Baseco Beach (Photo courtesy by BusinessMirror)
By F. Sionil Jose
As election year approaches, politicians are starting to preen, some making their impoverished backgrounds as capital. They consider this effective; if they, for instance, claim Tondo as their birthplace, they assume that they have established their roots with the masa, the very poor, for Tondo is the symbol of poverty. In reality, not all Tondo residents are poor. Quite a few are well to do; after all, Tondo in our history is a major settlement when the Spaniards came here in 1521, with a government. It is the largest district in Manila and the most densely populated. Tondo also spawned radical movements, among them, the Katipunan of 1896.
We took a long way home the other day – the north bay boulevard which is now connected to the North Luzon Expressway. The traffic was light; we haven’t passed this way for some time and the changes are evident – the neater houses, the squatter hovels along the boulevard are gone. Smokey Mountain is caparisoned with trees and grass. It brought to mind Fr. Benigno Beltran who worked there and had changed the lives of so many. This activist priest is now promoting the production of bamboo to veneer our barren mountains and provide livelihood as well. I also saw on TV how Baseco Beach had been cleared of garbage, people swimming in the bay. A condo is rising nearby, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Isko Domagoso. This is the housing solution for Tondo – more condos like in Hong Kong and Singapore, financed by the government then sold or rented out.
My novel, Mass, which concludes the five-novel Rosales Saga, is set in Tondo, in a district called Barrio Magsaysay. The Barrio is part of the foreshore area that was reclaimed from the bay. It was intended for port development, but after World War II, refugees from all over the country settled there. It could not be stopped.
As I saw it in the 1960s, the Barrio was pitiable, a cesspool with no water and no sewage – almost all of the houses were made of construction debris. Pepe Samson left his uncle’s house on Antipolo Street to live in the Barrio as an acolyte of an activist priest who built a church there. Pepe Samson was the illegitimate son of Antonio Samson in the novel, The Pretenders. It was in this god-forsaken place where Pepe Samson underwent baptism and epiphany. At about the same time, Prof. Bruce Etherington from the University of Hawaii came to Manila and built a barong-barong in the Barrio as a prototype of what a good squatter’s house can be, with wide windows and a simple methane gas system from human waste. When he left, the new owners narrowed the windows for security and abandoned the methane gas system.
All over the world, there are slums in various stages of decay. I asked a university professor friend to show me the slums of Melbourne. From my perspective, the houses would be middle-class homes in Manila. It is the same with the culture of poverty; it is self-sustaining in varying degrees. The poor are poor because they are poor is not a tautology. Poverty produces a mindset; that is difficult to change. Many of the poor consider themselves as “the little people,” that their status is fate. They need to be shaken to think themselves out of this rut that has numbed them from ambition. Often, they become comfortable with their poverty.
I remember too well the slum dwellers during the Magsaysay regime who were lured to be farmers in Mindanao with so many privileges. They went back to the comfort of the slums. Our leading sociologists, led by Mary Racelis, the late F. Landa Jocano, and Aprodicio Laquian, had done valuable studies on poverty and the slums, and they concluded that slums are not permanent, that they can be stations to social change. The slum is a microcosm of society. The values of that society are encapsulated in it – particularly the lower end of those values, crime, oppression. “The poor are not honorable,” Pepe Samson declares in Mass. “Who steals our laundry? Our food? It’s our own neighbors who have nothing to eat.” I also remember taking some of the Barrio youth to a Makati supermarket and they were shocked to find out that all the basic goods there were cheaper than those sold in the slum tiendas.
Only the poor understand the poor. Leadership spawned by poverty tends to be sincere and therefore, capable of outstanding achievement. At the moment, what immediately comes to mind is Abraham Lincoln – America’s greatest president, born in a log cabin – a barong-barong would be its Philippine equivalent. And let us never, never forget Jesus. This kind of leadership rooted in poverty lasts, if the leader is selfless and never, never forgets his past. At the moment, I can only sympathize with Manny Pacquiao; with his tremendous wealth, he has already spent a lot in philanthropy, hounded as he is by his poverty from which he rose with hard work and sacrifice. And so, he announces a social agenda – perhaps unreachable, even utopian, that he will provide universal housing if he is president. Manny is sincere, he is not corrupt, he earned every centavo he owns but he is now being ridiculed for this promise. My sympathies are with him.
And here in Manila, we can see now what a mayor from the slums can do, which all past Manila mayors did not. There is some warning in social media about Jose Maria Sison’s ties with Mayor Isko Domagoso. Does it really matter except to those rabid anti-communists? Remember the Chinese leader who initiated China’s tremendous rise, Deng Xiaoping. This is what he said: The color of the cat does not matter as long as it catches mice. Under its past administrators, Manila had fallen into anarchy, its sidewalks taken over by homeowners and vendors. Looking at what a purposeful executive can achieve in just a few years, Manileños know now that Mayor Isko remembers.
Manila’s skyline, dominated now by skyscrapers, suggests a prosperous city. It is very deceptive. Its posh gated communities and shopping malls are laden with goodies belie the poverty and the hunger in the city itself, and more in the provinces in thousands of households. Aggravated now by this pandemic, this poverty is the greatest challenge to our leaders, to the government, and to the irresponsible oligarchy that has profited from them. The stability that the state has created may assure national security and keep people safe, but of what use is that security if so many Filipinos are hungry?