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On becoming Jefry Tupas

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Jefry Tupas transforms into a Mindanao ‘brains and beauty.’ PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF FB/JEFRYTUPAS

All these years, for all the sexuality that she felt inside of her, Jefry Tupas, the officer- in-charge of the Public Information And Production Division of the City Government of Davao, had always presented a male gender persona.

Recently, though, Jefry took a 180-degree turn, becoming the attractive woman that she is today. Although she has chosen not to have a change in sex organ, she is, she declares, by all intent and for all purposes, now a woman. And she is pleased with what she has become. It is a transformation that her office mates in the Davao City government, and, yes, her boss and dear friend, Mayor Sara Duterte, have given their thumbs-up to, realizing that what would make Jefry happy would make them happy too.

Daily Tribune recently had the privilege of meeting up with Jefry, an old friend of Social Set editor Jojo G. Silvestre. Jefry shared her journey with us from her early years in a small barangay in North Cotabato, her successes and challenges as a fledgling mass media professional, to finding her niche in public information with the city government of Davao. The conversation follows:

Daily Tribune (DT): You have such an interesting life, Jeffrey. But let’s start from the very beginning. Where were you born?

Jeffrey Tupas (JT): I was born in a barangay in Kampalong, Davao del Norte. It is called “Barangay by the River.” My mother belongs to an indigenous group, the Mandaya. She and my dad met in Kapalong because he worked for the National Irrigation Administration. So, that was where I was born.

However, I spent most of my life in Cabacan, North Cotabato. It’s an Ilocano-dominated community with vast rice lands. That’s where I studied. I graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Development Communication from the University of Southern Mindanao. I took up Agriculture first but I realized that agriculture was not for me.

DT: What were your interests as a child?

JT: I have always been interested in the arts. I was into music. I was a natural when it came to dancing. I also developed my reading skills. I was in grade two when a grade five teacher would bring me to her class to demonstrate how to read to her pupils. She would tell them, “You have to learn from Jeffrey Tupas who reads well. In high school, I wrote for the school paper, but in college, my application with the university paper was turned down. Probably it was because I was too belligerent.

DT: Were you initially self-taught?

JT: Yes, I learned writing all by myself. That’s because I was reading a lot, whether these were comics or magazines. I would imitate the way stories and articles were written. One teacher of mine in Development Communication noticed that I loved the essay part of the exam because I kept writing. That was even if I did not study the subject. So, I would get 1.5 or 1.25, but my teacher said, “You write very well, but next time, study your lessons.” (laughter)

DT: When did you become a professional writer?

JT: Right after I graduated from the University of Southern Mindanao, I joined the government. But I stayed for three months only in this provincial government. I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t think I would grow professionally. It was quite different from university life where I was super active. So, I transferred to a radio station of the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation (NC) in Kidapawan City. I worked as a reporter and news writer, but I loved the newswriting part more than the reporting part.

My boss, Carlos Bautista, was very strict. My time with him was very educational. Those were my formative years. He would scold me if I committed a mistake. He was critical and he noticed that I wrote long. I pointed out that I really loved telling stories.

DT: Where did you go from there?

JT: My broadcasting stint opened a lot of doors for me. I started as a correspondent for Philippine Daily Inquirer. I also wrote for Sun Star from North Cotabato. My first story for Inquirer came out in a section that was a round-up of regional stories and mine occupied quite a small space, but I was thrilled. “Finally, I am now a journalist,” I told myself. I left my broadcasting job. But being a correspondent wasn’t easy. The Inquirer editors once came to Mindanao to conduct a workshop. They would tell us what our writing styles were. When it was my turn, Tony Nolasco said, “You have no style.” I was devastated.

But one time, the Mindanao chief sent me to Pikit, Cotabato where there was an ongoing war. From that beat, I wrote human interest stories. I knew then this was where I should be. My bureau chief cursed me when he read one story of mine, “P…I… mo, you made me cry.” Soon, I was getting away with long stories, beyond the maximum number of words that we were allowed.

Sometimes, though, my stories would be chopped into shorter pieces, but I believe I had been able to educate our readers about what had been going on in Mindanao all these years. But I remained restless.

DT: So, what was your next move?

JT: I joined TV5. I was a desk editor for one year. I kind of felt I was a prostitute, selling my expertise to whoever wanted it. I decided I could go on my own, so I put up my own online media service, and called it Newsdesk. It lasted for two years. I was my own boss. I received assistance from my friends who believed in my cause, which was to write real good stories that would tell the truth about Mindanao. Since these were development stories, Newsdesk published stories of other writers who also wanted to tell their stories without consideration of space limitations.

Here, I would write the long articles that I enjoyed producing. There was no money here but I had a progressive orientation. Here, I wrote “The Teachers of Rajah Muda” which was my way of revisiting Pikit, a war-battered area.

DT: Oh, you probably captured a lot of poignant situations.

JT: The teachers were not only teaching what is taught in regular classrooms. They were involved in peace education. One piece that I wrote was chosen as the winner in a European Union-sponsored contest called “Peace Journalism for Mindanao.” My prize was an all-expense paid to Europe.

DT: Wow, tell us about that experience.

JT: I visited peace organizations and met a lot of peace workers. I also went to the European Union headquarters in Brussels where I learned about their peace instruments. Then, I went home to the Philippines but three months after, I was invited back to Brussels where I judged an international journalism contest that was focused on Africa and other parts of the world. It was an eye-opening experience for me that benefited my journalism career.

DT: Let’s talk about 2016. How did you become part of the Davao City Government? Or was it initially the Duterte campaign camp?

JT: I had just returned from a trip to Europe, and I was invited by the team of President Rody Duterte who was then still running. They were saying, “We need warm bodies in our media team.” Edwin Espejo, the leader of the media team, said, “We need you here.” So, I joined them. And I am convinced I made the right decision.

DT: So that’s how you met Sara (Duterte).

JT: We were not originally close but we were friends. Then, she said that if I wanted to, I could join her at the City Hall. “You’re going to be the officer-in-charge of the Public Information Office,” and I said yes.” I was also invited to work in Malacañang, but I made it clear I preferred to stay put in Davao. So, to this day, Mayor Inday Sarah and I continue to be friends. And, of course, she’s my boss.

(To be continued next week: The making of Jefry)

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