Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Behind the Colorful Village in Baseco Manila

 An Ethnography by Chester B Cabalza 
Copyright © 2012 by Chester B. Cabalza. All Rights Reserved.

“Poverty is many things, all of them bad. It is material deprivation and desperation. It is lack of security and dignity. It is exposure to risk and high costs for thin comforts. It is inequality materialized. It diminishes its victims. It is also the situation of far too many people in the world, even if the relative number of those who are escaping the worst forms of poverty is also increasing…” – Arjun Appadurai (2004).  

Building a Dream House

March 30, 2002. Jorgie Tonelata remembers the day when his small poor man’s house and other shanty houses built of light materials in a five-hectare reclamation site in Baseco were devoured by fire. Instead of getting upset, he rejoiced exclaiming that this is the beginning of building a new home for his dear family.

Nang masunog ang bahay ko, ako ay sumigaw at masayang-masaya na nasusunog ang bahay ko, samantala ang iba umiiyak; dahil labin-limang taon ko nang pinakinabangan ang bahay ko. Maraming salamat at matagal ko rin pinakinabangan yun at ngayon magkakaroon na ako ng bagong bahay. At trinabaho ko ang bago naming bahay pagkasunog nito bago ako nakarating sa Gawad Kalinga. 

When my house was destroyed by fire, I shouted but rejoiced at the same time because my house was burning, while others wept; I had already lived in that house for 15 years. I am thankful that I utilized that house good enough and now I will own a new home. I worked hard to build a brand new house after that incident through Gawad Kalinga.

The Gawad Kalinga (GK) roughly translates “to give care,” Jorgie refers to is the non-government organization (NGO) that offers help to myriad urban poor informal settlers and homeless families to build modest houses. Many of those helping the GK in building colorful village are donations from different countries worldwide and sizable corporate organizations in and out of the Philippines. It was in January 2004, that GK was invited to help rehabilitate the Baseco compound.

According to GK’s report, together with building and maintaining shelters are the trainings and seminars GK officers and volunteers facilitate. Believing that giving hope to shelter beneficiaries does not end when the final brick was laid, the trainings and seminars were intended to address the residents’ economic and spiritual needs. Livelihood trainings were designed while value-formation talks based on Catholic social teachings and catechism were assembled.

The trainings and seminars were anchored on GK values that can be summed up into three overarching principles: (1) Bayanihan, which is a Filipino trait of becoming a hero to teach other (from the Filipino word “bayani” which means hero) – it hinges on a caretaker system centered on relational building; (2)Padugo, which roughly translates “to bleed for the cause.” This means that one devotes his/her own time and resources to initiate work within the community without expecting outside funding or support; and (3) Patriotism in Action in which working for the poor is equivalent to nation-building. Thus, GK also encourages multi-sector participation and partnerships in eliminating poverty.

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), Barangay Baseco consists of Engineer’s island and two stone breakwaters that extend out from it into Manila Bay. One borders the Pasig River, the other protects shipping in the South Harbor. The island had been a ship loading and unloading site and ship repair yard for many years. But to Jorgie’s memory, there are two islands within the barangay, namely, Isla Laki (big island) with 200 families and Isla Liit (small island) with 50 families based from their Barangay Statistics Profile.

 Jorgie, 42 years old, married with four kids, is a man of grand vision for his community and family. A leader in his own right; molded by colorful experiences of hardships and challenges that fortified his dedication to serve the Urban Poor Associates (UPA). He got married to Wenelisa, now 40 years old, a church volunteer.

When he was a teenager, he founded a youth organization in Baseco to empower his fellow youth and aspire for the betterment of their community by helping the church and implementing programs for the youth. A migrant himself in Baseco; he started to live in the slum when he was a junior high school. Born in the beautiful Aklan province in the Visayas, he and his mother left for Manila when he was only seven years old due to poverty in the rural.

As a young boy, his mother recounted to him that his father hailed from Cagayan in northern Luzon and came from a wealthy political clan. But his destiny in the topsy-turvy Manila turned unlikely than what he has expected to be.

Nung nandito kami sa Maynila, hirap na hirap ang sitwasyon namin kasi nangungupahan lang kami sa maliit lang na bahay. Pagdating nang tag-ulan, ang tubig baha hanggang tuhod namin, tapos panay putik pa. Yun mga karanasan na ganyan, ang sarap bang balikan. Eto ang nagbibigay sa ‘yo ng motivation na maging matatag at magkaroon ang pagtingin sa hinaharap, na ayokong maranasan yun ng mga anak ko. 

When we arrived in Manila, our situation was a pity because we rented only a very small house. During rainy season, the flood would reach our knees, and it was muddy. Those experiences were quite reminiscing. It gives you a motivation to be strong and have inferential of the future, because I don’t want my kids to suffer the same fate I experienced when I was young.

Poverty has impacted much on him. At a young age, he experienced a life in dire need of basic services and security. Fed up from eating porridge daily; sometimes, going to school without eating enough food, he carried with him the cudgels and went to Divisoria to sell vegetables and earn coins to buy food, while his classmates became addicted to solvent and drugs. On the other hand, he also had a stepfather who was a habitual drunkard.  

Sampung taon gulang pa lamang ako nang makita ko yung buhay namin ng nanay ko na mahirap. Sabi nya sa akin, wala siyang ibang maibibigay na kayamanan sa akin kundi ang pag-aralin ako. Ang edukasyon para sa kanya ang tanging yaman ko pagdating ng panahon. Tumanim ito sa isipan ko kaya kahit bumagyo man kailangan kong pumasok; tuwing umaga kahit nakapikit pa rin ako, kailangan kong maligo para lang makapasok sa eskwelahan. Pati nga mga tiyuhin ko nagagalit sila sa akin tuwing nakikita nila ako na naglalaro sa labas ng bahay at di pumapasok sa eskwela. 

When I was ten years old, I saw how difficult and poor our lives were with my mother. She said to me, the only gift that she could endow me is education. She knew that education is my only gem that I could treasure when the time comes. That instilled in me to persevere and go to school, even during typhoons; every morning even when I still felt sleepy, I need to take a bath to attend my school. Even my uncles scolded me whenever they see me playing outside the house and skipping my classes.

He persevered to finish secondary schooling. His mother would advise him that only education can save them from their misery. This he taught to his four children, that education is a primordial obligation and a gift to them. Of which two of them reached College, studying at a Catholic private school through a vocational scholarship, at the same time as, his two other younger children, are enrolled in a public school.

His awakening to embrace the realities of being a leader began in 2001. He used to be an ordinary person in Baseco; carefree in drinking and sometimes hanging-out with friends. By the time the UPA and Asian Development Bank (ADB) went to their community, they called for a meeting, discussed programs of relocation they implemented along Pasig River, and started to consult them on development. That same year, Baseco was identified by ADB and the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) as a high priority area for urban renewal. Land tenure security is a necessary condition for the bank’s urban renewal work, thus the government has to grant this through proclamation. His inquiries about development programs presented to them turned to be an eye-opener for him, on the possibility of helping his own family and the community. He realized that if he will not cooperate with the NGO and subscribe to their proposed development, how he could help himself build a better home for his family and the community.

As Appadurai would believe in, the poor, no less than any other group in a society, do express horizons in choices made and choices voiced, often in terms of specific goods and outcomes, often material and proximate, like doctors for their children, markets for their grain, husbands for their daughters, and tin roofs for their homes. But these lists, apparently just bundles of individuals and idiosyncratic wants, are inevitably tied up with more general norms, presumptions, axioms about good life, and life more generally.

 His Way to Lead

His vocation to lead became an opportunity at the same time a challenge. Having juggled to all sorts of blue-collar jobs like stevedoring, janitorial service, construction worker, and electrician to support his family – Jorgie thought of becoming a leader at day and stevedoring at night. Albeit, even now he keeps his two jobs as community leader and stevedore; however, his bigger challenge is how to explain his new-found vocation then to his wife and four children.

Hanggang ngayon nagtatrabaho ako bilang istibidor. Ang ginagawa ko noon, mahirap kasi puyat ako sa gabi tapos sa umaga may meetings. Hindi ako maka-focus. Yun Community Organizer pina-follow up ako sa mga proyekto tapos bini-build up ko pa mga ideya ko. Debate sa meetings. Minsan kinakausap ko ang misis ko na liliban muna ako sa trabaho ko dahil dito sa misyon ko kailangan ng sakripisyo. Hanggang sa masanay sya at may challenge ako sa kanya na subukan niya naman magsilbi sa simbahan o sa kahit na ano mang organisasyon para maintindihan niya ako sa ginagawa ko. Sa umpisa, umayaw siya kasi mahirap pagsabayin ang pamilya at pagsisilbi sa simbahan. Sa ngayon, kumakayod pa rin ako para kumita sa pantustos sa pangangailangan ng aking pamilya bilang padre de familia at pagsilbihan ang aking lugar. Kasi kung gaganda ang lugar ng Baseco, gaganda rin ang buhay namin. 

Until now I work as a stevedore. It’s difficult what I do before because I work at graveyard and then attend to meetings in the morning. I can’t get my focus. Sometimes, the Community Organizer would follow me up on certain projects but I am still developing my ideas. There are debates in the meetings. There are times that I would ask permission from my wife to miss my work because in this kind of calling as a leader, there are indeed sacrifices. Until she understood me but before that I even challenged her to serve the church or any organization to experience what I am feeling. At first, she was hesitant because it was hard for her to jive her role in the family at the same time serve the church. Even now, I work hard to provide financially for my family as the head while serving my community as a leader. I deem that if things are made good for Baseco, then our lives will also improve.

After the shanty houses were burned twice in different years by fire, they fought and worked hard for the settlement of displaced informal settlers in Baseco. Now, Jorgie pastes his sweet smiles, inspired to do more for his community and family, upon reaping small victories that pays off from his aspirations to build colorful village in the untitled reclamation site with the help of the community leaders. They negotiated with government officials, welcomed community organizers, and respected social action groups, who became champions in their every fight.  

Iniisip ko yun hinaharap. Minsan naiisip ko na huminto na lang kasi napapagod na rin ako. Pero sino naman yun pwede kong pagsalinan ng aking sinimulan. Nagbi-build up na rin ako ng lider para ipagpatuloy itong pinaglalaban namin. Dati-rati nga walang ilaw, tubig, maayos na kalsada, as in walang basic services noon dito. Pero ngayon maayos na pati cable tv at internet. Parang subdivision na rin dito. Kulang na lang yun sinasabing magbabayad na kami talaga ng land tenure security. Yun na lang ang lunduan ng aming organisasyon. 

I am thinking of the future. Sometimes I want to surrender because I also get tired. I have no person in mind yet to anoint and transfer to him what I started. But I am trying to build-up leaders to continue our fight. Before, we don’t have electricity, water service, and cemented roads, or no basic services at all. But now we have it all including cable tv and internet. We are like a subdivision here now. But what we are lacking is what we call land tenure security. That is what we still aim for in our organization.

There are times in Baseco that during gatherings and dances, it frequently disrupted by drunken brawls or clashes between rival gangs and fraternities. Teenagers live in a disorderly community populated by many bums. There were similarly some negative opinions of physical setting, describing it as unhealthy for young children, with garbage thrown anywhere on the streets and at the sea. Yet, unsightly and inhumane as their landfill island is, they deplore even more its social environment, citing the chaos, violence and dangers they face every single day, as documented by Racelis and Aguirre (2005) then.

Baseco often times is televised for its rampant crimes, illegal kidney trade, and felons. As Cacho (2001) reports, such is the past reputation of Baseco that some taxi drivers still refuse to take fares there, of what might happen to them should they venture into the violent, crime ridden neighborhood. It was a typical ghetto environment common in poor areas in the Metro. To add insult to injury, the compound was a few meters away from the prestigious Manila Hotel (literally at the back) famous for its accommodating tourists and travelers.

That kind of peg is beginning to transform now as two-storey cemented houses, widened roads, parks, talipapa (wet markets), pre-school and primary and secondary school buildings, and churches are mushrooming and plunked in the island. In spite of various legal and illegal trades happening in Baseco, peace and order is also one of the major concerns of Jorgie. He proposes for the creation to ID system to safeguard members of the community, although, the only mechanism for security they gathered in and collated so far is the Barangay District Profile.

Whatever challenges, temptations, vulnerabilities, and uncertainties that Jorgie experiences, his commitment to lead remains adamant and grounded. He gives due respect to the support and monitoring of various NGOs in his acquired leadership skills because they keep on guarding and encouraging him to affect the lives of people in his community. In his mind and heart, he thinks that a genuine leader should have high aspirations for his community and family.  

Ako yun klaseng lider na mataas ang pangarap para sa komunidad at sa pamilya; at isang lider na masasabi kong may commitment. Hindi ko ugali ang mangako ng mangako, pero minsan nararanasan ko yan, Pero higit sa lahat mas gugustuhin ko ang kumilos kaysa sa mangako. Kung napaganda ko man ang lugar ko, masaya na ako sa mga ngiti at pasasalamat. Ang totoong lider ay may puso at takot sa Diyos. 

I am a kind of leader who has high aspirations for my community and family; and a leader who has a commitment. It is not my nature to keep promises, although sometimes I experience that; however, what matters most is to act on my promises than just nail it. If I was able to develop our place, I would appreciate their smiles and thanks. For me, a genuine leader is someone who has a heart and fears God.  

His Capacities to Aspire

According to Appadurai, the capacity to aspire provides an ethical horizon within which more concrete capabilities can be given meaning, substance, and sustainability. Conversely, the exercise and nurture of these capabilities verifies and authorizes the capacity to aspire and moves it away from wishful thinking to thoughtful wishing. Right now, Jorgie together with some other community organizers lobby their advocacy through various channels. They seek audience to local politicians, bureaucrats, national government leaders, corporate sponsors, and international NGOs (INGOs) to support them in their educational and livelihood programs and to their penultimate fight at achieving land tenure security. This ‘survival of the fittest’ strategy is important to them.

In the report of UNESCAP, the People’s Organization (PO) was founded on March 2001, called Kabalikat sa Pagpapaunlad ng Baseco, more known as KABALIKAT. Two months after, President Macapagal-Arroyo called for a meeting with Kabalikat members to visit their area. By the time she visited Baseco in July of the same year, she clarified with Mayor Lito Atienza asking if there are any problems with her proclaiming the land without any legal impediments. The land was not encumbered by titles or leases. It was relatively easy to get the approval of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) that managed the land for the Philippines Estate Authority (PEA) and the PEA itself.

However, leaders remain as most of the informal settlers in Baseco, supporters of former President Joseph Estrada, and suspicious of the woman who unseated their hero. However, in the current administration of President Benigno Aquino Jr, they think that they found new bureaucrats who could help them in their aspirations. Despite the empowering support they receive from various stakeholders, sometimes Jorgie is uncomfortable on how media portrays and projects them to the public.  

Dapat kung media sila, itong konteksto ng kahirapan ngayon ay dapat sila ang nagpapahayag ng mga ideya sa mga manonood na dapat kung ano ang pananaw ng mga mahihirap. Pag-usapan ang mga social services para sa mahihirap. Ang media para sa akin ay bias, minsan magaling sila mag-edit ng interview, market value lang ang pinapalabas nila. Kasi kung walang manonood sa kanila, babagsak ang business nila. 

If they are from the media, they should report poverty in the context that they discuss poverty based from the perspective of the poor. Report social services for the poor. For me, I think the media is bias; they are good in editing interviews, because they only care for the market value. If nobody will watch their [exaggerated] news, then their business will fall.

In his plight as a leader, Jorgie has been inspired by his vocation to lead and aspired for unreachable dreams for his community. Handled by veteran community organizers like Alice Merpi, he opines that there must be a symbiotic relationship of a leader and a community organizer to mentor and help each other; widen their wealth of knowledge and experiences in community organizing, and compare notes with other urban poor communities in some parts of the world through study tours or country visits.

Luckily, he had traveled to Thailand and Indonesia to dialogue with fellow informal settlers. He learned and adopted good programs like Savings Program in Thailand. In there, he realized that savings program is very effective for poor families to loan for their own houses. Because even if they are poor, all of the things they acquire are not for free. They need to pay for their modest houses, electricity, and potable water. Because of this he encouraged women to do micro-financing and their community members to weave hand-made bags creatively formed from wrappers of energy drink bottles and tetra pack juices. They export the beautiful and colorful bags to Europe and were able to deliver best quality bags to various Shoe Mart (SM) malls, one of the largest retailing corporations in the entire Philippines, particularly displayed for sale in Kultura (Culture) souvenir section. The quite expensive recyclable bags are also sold via the internet at Sulit.com and in Baseco’s churches.

He also admired Indonesian urban poor on how they stood up and upheld for their rights and fought for recognition and equality. In his visit to Jakarta, he shared his narratives of Baseco’s major transformations and small victories. Building his confidence as an urban poor leader, there was a time that he had also represented the Philippines at the World Urban Poor in Barcelona Spain, where he spoke before a multitude of informal settlers around the globe in discussing conditions of the urban poor along the Pasig River in Metro Manila.

In his mid-life as a community leader, his view about his mission in life has also become a habit. His voice has become larger, sometimes, linking his principles for the benefit of the entire community. Thus, as Appadurai supports, it is through the exercise of voice that the sinews of aspiration as a cultural capacity are built and strengthened, and conversely, it is through exercising the capacity to aspire that the exercise of voice by the poor will be extended.  

Naniniwala ako sa pananaw ko sa buhay na ang buhay ay parang pamilya rin. Huwag mo ihambing ang iyong sarili sa ibang tao – sila man ay seaman o abogado. Hindi. Ikaw din lamang ang magpapaunlad sa buhay mo, sa mga anak mo, hanggang sa pagtanda mo. Dito naman sa komunidad, huwag ka munang mangarap na uunlad ang Pilipinas, kung di mo nakikitang umuunlad ang barangay mo, na dapat unahing paunlarin. Dapat madisiplina muna ang mga ka-barangay mo. Ituro sa kanila ang mga tamang gawain hanggang sa sila’y matututo at ito’y magsanga-sanga para mapaunlad ang buong Pilipinas. 

I believe in life that our life is like a family. Do not compare yourself to other people – they may be a seaman or a lawyer. No. You can enrich your own self, your children, until you age. In the community, do not aspire for immediate prosperity of the country without enriching the barangay. Fellow community members in the barangay should be disciplined first. Teach them all what is right and this will branch out to the entire Philippines.