Mr. Hilarion Guia, who died in March at the age of 73, was the first mayor of Culion, the island in the Philippines he was forcibly sent to as a boy in 1950 after developing leprosy.
Leprosy has been seen as a curse, an illness that closes off the doors of opportunity to those it affects, but Mr. Guia showed what can be achieved by a fighting spirit and a refusal to be defeated by the disease. Growing up in what had been the world’s largest leprosy colony, he was determined to make the best of himself. He later pursued a college degree before returning to Culion to work as a teacher for more than 40 years.
He didn’t just want to be the best he could be; he wanted the best for Culion, too. Through his activism, he worked tirelessly to have Culion recognized as a municipality and for its residents to be given the right to vote. He was particularly concerned that healthy children born and raised on Culion were being tainted by their association with the island and unfairly victimized by society’s prejudice. Not only did he succeed in his wish to see Culion become a municipality, he was also elected the first mayor of Culion in 1995, beating eight other candidates.
Mr. Guia showed that leprosy should not be a barrier to one’s ambitions. Until the end, he worked to improve the position of people affected by leprosy, as president of IDEA Philippines and as president of the Coalition of Leprosy Advocates of the Philippines.
In January, Mr. Guia was in Tokyo for the launch of Global Appeal 2016 to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy and the international symposium on leprosy history (see photo). “I never thought I would live to see the day when people took such an interest in our history,” he said during his visit. It is a remark that his passing has given a new and poignant meaning.