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IBARRA GUTIERREZ JR.: His E-mail Blew Cynics Away


Neither New York nor the corporate world is attractive enough for this young lawyer.

He had the option of staying abroad after a scholarship grant. Or at the very least use his diploma to raise his stock in the lucrative sector of corporate law.

Lawyer Ibarra Gutierrez Jr. did neither. Instead, he let the whole world know that he was raring to come home to Manila, in an e-mail he sent out to friends last March and which has been a conversation piece in the land of cynics.

A Fullbright scholar, Gutierrez was then finishing his master’s degree in law at the New York University (NYU). The scholarship requires its scholars to return home, but that wouldn’t have stopped a smart lawyer from looking for reasons to stay in the Big Apple. Yet, he decided not only to return to Manila but also to take on work that some of his former colleagues in corporate law probably thought was crazy.

In June, the 30-year-old Gutierrez accepted the modest salary of a University of the Philippines (UP) professor, which gave him enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Teacher’s Village, Quezon City, with his wife and two-year old son, and ride a jeepney to work. He has since been promoted to director of the UP Institute of Human Rights.

It’s not that New York’s seductive charm had run out. While there, he was tempted to consider high-paying jobs and live in a country where things work, the trains run (though sometimes late), and online shopping is a breeze. New York was also a place of personal growth for him, where he says he hobnobbed with the world’s “greatest minds.” Yes, Gutierrez says he perfectly understands “why it could be attractive to stay there.”

But as he had written in his e-mail—which has since been widely circulated, debated, and published in a national daily—he feels he would be “happier and more useful” here. He wrote: “Things are bad here, but they’ll never get any better if everybody leaves. Every talented person who goes there and stays there is a loss. That person could have done something here. Or simply, if they stayed here they pay taxes.”

Gutierrez differentiates his case from those of Filipino workers who leave the country for lack of opportunities here. “It is not as if by working in Manila I am choosing a life of starvation, deprivation, and abject poverty,” he wrote.

It’s not the first time that Gutierrez defied convention. After passing the bar in 1999, he joined a leading law firm, Sycip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan, which gave him a basic pay of P400,000 a year. Six months later, he quit Sycip.

“I felt like we were disadvantaging people who couldn’t defend themselves,” he explained. In a way, he probably wasn’t cut out for the cutthroat world of corporate law.

His father, Ibarra Sr., wasn’t totally surprised by the decision. “In our talks, I noticed that he wasn’t happy with what he was doing. I knew where his sentiments lie and I never attempted to influence him,” the father said.

Ibarra later worked for a nongovernment organization that paid him less than half of what he used to get. He would sometimes go home with chickens as payment for his legal service. “But I was more fulfilled because it was why I went to law school in the first place,” he says.

Ibarra says that to a certain extent, he’s into this because he felt this was his way of paying back for having been a student of a state university. “I just think there’s something criminal about you accepting the bounty and then just conveniently forgetting about it and thinking buhay ko ’to. If that’s nationalism, maybe it is.”

At UP, he served as editor in chief of the Philippine Collegian and later as chairperson of the University Student Council. He now also serves as legal counsel to the Akbayan party.
“He thinks like a typical UP student,” the older Gutierrez said. “But unlike others, serving the people is not just lip service. It’s a commitment. I am proud of him.”

As director of the Institute of Human Rights, Ibarra Gutierrez leads a team of lawyers and students in providing communities with legal know-how and familiarizing them with their rights. NYU has also granted him a fellowship that allows him to work with urban poor communities here and study the local laws on evictions and demolitions.

“I do not delude myself that what I am doing is something revolutionary. But it is the best thing that I can think of at the moment.”

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