill necessary for gainful employment. Always, the common reason they cited was to help their family.

Said Krizia: “Gusto ko po mag-aral sa [I want to study at the] Asian Institute of Culinary Arts. Gusto ko, kahit saang lugar, pwede ako mag-work para makatulong sa pamilya ko. Kaya gusto ko maging chef [I want a profession that can get me a job anywhere. So I can help my family. That’s why, I want to be a chef].”

May ID po ako. [I have an ID],” volunteered Kristof, “Doon din ako sa Hizon nag-aaral [I also study in M. Hizon Elementary School, same with my Kuya Kristian].”

Kristian nodded his head in agreement and volunteered this about himself: “Grade 2 po ako, mag-Grade 3 na sa pasukan. Ewan ko po kung makakapasok ako (sa U.P.). Gusto kong mag-aral sa UP kasi gusto kong maging architect, kasi gusto kong makatulong sa Ate Krizia ko at sa magiging anak niya pag mag-asawa siya. Paglaki ko, ipapagawa ko si Nanay ng bahay. [I am now in second grade and will be in Grade 3 by next school year. I don’t know if I will pass (UP) when I grow up, but I want to study in UP because I want to be an architect. I want to help my Ate Krizia when she gets married and has kids. When I grow up, I will build a house for my mother]. 


All the Tejada children are good looking, with the two boys handsome enough to pass for child actors.

Kristian has light-brown skin. His round, deep-set, brown eyes and aquiline nose frame a poignantly innocent and expressive face. Kristof is fairer, more playful, smiles often, and could pass for a Korean boy.

Lean and petite, Krizia is the darker, female version of Kristian. Her late Ate Kristel was likewise a morena beauty at 5-feet and 3-inches, with a fuller body frame of 120 pounds.

But movies or stardom for her children was farthest from the mind of Blesilda Pangilinan Tejada, a graduate of the Philippine Maritime Institute (PMI) like her husband Christopher.

Sa akin, mas mabuti yung mas permanente. Sino ba ang ayaw maging artista ang mga anak nila. Pero mas mabuti pa rin ang may natapos. Mas nagtatagal. Mas mabuti kung nakatapos sila ng pag-aaral [I wanted something for them that was more permanent. Who would not want to have movie stars for children? But it is better to have a profession with staying power. It’s best for them to finish their studies], she said.


The second child of unlettered and impoverished parents, Blesilda’s mother was a housewife while her father worked as a dockyard ‘gang boss’ – a term used to refer to the head of working teams called ‘gangs’ that were tasked to operate machines that lift and move cargo on and off ships

Lumaki ako sa Kalye Batangas sa Tondo. Maganda ng konti sa barong-barong. Semento ang banyo tapos ang dingding mga bulok na yero. Rights lang kami doon. Walang titulo. [I spent my growing up years in a one-room house on Batangas Street in Tondo, Manila. It was a little better than a shanty. It had a functioning toilet with cemented walls. All the other walls were made of rusty galvanized iron.  We only had rights to the house, no title]. I studied Customs Administration at PMI. A neighbor told me a customs administrators earned good pay,” she recalled.

Blesilda narrated that when her husband Christopher first courted her, she turned him down. “I met him when I was 18. He persisted and later, I said ‘yes.’ We were on for four years before we got married in 1996. He was my first and last boyfriend.”

By then, Blesilda was pregnant with Kristel who was born on Sept. 8, 1996. A difficult pregnancy stopped the young mother from looking for a full-time job. For a time, Christopher worked at Del Bros. Hard times resulted in the lay-off of workers, including Kristel’s father.

The suddenly economically displaced Tejada family was forced to move in with Blesilda’s parents in Tayuman, Tondo. Christopher found work as a reliever taxi driver.

“We tried to live on the earnings of my husband, amounting to P300-P400 on a good day. Sometimes, when the taxi needed repair, we had no money at all,” Blesilda said.

A good chunk of their meager income went to Kristel’s schooling. “As a student of U.P. Manila, we gave Kristel P70-P80 a day,” Blesilda said, “Her jeepney fare from our house to the LRT station in Tayuman plus LRT fare cost P46. She was left with P34 for her baon from morning to the afternoon.”

Inside the Tejada household, Blesilda, Christopher, and the remaining three children – Krizia, Kristian, and Kristof – survived the day on a shoe-string budget: P50 for lunch, P50 for dinner, P30 for a kilo of rice, P40 for the kids baon of 2 biscuits per child, and sometimes P20 for fruits. Whatever was left went to the purchase of soap, kerosene, sugar, and other necessities.


Kristel’s academic history is chockfull of merits and honors. As a 12th grader at the Rizal Elementary School near Puregold Pritil in Tondo, Manila, she graduated in 2008 as class salutatorian. “In 1st grade, Ate Kristel also reaped 10 medals. In high school, she belonged to the Top Ten. She was subject proficient. Ate Kristel was also the president of her class from 1st to 2nd year high school,” recalled Krizia.

Kristian smiled as he remembered the day his Ate became class salutatorian. “We went to Jollibbee after Ate Kristel’s elementary graduation. I ordered spaghetti. They ordered burger steak. It was a treat from Mama and Papa].

Always on the lookout for educational opportunities for her children, Blesilda asked their community priest to help her daughter Kristel enter the Manila Cathedral School (MCS) in Tayuman, upon learning that the expensive private school under the Archbishop of Manila had expanded its scholarship program for poor children.

If Kristel made it to MCS, she would be able to study in a more academically competitive school that for starters, had just constructed a P67 million-school building. MCS had air-conditioned classrooms, modern computer laboratories, a fully stocked library, medical and dental clinics, and functional school gardens.

More importantly, MCS offered substantial partial and full scholarships to the less privileged, with reasonable payment terms. A partial scholarship could be paid on installment basis, while a full scholarship had the student paying only P1,000 for miscellaneous fees.

Janet Carpo, MCS secretary for the past 15 years, remembered well Kristel Tejada. “She was a kind student, reserved, but active in school activities. She was an active member of the Journalism Club.”

She added that Kristel was an MCS scholar from first year to fourth year. “On her last year at MCS (the year before she entered the University of the Philippines), Kristel was a full scholar, paying no tuition at MCS.”

Some 2,656 students are currently enrolled at MCS. Tuition ranges from P25,000 to P35,000, including miscellaneous and other fees. Grades are withheld from students who are not able to settle their tuition dues. Students are not asked to leave school, if they are unable to pay on time.


“There were four of them from MCS who passed the U.P. College Aptitude Test (UPCAT). Her three other classmates who made it attended review centers. Kristel had to content herself with a reviewer she bought at the National Bookstore. We could not afford to send her to a review center. I was beside myself with happiness when she passed,” Blesilda exclaimed.

She added that her daughter also passed the entrance exam for the University of Santo Tomas (UST), the other dream school of Kristel.

“When she had her UST exam, I waited for her inside UST. I noticed that there were so many empty mineral water plastic bottles littering the waiting area. I immediately went ahead and picked each one, intending to sell them. To my surprise, my daughter arrived. She had finished her test and did not think twice to help me collect the remaining empty plastic bottles. When we sold the bottles, we made about P100. It was enough to buy food for dinner that night,” Blesilda said.

The proud mother had a tarpaulin made in honor of her daughter’s academic success. “Congratulations Kristel for passing the UST and UP entrance exams,” the tarpaulin read. It was posted on the frontage of the MCS.

For Kristel, it was the fulfillment of a dream. Like her siblings, she couldn’t wait to finish her studies so she could be gainfully employed, earning enough to help her family.


Blesilda said that every day, her daughter would wake up very early to prepare for her subjects. “She would be up at 4 or 5 a.m. and leave at 7 a.m. if she had an 8:30 a.m. class.

She added that she gave Kristel P8 for her jeepney ride from their home to Tayuman LRT. “I learned later that my daughter walked to the LRT station to save the P8 jeepney fare, which she then added to her daily lunch money. And she never told me about it, until I caught her walking to the station,” Blesilda said.

But no matter how they scrimped and saved, money remained tight in the Tejada household. And there were more bad news ahead.

Blesilda’s in-laws used to shoulder the P5,000 monthly rent for the one-room apartment that she, her husband, and her four children resided in. But during Kristel’s freshman year, they were told that the rent money wasn’t coming anymore because both her in-laws had to undergo therapy treatments and had costly medicine to cover.

In May, Kristel registered in advance in UP Manila, together with hundreds of fellow first-year students about to begin their college life at the State U.

She was hopeful that somehow, when classes officially started on June 11, 2012, she would be able to get a scholarship or tuition assistance, owing to her family’s meager and unstable financial resources.

This was how school officials helped poor students at the Manila Cathedral School. It was going to be the same in UP Diliman.

But to her surprise, the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP), which supposedly addressed the needs of poor students, placed Kristel on Bracket D, the second to the lowest payment bracket.  This meant that she still had to pay P300 for every unit plus miscellaneous fees that in total, amounted to P10,000.

Blesilda said they could not produce the amount. June came and went followed by July, August, September, and October, the last month of the first semester – still no money to pay for Kristel’s tuition. Pressure built up in the Tejada home. Blesilda and her husband quarreled intermittently.

But all these did not defeat Kristel’s determination to study. At the end of the first semester, Kristel passed all her subjects. Said Krizia: “Her highest grade was 1.5 in History. She got a 3.o in a subject that required them to go on a field trip. I wish the teacher just gave my Ate Kristel a 1-100 exam, in exchange for the field trip. Wala kasing pera kami para magamit ni Ate na pambayad sa field trip [We didn’t have money that my sister could use to cover field trip expenses].

The Tejadas finally made good the first semester P10,000 tuition they owed UP. But by then it was December and the 2nd semester was now on its second month. Kristel had to pay another P10,000.

Mr. Tejada tried to secure a student loan for his daughter but was informed that the university had a rule that prevented students from being enrolled when the semester has already begun. “No late payment” was the policy and students who could not afford to pay were advised to go on leave.

At a dinner affair of the Association of Parents and Counselors in U.P. Manila, Mrs. Tejada approached U.P. Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto’s table. “Kinausap ko siya na kung pwede payagan na niyang maka-enrol si Kristel. Hindi na raw pwede, iyon daw ang rule. Hindi siya talaga pumayag [I asked him to allow Kristel to enroll. But he said, he could not allow it, saying it was the rule (no late payment). He did not allow my daughter to enroll].

Some said that Kristel’s loneliest day was when she was made to surrender her U.P. ID, which was promptly returned to her parents amid wave after wave of on-campus and off-campus protests after the freshie committed suicide.

UP President Alfredo Pascual immediately suspended the “no late payment” rule and likewise, the procedure that required students to file a leave of absence if they are unable to pay their tuition on time.

Dr. Manuel Agulto, UP Manila Chancellor, was in near tears explaining that it was indeed unfortunate that Kristel killed herself, but that he was not to be faulted for her death. He added that he was only implementing the rules; the procedures.

Agulto, director of the Institute of Ophthalmology, was elected by the UP Board of Regents as 8th chancellor of UP Manila at its meeting on Sept. 29, 2011.

In his investiture speech, Agulto vowed: “I will use my intelligence and strength to ensure that the university will serve the people.”

He likewise urged students to be disciplined and hardy in their work. “…When these stresses come, will you make excuses, will you complain and whine or will you do something about it? The answer completely rests upon you. How can you give meaning to your work? Before you reach the road of success, you will have to go through a lot of potholes and detours. Nothing came natural or easy for me. There were a lot of sacrifices. I literally worked Sunday-to-Sunday. No holidays. No Holy Week. Overnight success, there’s no such thing, my friends,” Agulto said.