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My cousin laughed and smiled when I gave my condolences for her ex who they believe was “salvaged” (a term for summary execution) by the police a couple years back.  He was found beaten, threat slit, and with a friend who had a nail drilled into his forehead.  Other members of the local fam were equally nonchalant.
Just then theirpreschool aged kid ran by laughing, cutting in and out of the congestion of cars, tricycles (motorcycle taxi’s), pedestrians, and the street stalls that pack into this side road by an overpass in Quiapo, Manila.  He was playing with his other cousins, including my god daughter who was born on my second trip to the Philippines in 2005.  This was the audio equipment  sector of the market (karaoke machine parts mostly), and the music cut in and out as people sampled machines, and storekeeps tried to attract customers.  The scene was an audio, visual, emotional cacophony, and tensions were high–the police were there.  

Cops were piling up the vendors large umbrellas (used during the dry season to shade from the extreme sun; in the rainy season they’re augmented with tarps to keep their wares dry from torrential rain) on to a police vehicle.  The law had declared that the canopies might “scratch” passing vehicles and so ordered them confiscated.  Considering the meagre incomes of the vendors, these were expensive umbrellas, and beyond the cost, the rains are coming.

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The police raid was unexpected.  The group of police had come by at the behest of one of the shop owners who didn’t take kindly to having the street vendors hassle one of their customers the day before for blocking traffic by parking in the middle of this jam packed street to run into the shop.  The store owner was concerned that the well-off customer might be offended by being talked to that way by mere street vendors.   So had called friends in the police to come by and find some infraction to teach them a lesson.  It was part of the powerplay that is enacted each day, a game of class, privilege, wits, and machismo.

It was earlier during the police operation that god-mother told me the story of my cousin’s ex.  I liked him.  He was a joker and always came by to talk.  He always started conversations with some broken English, then laughed and in Tagalog would ask if he was ready to come to Canada.  My cousin and him had some sort of falling out, and she left him.  This drove him to vice and got into trouble with police who brought him and his friend in for questioning.  That’s the last thing they know for sure.  The next time they saw them they were on the side of the road: bruised, beaten, and with throat slit and a nail in the forehead.

The Philippine fam has played a big role in the development of my thoughts on Filipino realities.  They helped me break from the romanticization so common with many of us Filipinos born or raised abroad when we seek to reconnect with our “Filipino-ness.”  Too easily we “balikbayans” (Filipinos from abroad visiting the Philippines) tend to want to see a Philippines that doesn’t exist, or they see only the base reality and see it as the ugliest form of foreign–a source of shame.  Often the two outlooks are even combined, this is common with Filipinos from relatively well off (in a Philippine sense), or even rich, families.  They see the country’s hardship through windows (while inside air-conditioned cars, high rise condos, expensive restaurants, etc), it’s what a friend of mine once called “the air-con experience.”

My Philippine fam’s different reality have been for me a gauge of the lives of many everyday people in Manila–poor but not at the bottom and scraping by.  A good number of them (on my Mum’s side) are street vendors in Quiapo, a seemingly chaotic market, and religious district in Manila.

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This is where I stayed during my first visit in 2001. Trains would rumble by, horns blaring, every 30 mins or so. The entire community was displaced in 2008.

My one uncle’s fam there took me in on my first visit to the Philippines in 2001, I lived with them in a cinderblock, plywood, and corrugated iron home next to the train tracks.  Years before, they had also taken in an abandoned girl.  That girl decided to go abroad to work when I returned again in 2005.  She had gone with an illegal recruiter and called in tears two days after she left and disappeared saying she got in a bus provided by the agent and didn’t know where they took her.  She wasn’t at the airport and didn’t know where she was, she said she’d call back.  She did.  Two years later.  I happened to be there when she called.  She was in Saudi Arabia.  But we didn’t learn much more.  She basically called and cried.  That whole time she would send money back in remittances though–a gesture of thanks for what my relatives did for her.

At the same time these same relatives are also decidedly for the American return to the Philippines and believe America to be a force for good.  They are on the side of corrupt politicians like former president Estrada (convicted and jailed for corruption, and now mayor of Manila)–who they believe a hero to the poor.  Lately I’ve noticed that they seem to have become somewhat Islamophobic (at least in speech), while at the same time one of my cousins is dating a Muslims who they welcome and accept.  And just the other day another uncle (a passenger van driver) shared a few jokes that he and his driver buddies make: they were about rape.

I share these stories not to glorify or demonize them.  They are wonderful, caring, and amazingly honest people who refuse to let me pay for anything and are generous with their neighbours and friends.  I am very honoured to have them as family.  I share these stories as they are real stories of real people.  And they are not the people that the anti-poor world elites want you to believe about the lazy, greedy, untrustworthy poor.  But nor are they the people that either hippie do-gooders, or hipster bleeding hearts want you to care for: the noble savages of global poverty who have beautiful, unique cultures that need to be preserved and protected.

No.  These are people trying to do their best in a difficult situation.  People whose outlook and culture have been shaped by a multiplicity of factors, but especially by the material structures of poverty created by a purposefully underdeveloped economy, and an education system geared towards conformity, compliance, and colonial mentality.  The realities of forced material scarcity results in a population that naturally scrambles to get what they can where they can–and where power and wealth is held by a very few that will do what it takes to maintain that status.  Forced scarcity helps drive the people against each other, makes them susceptible to siding with powerful persons in the hope that they will be rewarded, to scapegoat other groups, to exploit what power they do have sometimes to extreme, and despite it all they still have a sense of dignity, of community, and of family that they take care of and protect.

The Filipino masses are not what most of us think they are, but they are what you and I would most likely be in their place.

My family help remind me that for the most part the point of view of sympathetic Westerners (especially Filipino Westerners) are not quite theirs, and that if we truly do care about the people of the Global South, that we have to be very careful not to either inscribe our views on them, or insist that they immediately share ours before we choose to ally ourselves to their struggles.

I am very happy that I came back to the Philippines after university.  My parents never brought us here as kids, I think they might have wanted to shield us from all this.  But in coming here it helped me work through what it means to be a Filipino, especially as one living in Canada.  I realized that I have a responsibility and that to have Filipino pride means not shying away from the realities, it means not glossing over the country’s dark side and sharp angles.  Filipino pride should not be based on a false postcard image, but nor should we fall into despair because the reality is difficult.

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The way my cousin’s ex’s death and their reaction was just so matter-of-fact and ‘normal’ is example of how dire and unacceptable the day-to-day is here.  Their use of the term ‘salvaging’ is important, it’s a Marcos-era example of Philippine English that refers to the extrajudicial killings that took place (mostly of activists).  Activists are still being “salvaged” today by forces linked to the government.  My cousin’s ex was not an activist however, but this link is important to me.  It reminds me of conversations I’ve had many times over the years about my involvement with social justice advocacy.  “Change comes slowly within the system but it will come,” many people say, “you don’t need to take strong action–it ends up messy, even bloody.”

Well, here I see the basic problem with this line of thought.  It’s already messy.  It’s already bloody.  I mean sure, I guess “we” don’t have to get involved, “we” could have a decent enough life in Canada (or wherever).  But that seems to me a cop out, a way of simply turning a blind eye, a betrayal of the centuries old struggle against the foreign control that continues to shape us (even, if not especially, us who live abroad).

We need to start doing some salvaging ourselves (to use the standard definition of the term).  We need to salvage the memory that we have been fighting against foreign domination since 1521.  We need to salvage the idea that people can change history if they band together. We need to salvage the idea that we make alliances based on common goals (not based on common points of view).  We need to salvage the idea of hope driven by action, based on an analysis of the societal and global structures that cause hardship.

We need to salvage the pride we have in our nation and people by realizing that culture is created out of the system in which it lives–so if we have such decent people living in such a corrupt system, imagine what we would be in a different one.

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The cops had driven off, and some vendors started reconnecting umbrellas.  Some of them had been forewarned by text and disassembled early and hid them, others still are friends (ie. regular donors) with the cops.  My cousin shuffled up to her new beau who helped at their stall.  Music blared from the karaoke stores.  A vendor wearing a headset’s amplified voice was doing a presentation to no one in particular  And cars creeped down the narrow street while people, motorcycles, and bikes weaved around them.  The sun was getting high up in the sky, it was almost noon.  With the heat from above and reflected from the concrete below… it was gonna be doozy out there–and the people will bear it.

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