Remembering Sarah Jane Salazar
(the first Filipina HIV-AIDS victim)
By Apolinario Villalobos
During the time that Manila was gripped with the detection of HIV-AIDs among the sex workers, I was just reading about the news that were splashed on the pages of tabloids, until the name, Sarah Jane Salazar was mentioned as the first victim. Her photos accompanied news and commentaries about the disease. She was very young and beautiful. Never did I expect that I would meet her….
Four times, as I would leave the gates of our subdivision as early as five in the morning for work, I would see an attractive young girl sitting in the waiting shed of the tricycle terminal. She was always puffing a cigarette and would courageously stare back at me as I made my way to the jeepney stop by the highway. On the fifth time, she returned my smile and that was the time that I finally recognized the face – she was Sarah Jane. As I already knew from write ups that she hailed from Cotabato, I spoke to her, but asked which Visayan dialect she knew, Hiligaynon or Cebuano. She said she knew both.
From then on, I would sit by her in the waiting shed for a few minutes every morning before making my way to the jeepney stop. She told me that she was boarding in the house of her “manager” not far from our subdivision, and, that she made it a habit to take a few minutes of rest in the waiting shed before finally taking a tricycle ride home. She was then working as a guest relations officer (GRO) and the manager she mentioned was her real manager in the joint. I did not know that she was referring to a woman I knew as her landlady. She was all praises for her landlady who showed her motherly love while the rest of her friends began to drift away when they learned about the sickness that she was carrying. In fact, she even had a close relationship with her landlady’s son who also pitied her. The relationship, though, did not last long.
When I asked her about what I read in tabloids, she honestly admitted them without batting an eyelash and a tone of sadness. That was how I began to admire her toughness. She told me about the poverty that her family was suffering back home which forced her to work in beer joints even as an adolescent, adding that all she wanted was to help her family. Her frail frame barely stood at less than five feet. She had smooth brown skin and heart-shaped face with a ready smile, a beautiful face, though petite in physical structure.
After less than a month of friendly encounters, I no longer found her in her usual corner of the shed. I found out that she transferred to another boarding house somewhere in Pasay City. Later I came across interviews of Justo C. Justo, a Councilor of Pasay City who claimed that Sarah Jane was in his care and he was planning to sponsor a project about HIV-AIDS. I thought it was something like regular check- ups for sex workers or free hospitalizations. I was shocked when I learned that it was about a nude statue of Sarah that will be erected on a strategic portion of the EDSA extension, within the Pasay area. According to him, it will “ immortalize” Sarah Jane as the first Filipino victim of the dreaded disease, a reminder for the rest who would be careless about their sexual practice. When I contacted Sarah by phone, she told me that she did not know about it and that was the first time that I hear her cry. Good thing, the project did not materialize, as the local citizens perceived it as immortalizing the dreaded disease at the expense of Sarah Jane.
Months after, I saw on TV that Sarah was living in with a boy, barely past his teen years and who fathered what she was carrying for a couple of months that time. Comments about such carelessness were printed in tabloids. The parents of the boy were being accused of negligence. Sarah was already adamant and uncooperative during interviews until she finally gave birth to the child. I lost track of her after that.
I just learned that she was confined in a government hospital with facilities for HIV-AIDS victims due to her rapidly deteriorating health when it was flashed on TV. For the last time, I visited her and gave her the original handwritten copy of the poem I composed. I told her that I made the poem several days after our meeting in Cavite. I did not ask about her young husband or the child supposedly in his care. She cried (for the second time) after reading the poem in Filipino. I honestly told her that it was my last visit, so that she can have more time for rest. Her last words for me almost in whisper were, “sige lang manong, okey lang ako, daghang salamat…damo gid nga salamat” (it’s alright manong, I am okey…thank you very much…thank you very much.)
How many Sarah Janes do we still see around us roaming the streets of the cities throughout the country at night or entertaining customers in beer joints? They who are carrying responsibilities on their shoulders to augment the income if there is, of their parents? They who are supposed to be carrying bags of notebooks and books on their shoulders to school?….. They who are robbed of financial benefits as young citizens, by greedy government officials and politicians – all, without conscience?!!
(Note: “daghang salamat” is Cebuano/ Visayan, while “damo gid nga salamat” is Hiligaynon/Visayan, and both means “thank you” in English).