15 January 2023
My name is Saul Tarsoro, a former Roman Catholic seminarian. I left the seminary some time ago and went on to become a lay teacher. But I still visit old friends at the seminary, and once or twice, I went to my old haunt--one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Manila, a dumpsite in Baseco, Tondo. I did not come from a rich family, and I am not unfamiliar with poverty. Still, before my experiences in Tondo, I did not know what urban poverty was really like until I lived with them.
Back in 2012, my brother seminarians and I were required to share the lives of impoverished people in order to understand and empathize with how they lived. I was assigned to a site informally called “Smokey Mountain II” as it was in the exact location where the original Smokey Mountain was demolished in the late 1990s,* to be replaced by public housing. Just the same, Smokey Mountain is gradually being re-settled with makeshift shanties as many original beneficiaries of the housing project sold their units, finding living there unaffordable. With no skills and no education, these people—now numbering over a thousand--could not find jobs, even in an area surrounded by tall industry buildings where work opportunities supposedly abound. Over time, many went back to resettle in the dumpsite, with newcomers joining them. Early each morning, the residents of Smokey Mountain II would again eagerly await the garbage-full lorries as they regurgitate rubbish on the ever-growing mound.
I went to Smokey Mountain II every Saturday and stayed there all day for the next two years, from 2012 to 2014. At first, people looked at me with hostility, ridiculing me by asking how my “field trip” was getting along. I was accused of staring at them as I would a human zoo. Like the rich, there is an air of arrogance amongst the poor, who consider those above their station mere wimps. We, the “rich”, would never be able to tolerate the putrid air of decomposing garbage, the scraps of pagpag or tira-tira (left-overs) that they scavenge, recycle, and eat. Or the smoke of discarded tyres as they are burnt to get to the metals at the core, with plumes of noxious smoke rising so that one cannot breathe the air around them— hence the name “Smokey Mountain.” Sometimes it is also called “Little Samar” because most of the residents there come from Samar, one of the poorest regions in the Philippines.
It was not a safe place, especially before the residents got used to me. I had to give a “tong”, coins demanded by young boys who aggressively accosted me, a stranger in their midst. Later I learned to dress more inconspicuously so I wouldn’t look too much like a bagong salta or newcomer who had come to invade their territory.
I remember the first day my seminarian brothers and I arrived in Little Samar. We were met by the government-appointed Punong Barangay Tatay Tebang. He assigned each of us to a “foster family”. My own was the de la Cruz family—a couple in their 50s and their four young children. They lived in a small shack made from scavenged materials—corrugated metal sheets for roofing, some wooden boards and panels, and sturdy cartons--similar to other shanties in this tightly packed maze. (The better-off might have a slightly sturdier home).
The family originally lived in Samar but transferred to Manila some time ago. Rumour had it that everything was easy in Manila—easy to find work, easy to own a house, and easy to send your children to good schools. “We were used to our life in the province,” explained Mang Marking. “But when my compadre who had migrated to Manila came home for a holiday with gifts for everyone, I was astounded. My wife Anding and I could only gape as we listened to his stories about life in the city. Right then and there, we decided to sail to Manila with our four children--Joselito, Manuel, Toto, and Mina”.
Their excitement, however, gave way to disappointment as Mang Marking immediately realized that Manila only worked on a cash economy. With no skills nor education, he could not find a job to earn a salary, and you need money in order to survive. There were no trees where you could rest under, no water from a stream, no vegetables nor wild fruit trees. Disappointment led to frustration. It was finally the desperation that got them to Smokey Mountain II. By the time I met them, they were then living in the community for the past four years and had developed a daily routine.
Mina, the youngest and the only girl, was sickly and didn’t participate much in family activities. Only Joselito and Manuel would go pangangalahig (scavenge) with their father. They woke up before sunrise to await the arrival of the lorries and beat the competitors. If they were lucky, they might even find “wholesale” left-over foods thrown away by restaurants. In the early days, they would wash these left-over foods, and re-cook them to become delectable meals of adobo, menudo and other Philippine dishes. Called pagpag, I ate these with the rest of the family. If you didn’t know where they came from, you might even like the taste as Aling Anding was a good cook. She kept cooking oil and various condiments that went with the dishes. But I found eating them difficult. Even though I was raised poor, we always had food on the table and never had to rely on pagpag.
As the de-la-Cruzes became better-off relative to the newer residents, the family often chose to buy tingi (small portions of newly cooked viands wrapped in a plastic bag) from the kabitbahay (neighbour) who did the food scavenging. Instead of collecting rancid food items, it made more sense to the family to concentrate on the more valuable scraps of old metals, bottles, plastics, paper, or even occasionally, discarded appliances which they then hammered down for their metal components. These were sold to the junk shops nearby.
The family earned as much as Php300/day from scavenging alone. Although below minimum wage, it was still better than what many others made. Along with buying “tingi” instead of having to scavenge for pagpag, the family could afford to buy a TV set: they would stay up until 10 or 11pm at night watching and re-watching tapes of old movies. As there was no supply of electricity, they relied on recharged car batteries. Also, just before I left, I heard the family was planning to put up their own toilet. There was a multi-purpose building with a toilet nearby, but the toilet was dirty and not maintained, so many relieved themselves anywhere. Kaniya-kaniyang diskarte nalang (each one to his own strategy).
The third son Toto and I soon became fast friends. Although we also sometimes scavenged to look for recyclables, we were not expected to help much as Toto was the “spoiled” youngest son. Our chief job was to secure water for washing and for drinking. There was no running water, but there was a deep well not too far from where the de la Cruzes lived. We could buy water by the bucket. (During my time, it cost Php2.00/bucket). Drinking water was sold in five-gallon containers, with refills at less cost. Delivery of drinking water came once a week.
The rest of the day, Toto and I would simply wander around and have fun. In the afternoon, we played basketball with the other young boys. During my early days, Toto would take me around the community, explaining how things worked in Little Samar. “You have to be street smart, resourceful, and a bit cunning. Otherwise, you will be outmanoeuvred by others”, he explained. Thanks to him, I gradually became accepted by the other residents—they would smile at me or even stop to exchange little gossip. Life gradually became easier. I was invited to the ever-popular birthday celebrations when, along with Toto, we drank Red Horse Beer and sang karaoke. The older ones had gin because gin was cheap.
It never ceased to amaze me how, to an uninitiated, life in Little Samar could seem so hard, yet I observed that the residents would always be smiling, laughing, and joking. They appeared contented! I thought perhaps that this seeming satisfaction with life had nothing to do with being poor, but rather that it came from a positive outlook inherent in Philippine culture. Perhaps, God blessed these people with a sense of humour, which was their saving grace in the direst of situations.
Most residents thus settled in Smokey Mountain II for life. When they had saved a bit of money, they would put up small businesses to sell items to their neighbours. But Toto was different. Even without an education, and not functionally literate, he had an inquiring mind. He told me he liked being with me because we talked about other things aside from making jokes. It was his dream to eventually get out of the slums.
Years later, after I had left the seminary, I would still think of Toto and wonder what he could be doing. From time to time, I connect with old seminarian friends who have meantime become priests. One of them recently told me that he once rode a Grab going back to the seminary. The driver was a nice and kind man who said that long ago, he knew someone who lived there as well. I kept wondering if that resident was me and if that Grab driver was Toto. Has Toto finally earned his way out of the slums?
I also wonder how many of my old acquaintances are left in Little Samar to this very day, living in contentment, thinking the world is just fine the way it is even when staying in a shack beside the garbage heap, eating pagpag and tirtir, because life can still be fun? Do they figure that they are right where they are supposed to be? Or perhaps there are a number of Totos who dream of life outside Little Samar.
*Smokey Mountain was a dumpsite, home to some 30,000 people who made their living from scavenging through the landfill’s rubbish. In the 1990s, it became a poster child for urban poverty in the Philippines. Songs were written about it. Tours were conducted for journalists, special interest groups, or simply ordinary people curious to see how Smokey Mountain people live. Though less publicized, these activities continue today.
Paulo Aton is a faculty member of De La Salle University, teaching theology and philosophy