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Billy Santo: ‘Take control of your HIV status, take control of your life’

Living with HIV, Billy Santo says that “your HIV status should not bother people as long as you don’t wrong other people.”

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ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF BILLY SANTO

This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com; or call (+63) 9287854244,  (+63) 9157972229 and (+632) 536-7886.

“It was almost too late for me when I found out that I have HIV,” recalled Billy Santo.

On May 5, 2015, Billy was rushed into a hospital because of PCP Pneumocystis Pneumonia, a serious infection that causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.

“I can still recall the days before that, when I had to self-medicate and dose myself with non-prescribed antibiotics because I was dealing with infections I didn’t know about. I had night sweats, on-and-off fever, severe weight loss, dry and peeling skin, and rashes all over my body. I was unable to stand, walk, speak, and could hardly hear or see. I had difficult time breathing as if there are hollow blocks on my chests. My cough was never-ending and my temperature was not stabilizing,” he said.

Instead of seeking help, Billy opted to completely hide himself “from my family and never reported for work.”

Looking back, “I had a feeling it was HIV but was never really sure.”

This went on for months until one night, everything went completely dark for him. “I passed out,” he said. “Moments later, when I got my senses back, I found out that I was already in an ambulance.”

Billy reached the emergency room pass midnight in a hospital in Las Pinas City.

There, he remembered a doctor do some examinations before finally pausing to take a closer look at him. She asked: “Bakla ka ba (Are you gay)?” followed by a, “Ilan na mga lalake na nakatalik mo (How many guys have you already slept with)?”

READ:  751 new HIV cases in Phl in Feb.; 16% higher compared to Feb. 2015

“I was completely shocked,” he said, “and her question left me dumfounded.”

She repeated herself, so “I had no choice but to answer.”

The doctor then told Billy that it could be AIDS. “It was loud enough for people in the ER to hear,” he said. “I could only wish that the ground would just eat me alive.”

Another doctor who witnessed what happened approached and told Billy to go to RITM in Alabang, supposedly “not only because they suspect me of having AIDS but because he is sure that it is the best care facility for these cases.”

And so Billy found himself at RITM, where – after testing positive for HIV infection – he had to be admitted for almost three months.

Billy Santo said that many of the challenges related to HIV are socially constructed. For instance, “when people think that a PLHIV shouldn’t do this or that. Or take control of your life and tell you what to do and what not to do,” he said. “Some people can be a know-it-all sometimes without being sensitive.”

LIFE FILLED WITH STRUGGLES

But life for Billy hasn’t always been easy.

“I was exposed to sex work at a very early age,” he said. “I was forced to do it out of desperation.”

He was three years old when his mother committed suicide, and when he was nine years old, his father died from drug overdose.

Billy said he was passed on from one relative to another, and was “treated inhumanely”, so that he ended up running away and – thereby – had to fend for himself.

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“My only success,” he said, “lies on my education.” But because he didn’t receive financial support from anyone, “I did what I had to do.”

Looking back, he said “I had numerous sexual encounters with gay men from all walks of life, and matronas just to feed my empty stomach, pay my rent and have allowance while going to school.”.

Billy said that because of how he lived his life, “honestly, I don’t know for sure if I (may) already have had HIV as early as when I was 17. I didn’t know what HIV was back then and never thought of HIV testing to begin with.”

After finishing his schooling and starting to earn a living as a BPO worker, Billy said he led a wanton lifestyle. “I was all over the place. Drinking on weekends, injecting drugs (and sharing needles), PNP, partying like there is no tomorrow, and experiencing the things that I never experienced before,” he said.

He only really paid attention (at first) to HIV when a partner died of AIDS-related complication in 2013. “I got scared,” he said, even if he was in denial. This – all the same – made him realize the “big possibility that I might be infected with the virus.”

When Billy Santo started accepting his status (even posting his story in Facebook), “I became more empowered and resilient,” he said. “I try to learn as much as I could about my condition so I can take care of myself and others. I started to look at life positively and try to prove myself that HIV is not a hindrance for me to be happy. I have equipped myself with the right education and indulged myself in the advocacy.”

LIVING WITH HIV

While in RITM, Billy said he had a slot of questions.

READ:  NorMAA: Safe space for PLHIVs in Northern Mindanao

“If I will still reach my dreams, am I still be able to love and be loved, how people in my society will deal with me, if I can still go back to work,” he said. On top of that: “Why me? Are all my sufferings as a person not enough?”

There was even a point when “I actually blamed God; I asked him why He has forsaken me. Why does he keep on giving me too many problems for me to bear?”

But this also showed people’s real colors to Billy.

Some of his closest gay friends, for instance, started avoiding him, with one even telling him that “Bulok ka na! Ano pa mahihita ko sa iyo (You’re ruined! There’s nothing I can get from you now)?”

His stepsister – with his stepmom – visited him in the hospital, but she was wearing five masks and gloves. And – after he was discharged from the hospital and stayed with them – Billy said “I was treated like a dog. They kept my dishes separated from theirs and hid it in a cabinet wrapped in cloth. They won’t allow me to use the bathroom as they thought urine would infect them. They won’t let me sit on sofas, chairs and ride in a car without putting newspapers and plastic wrappers. Until… they just asked me to leave.”

Billy eventually found his footing with the help of a former colleague who pitied him. “I owe that person a lot,” he said.

Subsequently, he started accepting his status (even posting his story in Facebook). And from “from that day on, I became more empowered and resilient,” he said. “I try to learn as much as I could about my condition so I can take care of myself and others. I started to look at life positively and try to prove myself that HIV is not a hindrance for me to be happy. I have equipped myself with the right education and indulged myself in the advocacy.”

Billy eventually became the marketing and communication officer of The Project Red Ribbon Inc.

LIVING ON

Billy said that many of the challenges related to HIV are socially constructed.

For instance, “when people think that a PLHIV shouldn’t do this or that. Or take control of your life and tell you what to do and what not to do,” he said. “Some people can be a know-it-all sometimes without being sensitive.”

In the end, when dealing with HIV, Billy said that “Your being HIV positive should not bother people as long as you don’t wrong other people,” he ended.

Aaron Bonette is a batang beki - a "cisgender gay man, if you will", he says. He established EU Bahaghari in Enverga University in Lucena, where he was one of the leaders to mainstream discussions of LGBT issues particularly among the youth. He is currently helping out LGBT community organizing, believing that it is when we work together that we are strongest ("Call me idealistic, I don't care!" he says). He writes for Outrage Magazine to provide the youth perspective - meaning, he tries to be serious even as he tries to "party, party, party", befitting his newbie status.

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To live a life in service

Meet Carla Culaste, the trans houseparent of a halfway house for people living with HIV in the City of Manila. It’s a challenging – and yet fulfilling – job, he said, as he stressed to others to learn more about HIV to promote non-discrimination.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Carla Culaste, now 26, was around 12 years old when he first visited the Positive Action Foundation Philippines Inc. (PAFPI). His sister worked for the non-government organization that was founded by his gay uncle, Joshua Formentera. Even then, he said that he was always “impressed” with how it was able to touch the lives of Filipino PLHIVs, providing them a “safe space” when even their own homes failed to do so.

Little did he know that – by the time he’d turn 22 – he’d be working as the houseparent of the NGO’s Abot Kamay Center, a halfway house for PLHIVs who are in need of a helping hand to get back on their feet.

DAILY ROUTINE

From Monday to Friday, Carla sleeps at the center. On weekends, he heads home (in Parañaque, where his family lives). But even if his work is actually supposedly only from 8:00AM to 5:00PM, “as a houseparent, 27/7 ka nakabantay (I watch after them 24/7).”

Part of Carla’s job is to “always check on the clients” – from checking if they have supplies of their medicines, if they actually take their medicines on time, if they eat properly, et cetera. This is particularly true when dealing with new clients who may still have physical limitations and need help in their day-to-day living in the shelter.

READ:  Linking structural factors with access to HIV services

Aside from this, Carla also helps manage clients who may need to be rushed to the hospital, particularly when “wala silang pamilya na willing tumulong sa kanila (if they don’t have family willing to help them).” By extension, therefore, Carla becomes an alternative family member.

Iniisip ko kasi, bilang houseparent, hindi lang ako nanay o tatay sa kanila (As a houseparent, I do not only see myself as a father or a mother to them), Carla said. “Ano rin ako sa kanila… kapatid, kaibigan na puwede nilang takbuhan pag kailangan nila ng makakausap (I am also a sibling, a friend to them; someone they can go to if they need to talk to someone).”

But it is a fulfilling job, particularly when he sees people he helped do well in life. “Nakakasaya rin (It makes one happy),” he said.

GROWING UP TRANS

Carla didn’t finish high school; though if given a chance, he’d like to study again.

As a trans man, his life was not always easy.

The youngest of six kids, he always identified as a trans man.

“Before, hindi nila ako matanggap (In the past, my family couldn’t accept me),” he said. “Against sa religion nila (Being LGBTQIA was against their religion).”

As a child, two of his borther also bullied him; they hurt him verbally, as well as physically.

When he told his parents about it, they just dismissed the bullying, telling Carla that perhaps “naglalambing lang sila (they were just being affectionate)”.

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But Carla said he still chose to be what he is because this is what makes him happy.

By the time Carla had his first partner, “wala na rin sila nagawa (there was nothing they could do but accept me).”

In hindsight, that experience taught Carla an important lesson in life: To be accepting.

Kung paano mo i-treat ang tao… ipakita mo sa kanila na kaya mo silang intindihin kahit magkaiba kayo (In treating people, show them that you can understand them even if you’re different from each other),” Carla said.

EVERYONE’S ISSUE

With her exposure to the HIV community, Carla wants PLHIVs to learn to care for themselves. For instance, not to do things (e.g.vices) that will – in the end – just be bad on/for them. “Huwag matigas ang ulo (Don’t be hardheaded),” he said.

To everyone, he said “huwag kayong matakot sa PLHIVs (don’t be afraid of PLHIVs).” In fact, “matuto tayong sumuporta (sa PLHIVs) hindi lang sa kamag-anak natin (na may HIV). Maging concern din tayo sa iba. Iwasan natin ang discrimination (We should learn to support PLHIVs, not just relatives who may have it. We should show our concern to everyone. We should avoid discrimination).”

Learning also helps, he said, “at bigyan natin ng kaalaman sarili natin tungkol sa HIV kasi dagdag impormasyon yan para sa atin (and for us to add to our knowledge everything about HIV since this is good to our lifelong learning).”

READ:  Hong Kong to recognize same-sex partnerships in spousal visa applications

For more information on Positive Action Foundation Philippines Inc. (PAFPI), visit Abot Kamay Center at 2613 Dian St., Malate, City of Manila, 1004 Philippines.
They may also be reached at (+632) 4042911; or email pafpiorg@gmail.com.

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NEWSMAKERS

Heart Evangelista pushes for non-discrimination of LGBTQI people

Actress Heart Evangelista – wife of Sen. Francis Escudero – expressed her support for the SOGIE Equality Bill, the newest version of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB).

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#LoveIsAllWeNeed

Actress Heart Evangelista – wife of Sen. Francis Escudero – expressed her support for the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) Equality Bill, the newest version of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB).

In an Instagram post, Evangelista said that “everyone has the right to live, work and dream”, and that “the SOGIE (Equality Bill) is a step in the right direction to guarantee the protection of those rights, especially for our friends in the LGBTQIA+ community.”

The SOGIE Equality Bill passed the Lower House in 2017; but the Senate version of the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) – the Senate Bill No. 1271 – remains stalled.

Evangelista added that “last year the bill made great progress but we still have a long way to go.” This is why “my husband and I are in full support of this bill and hope to see it move forward and become a law.”

Escudero himself has been vocal about his support for the LGBTQI community.

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In 2012, he took part in the “I dare to care about equality”, a photographic campaign spearheaded by the Bahaghari Center for SOGIE Research, Education and Advocacy (Bahaghari Center). Then while running for the VP post last election, he expressed his support for civil union for same-sex couples.

Evangelista’s IG post has already been liked over 80,000 times.

Sen. Chiz Escudero stresses ‘our duty to ensure equality’

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NEWSMAKERS

Karen Davila expresses support for anti-discrimination bill

TV personality Karen Davila expressed her support for the LGBTQI community in the Philippines by highlighting the relevance of the need for the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) Equality Bill, the newest version of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB).

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#LoveIsAllWeNeed

TV personality Karen Davila expressed her support for the LGBTQI community in the Philippines by highlighting the relevance of the need for the SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression) Equality Bill, the newest version of the Anti-Discrimination Bill (ADB).

The SOGIE Equality Bill passed the Lower House in 2017; but the Senate version of the anti-discrimination bill (ADB) – the Senate Bill No. 1271 – remains stalled.

In a Twitter post that – as of press time – has been shared over 160 times, Davila said that the bill “seeks to protect individuals against sex and gender-based discrimination, which include denial of access to public and health services, employment and education.”

Davila then posted a photo of herself wearing a rainbow pin on her collar.


Davila is actually a vocal LGBTQI advocate.

Earlier, in 2016, Davila received the Bahaghari Media Awards from Outrage Magazine for helping inform/educate the public about LGBTQIA-related issues, thereby aiding in bettering the plight of LGBTQIA people particularly in the Philippines.

Bahaghari Media Awards 2016 celebrates LGBTQIA allies in media

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People You Should Know

Jason Mraz opens up about his ‘two spirit’ sexuality, admits having experiences with men

‘I’m Yours’ singer Jason Mraz opened up about his sexuality by saying that he had experiences with men, even while he was dating the woman who became his wife. His wife “laid it out” for him, Mraz said, by calling it ‘Two Spirit’. “I really like that.”

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Screencap of Jason Mraz from the YouTube video of 'I'm Yours'

“I’m Yours” singer Jason Mraz, 41, opened up about his sexuality by revealing that “I’ve had experiences with men, even while I was dating the woman who became my wife.”

Interviewed by Billboard, Mraz said that “it was like, ‘Wow, does that mean I am gay?’”

His wife for three years now, Christina Carano, helped him embrace his sexual identity.

“My wife laid it out for me. She calls it ‘Two Spirit,’ which is what the Native Americans call someone who can love both man and woman,” Mraz said. “I really like that.”

The term “Two Spirit” was coined in the 1990s at a conference for gay and lesbian Native Americans as an umbrella term with no specific description of gender or sexual orientation, according to the New York Times.

Mraz has actually opened up about his sexuality even prior to this. In 2005, for instance, he told Genre that he was “bisexually open-minded” when he told the publication that “I have never been in a sexual relationship with a man. If the right one came along, then sure.”

In 2012, he also indicated that he wasn’t comfortable with labels. “Were we to live in a society that was equal those labels wouldn’t really exist or matter except maybe at the DMV or someplace where, for some reason, you have to put down gender, race or age,” he said to Pride Source. “I don’t get it. I don’t get why sexuality has to be such a big deal.”

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Just this June, in time for the observance of Pride, Mraz wrote a Pride-themed poem, where a line stated: “I am bi your side”. Mraz said that he “didn’t realize (it) was going to be so telling”.

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The young believer

For Ian Jaurigue, it is nice to know that there are already a lot of people who support the LGBTQI community these days. “But as long as there is still inequality on the basis of one’s SOGIE, our call and our fight should be stronger,” he said.

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“As long as there are LGBT advocates who will fight tirelessly for the advancement of our advocacy, things will get better.”

So said 19-year-old Ian Jaurigue, a self-identified “gender advocate”.

And Ian believes that “(the older generation) did a good job when it comes to working for the advocacy, and we need to learn from their experiences and be grateful for it. If they did not start it, the advocacy would not have had moved forward.”

According to Ian, the young advocates today still have a lot to do; and for Ian, this is “not just talk and rant about (the issues).”

But while recognizing the efforts of those who helped start the movement, Ian also recognizes that there are gaps. And these gaps are not helped by the “disconnect” between his generation and the one before it.

“The struggles may have evolved and revolutionized, but we, the younger generation, still need to reflect and learn from what they have accomplished,” he said. Only “by doing this (will we be helped to) have a stronger grasp of our advocacy.”

Also, even if the LGBTQI movement has reached new heights, according to Ian, the young advocates today still have a lot to do; and for Ian, this is “not just talk and rant about (the issues).”

“It is nice to know that there are already a lot of people who support us. But it does not mean that we should settle for these little triumphs. As long as there is still inequality on the basis of one’s SOGIE, our call and our fight should be stronger,” Ian said.

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Incidentally, Ian is also a freelance makeup artist, theater and indie actor, dancer, a student at U.P. Diliman, and… a drag artist. He is known in the drag community as – plainly – Mrs Tan.

“My style is a mixture of dance, comedy, and theater,” Ian said.

Though he is still new in the world of drag, Ian believes that the way he carries himself and how he performs onstage prove that “age is nothing but a number”.

Ian merges his advocacy with his performances, making sure that “every performance brings a certain message and not just a spectacle. I like the feeling when I’m able to give a deeper message to the audience while I’m performing,” he said.

His first foray into the world of drag was when he joined U.P. Samaskom’s Live AIDS. Ian took on the role of a drag queen. But he felt, during that time, that “drag should be more than what I did in Live AIDS; there should be meaning to it.”

Whenever he performs, “I feel a sense of fulfillment and liberation. I’m not just entertaining people, I’m also giving them something to think about. There is pride to it.”

For someone as young as Ian, “Pride is both a celebration and a revolution.”

On the one hand, it is a celebration of the LGBT community’s diversity, accomplishments, and ongoing contributions. But on the other hand, “Pride is also a protest for the members who are not able to take advantage and enjoy their basic human rights, and for those who have died because they are members of the LGBTQI community,” Ian ended.

“It is nice to know that there are already a lot of people who support us. But it does not mean that we should settle for these little triumphs. As long as there is still inequality on the basis of one’s SOGIE, our call and our fight should be stronger,” Ian said.

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All hail the beauty queen

A glimpse into the life of a trans woman beauty pageant enthusiast, Ms Mandy Madrigal of Transpinay of Antipolo Organization.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

“I feel accepted.”

That, said Mandy Madrigal, is the main appeal of joining beauty pageants.

“I feel so loved when I join pageants. Especially when people clap for us, cheer for us. And when you win… it (just) feels different.”

FINDING ACCEPTANCE

Assigned male at birth, Mandy was in primary school when her father asked her if “I was a boy or a girl”. That question scared her, she admitted, because – as the only boy among six kids – she thought she did not really have “any choice”. “So I answered my father, ‘I am a boy’.”

But Mandy’s father asked her the same question again; and this time, “I said, yes, I am gay.”

No, Mandy is NOT gay; she is a transpinay, and a straight one at that. But the misconceptions about the binary remains – i.e. in this case, she is associated with being gay mainly because she did not identify with the sex assigned her at birth.

In a way, Mandy said she’s lucky because “I believe he (my father) accepted (me) with his whole heart.”

The rest of her family did, too.

Though – speaking realistically – Mandy said this may be abetted by her “contributions” to the family. “Hindi naman aka basta naging bakla lang (I’m not a ’typical’ gay person),” she said, “na naglalandi lang o sumasali lang ng pageant (who just flirts, or just joins beauty pageants). Instead, Mandy provides financial support to her family by – among others – selling RTW clothes and beauty products. In fact, some of her winnings also go to the family’s coffers. By helping provide them with what they need, “it’s easy for them to accept me as a transgender woman.”

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Growing up, Mandy realized that while “makakapagsinungaling ka sa ibang tao, pero sarili mo, hindi mo maloloko. Kaya mas magandang tanggapin mo ang sarili mo para matanggap ka ng ibang tao (you may be able to lie to others about who you really are, but you can’t lie to yourself. So it’s better to accept your true self so that others will be able to accept you too).”

Mandy was “introduced” to beauty pageants when she was 13 or 14. At that time, a friend asked her to join a pageant; and “I won first runner up.” She never looked backed since, even – at one time – earning as much as P20,000 after winning a title. Like many regular beauconeras (beauty pageant participants), she also heads to distant provinces to compete, largely because – according to her – prizes in provincial competitions tend to be higher. The prize money earned helps one buy more paraphernalia for the next pageants, and – in Mandy’s case – also helps support her family.

Generally speaking, Mandy Madrigal said that “ang tunay na queen ay may malaking puso (a real queen has a big heart).”

FORMING A FAMILY

Beauty pageants are competitions, yes; but for Mandy, pageants also allow the candidates to form bonds as they get close to each other. Pageants, she said, can be a way “na maging close kami, magkaroon ng magagandang bonding… at magkakilala kami (for us to be close, to bond and get to know the others better).”

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Pageants can be costly, Mandy admitted – for instance, “you have to invest,” she said, adding that a candidate needs to be able to provide for herself (instead of just always renting) costumes, swimsuits, casual wear, gowns, and so on.

In a way, therefore, having people who believe in you helps. In Mandy’s case, for instance, a lot of people helped (by providing necessities she needs) because “naniniwala sila na I am a queen inside and out,” she smiled.

But this support can also rack the nerves, particularly when people expect one to win (particularly because of the support given).

One will not always win, of course; and this doesn’t always give one good feelings. In 2017, for instance, Mandy joined Queen of Antipolo, and – after failing to win a crown – she said many people told her she should have won the title, or at least placed among the runners-up. “naguluhan ang utak ko (That confused me),” she said. “‘Bakit ako ang gusto ninyong manalo?’ But that’s when I realized na marami ako na-i-inspire na tao dahil marami nagtitiwala sa akin (I ask, ‘Why do you want me to win?’ But that’s when I realized that I inspire a lot of people, which is why they count on me).”

This gives her confidence; enough to deal with the nervousness that will also allow her to just enjoy any pageant she joins.

A TIME TO SHINE

Mandy believes pageants can help LGBTQI people by providing them a platform to showcase to non-LGBTQI people why “hindi tayo dapat husgahan (we should not be judged).”

READ:  751 new HIV cases in Phl in Feb.; 16% higher compared to Feb. 2015

Generally speaking, Mandy said that “ang tunay na queen ay may malaking puso (a real queen has a big heart).”

And she knows that not every pageant is good for every contestant. There will be pageants where you will be crowned the queen, she said, just as there will be pageants where you will lose. But over and above the winning and losing, note “what’s most important: that there’s a lot of people who supported you in a (certain) pageant.”

At the end of the day, “sa lahat ng patimpalak, pagkatandaan natin na merong nananalo at may natatalo. Depende na lang yan sa araw mo. Kung ikaw ay nakatadhanang manalo ay mananalo ka; kung nakatadhanang matalo ay matatalo ka talaga. Yun lang yun. Isipin mo na lang na meron pang araw na darating na mas maganda para sa iyo (in all competitions, remember that there will always be a winner and a loser. It all depends on your luck for the day. If you are fated to win, you will win; if you are fated to lose, you will lose. That’s that. But still remember – even when you lose – that there will always come a day that will be great for you).”

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