“Ask him if he eats rice,” she said. “Ask him if he has a girlfriend. You ask him if he wants to marry a Filipina!”
The inquiry began outside a cooperative food store in the Manila slum district of Leveriza. As dusk fell on the neighborhood’s slouching homes and busy alleys, Tita Comodaz sat in the store- front window, selling dried fish, sugar, and eggs. We had just met, and an excited neighbor was feeding her questions.
With each of my answers, the neighbor dis- solved in laughter and planted a plump elbow in Tita’s side. But Tita looked somber. After all, it was her house, and I was asking to move in.
Our introduction came through Sister Chris- tine Tan, a Filipino nun who lives and works in Leveriza. She told Tita that I was looking for a family to live with and asked if she had room. If not, she said, just pass him on to someone else. “And don’t cook him anything special,” she said, walking away. “If he gets sick, too bad.”
My conversation with Tita poked along for about two hours, slowed by the gaps in herEnglish and the chasms in my Tagalog. Yes, 1 eat rice, I said. No, I’m not married. And I came to Leveriza, 1 explained, to try to learn what life there is like. (I tried to imagine a Filipino squat- ter serving up a similar explanation when arriv- ing uninvited on the doorstep of, say, my parent’s north Florida condominium.) Early that evening, over a plate of mungo beans and rice, Tita agreed to take me in.
For large portions of the next eight months, I slept on Tita’s floor, shared her meals, and ac- companied her and her neighbors to markets, churches, funerals, schools, Bible studies, and political rallies. I learned to stomach the feathers and yolk of incubated duck eggs, a local delicacy, and to stifle a squeal when mice skittered across the dinner table.
I got acquainted with the neighborhood’s Marcos loyalists and communist cadres. But the per- son I got to know best was Tita, an unlikely ac- tivist whose politics had her keeping watch both on ballot boxes and on the co-op’s eggs.
About a third of Manila’s eight million peo- ple live in squatter areas like Leveriza. I wanted to learn something about their lives and the way they viewed their nation’s grope towards democracy.
A Surprising Diversity
Squatter areas can be found across most of Manila, ranging from a few displaced families to communities of tens of thousands. Only a few American-style subdivisions, with guards and gates, have escaped the intrusion. Elsewhere, shanties even dot the periphery of expensive hotels and walled residential compounds. At an art exhibition soon after my arrival I was in- troduced as someone who worked with squatters. “Oh good,” said one wealthy landlord. “I wonder if you can help us get rid of ours.”
These squatter settlements would pose difficult problems for even the best-intentioned govern- ment. And during his 21 years of rule, President Ferdinand Marcos seldom had the best inten- tions. While the Marcoses poured public money into the high-rise hotels and casinos that line Manila Bay, the only government projects offered to most squatters were the whitewashed walls that obscured them from sight. Along Manila’s South Superhighway, the walls have begun to crumble, leaving incongruous cement arches to frame the sprawl .of shanties.
The city’s most notorious encampment is its main trash dump, Smokey Mountain in Tondo- named for its constantly smoldering acres, which span perhaps 25 football fields. About 15,000 people reside upon the heap of refuse and eke out a living by picking from the muck bones, bottle caps, and other salvageable scraps. Squatters in every sense, they don’t even own their trash but relinquish it to middleman concessionaires who operate a lucrative industry in partnership with local politicians.
On Easter Sunday, I attended a sunrise service there. In the predawn darkness, two candle- bearing processions snaked down the dump’s broad slopes, carrying statues. One held the veiled Virgin and the other carried the crucified Christ. They met under a canopy where a young girl dressed as an angel lifted the mourning Virgin’s veil. Fireworks exploded and the crowd cheered: Christ has Risen! Christ has Risen! My companion, a Filipino newspaper publisher, began to cheer as well. “Look at this,” he said. “Faulkner was right: ‘Man will not merely endure; he will prevail!’”
In a subsequent homily, the parish priest reminded the scavengers that Calvary, too, was a garbage dump. Living on Smokey Mountain, he said, gave them special knowledge of the agony Christ suffered and the joy His redemp- tion promised. A small statue beside the chapel depicted Jesus as a scavenger, toting a wicker basket full of scraps.
While Smokey Mountain can be seen and smelled from afar, Leveriza (LEH-ver-EE-sah) lies tucked away like a secret in the city center. Ex- cept for those who live there, few passing nearby would guess its existence. I certainly didn’t until 1met Sister Christine, though during my first few months in Manila I often rode the elevated train that passes on its eastern edge and shopped in the mall that borders to the west. When I swam in the pool at the high-rise Sheraton adjacent to the mall, like most foreign visitors I remained oblivious to the neighboring geography. The two- story buildings that line the streets along Leveriza’s perimeter give no hint of the chaotic maze within, home to 18,000 people.
Leveriza is one of the city’s oldest squatter areas. Some of Tita’s neighbors could recall childhoods spent there before World War 11, when it was still a mudflat. In the early 1980s, a minor upgrading program financed by the World Bank cemented some of the alleys and added some drainage. Though the drains easily clog and the runoff spills into homes sunk lower than the sidewalk, Leveriza residents still ap- preciate the project. My intentionally vague ques- tions about how Leveriza had changed in the course of their lives usually brought a very specific response: it’s less muddy now.
It isn’t less crowded. A typical morning would find the alleys outside Tita’s home filled with women squatting over basins of dirty clothes, twisting and beating them clean. Unemployed teens and men spent hours in the alleys playing a game that resembles pool, using checkers in- stead of balls. Some simply sat, petting fighting cocks. In front of their homes, women set up stands where they fried fish and bananas and stirred pots of vegetables.
Each morning, a Sikh trader and moneylender would pass from home to home. At Tita’s he col- lected 15 cents a day as payment on an $11 debt she owed after buying some pants; she could have bought the same pair for $7 in the market if she’d had the money all at once. People in Leveriza said the Sikh smelled bad and called him the “BOOM-bye,” a Filipinized pronunciation of Bombay, where they said he came from. As in most of the Philippines, children far out- numbered the rest of us. A few years ago a doc- tor examined several hundred Leveriza children as part of a feeding program. She found about 80 percent of them malnourished.
The uniform chaos within Leveriza can dis- guise what is actually a surprising amount of economic diversity. Some Leveriza residents live in cement block homes with running water, com- fortable couches, and even telephones. Others live in one-room scrapwood shacks, six or eight to the room. A few even lack electricity. While about 90 percent of Leveriza residents have televisions, fewer than a third have toilets, a pattern typical of Manila’s poorer neighborhoods. Those with- out plumbing defecate on newspapers and toss them into a nearby creek, jokingly referring to the discarded bundles as “flying saucers.”
Tita lived in one of Leveriza’s nicer homes. When I arrived, her husband, Emmet, was in the
final months of a two-year work contract in Saudi Arabia. He earned $350 a month cleaning a swimming pool at a Jeddah sports club, triple what his previous wage had been. His earnings had allowed him to expand his home from the single room he bought 20 years earlier to a stur- dy four-room structure.
One room formed a separate apartment, rented to Tita’s cousin for $15 a month. Tita, her two daughters, and her two youngest sons slept in an upstairs bedroom. Another four of us-including a nephew and a brother-in-law who’d come to Manila from the provinces to study-slept on the living room floor. Tita kept a fluorescent light burning all night in the kitchen to scare away the rats, a tac- tic that met with only limited success. The house contained a toilet.
Like Emmet, who returned from Saudi Arabia during my stay, some people in Leveriza had regular jobs. They worked as drivers, carpenters, cooks, and cops. One of Tita’s neighbors swept the floors at the presidential palace. Another gave tennis lessons. At the other end of the scale, one section of Leveriza consisted mostly of streetcleaners and scavengers. I joined one of them, 49-year-old Mariano Ordista, on one of his nightly forays. We headed out at dusk, with Mariano’s eight-year-old son, Bong, in proud accompaniment, happy as any son for the chance to join his father at work. We stopped a few blocks away at Gotamko Street, under a sign that said “Don’t throw your garbage here” and threatened violators with a $50 fine.
As harsh as Leveriza’s poverty could be, it did not seem to have produced a correspondingly de- meaned or desperate population. I found less violence than I expected, and less than I had seen in blighted areas of New Orleans when I worked there as a reporter. The same could be said for family disintegration, drug addiction, and general hopelessness.
“What can you say about our place?” was the standard Leveriza refrain. I’d heard that question posed before in housing projects in New Orleans. But in New Orleans, the tenants expected a shocked and sympathetic reply. They wanted to hear me voice outrage at their crumbling ceilings and broken windows, or the sewage stopped up in their courtyards, conditions that a racial and numerical minority suffered in the midst of a prosperous society. In Manila, where poverty was the norm, the question came with expectations of a wholly different sort. In Leveriza, Tita and most of her neighbors would be offended to hear their neighborhood demeaned. They wanted to be told that their homes were nice.
An Internally Desperate Life
At age 41, Tita is the oldest of 11 children born to a tenant farmer in the nearby province of Cavite She quit school after grade six and arrived in Manila at age 16 to work in a glove factory. She sent half of her $1-a-day salary back home to help keep her younger siblings in school. Shortly after arriving in Manila, Tita moved to Leveriza and began sharing a room with a relative.
Like many rural migrations, Tita’s was an unhappy one. Raised in the fresh air of coffee groves, she suddenly lived amidst garbage and mud. Raised among the familiar faces of her extended clan, she now lived in a world that swirled with strangers. As Tita and her neighbors tell it, she succumbed to a life of isolation and bouts of anemia. Her marriage at age 20, and the birth of three children in four years, only compounded her sense of burden and completed her withdrawal. She remained that way for the first decade or so of her marriage, living a dutiful though internally desperate life. “I was very talkless,” she said.
When I arrived years later things had changed. To be sure, much of her life remained difficult. As Tita and I took stock of one another in the first mutually nervous weeks of my stay, her life seemed to me an endless succession of domestic chores. I was still stretched out on the floor beneath a mosquito net when she rose at 5:OO a.m. to begin cooking the breakfast rice. And sometimes I’d be back under the mosquito net at midnight and she‘d still be wrestling dirty laundry in the bathroom. With Emmet overseas, Tita was left alone to cook and care for her five children, aged seven to 19. Mealtimes were an anxious exercise for us both, as I struggled to convince her that nothing could possibly excite my palate more than the fish head eyeing me from my plate.
But despite the storm of household chores, other interests now animated her life as well. She was always marching off to neighborhood meet- ings and prayer sessions with people who valued her counsel and companionship. Moreover, she showed a keen interest in monitoring her nation’s turbulent politics. She was constantly grabbing for a newspaper, and the blare of Tagalog news radio usually filled the living room before dawn. A similar public mindedness seemed to characterize many of her neighbors.
Eventually I came to understand that this evolution in Tita’s life-from isolation towards engagement, from submission towards assertion didn’t happen by accident. Much of the credit belonged to Leveriza’s Basic Christian Communities, small groups that sponsor religious, economic, and political projects. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 estimated BCCs in the Philippines and they have sparked much controversy, nationally and locally. In Leveriza these groups have banded together into an organization known by its Tagalog name, Alay Kapwa, or “help your neighbor.”
Sisters Among Squatters
The organizing work in Leveriza began in 1979 with the arrival of Sister Christine and several other nuns. Sister Christine, who is 56 years old, comes from a wealthy and prominent Filipino family. An uncle served as president of the University of the Philippines, and her brother a currently presides over the government’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. When President Corazon Aquino selected 50 people last year to write the new Philippine Constitution, Sister Christine was among them.
As Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Sister Christine and the other Leveriza nuns had been trained in traditional social work while studying at a Los Angeles convent in the ’50s. With the arrival of liberation theology in the OS, and martial law in 1972, they became increasingly in- volved in human rights advocacy, labor activism, and other political activities.
It was the declaration of martial law that brought Sister Christine to national prominence, in her role as head of the country’s association of mother superiors. While the Philippine clergy as a whole responded quietly to martial law- the bishops’ conference, for example, counseled restraint-Sister Christine assailed Marcos’s rule with a stinging tongue.
She said her agitation within the conservative Philippine church brought her into conflict with the papal nuncio, who conveyed orders from the Vatican that she not seek reelection to her leadership post. (“He’s a crook,” she told me, with characteristic indelicacy.) Off she marched t o Leveriza instead.
In seeking to build a BCC, Sister Christine was following a trend that had spread across the Philippines and Latin America after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The council challenged the church to open itself to the poor, and many saw BCCs as the way to do it. The models for such communities of worship and action were as old as Christianity itself, dating back to the first gatherings of Jesus’s apostles. But the differences with the established church were large.
While the traditional Philippine church was built upon deference to clerical authority, the BCCs stressed community participation. While the traditional church stressed piety and promised heavenly rewards, the BCCs sought justice in this world. Their goal, they said, was to transform the poor from recipients of charity to agents of change.
The nuns’ arrival in Leveriza was greeted with suspicion in many quarters. The parish priest viewed Sister Christine’s politics and religion with alarm. Marcos’s barangay captains (a Philippine version of the ward leader), also eyed the orgaization warily, viewing it as a potential tool of leftist subversion. One captain raided a Bible study, confiscated its religious comics, and threatened to arrest the participants.
The concerns about leftist infiltration weren’t entirely groundless. Elsewhere in the Philippines, particularly in rural areas of Negros and Mindanao, communists have been able to infiltrate the BCCs and use them for their purposes. In Leveriza, too, the threat of communist infiltration was one the nuns would have to face.
But the nuns’ first obstacle was the apathy and suspicion of the people themselves. Some had never spoken to a nun before. They wondered why women of such wealth and privilege would choose to live in Leveriza. They doubted the nuns would last.
“We were high class and we didn’t really know what to do,” said Sister Christine, who was so clumsy in her country’s native Tagalog that she read movie star magazines to practice. The organizing went slowly. Most of the nuns kept outside jobs in what they call “social justice” organizations and devoted nights and weekends to the many tedious meetings upon which organizations like Alay Kapwa are built. Only Sister Vincent plunged in full time, filling her days with Bible studies, songs groups, feeding programs, health projects, and schemes to bring the neighborhood more water taps and toilets. She taught Leveriza women political songs and brought them to serenade striking workers on the picket lines, little by little watching their enthusiasm spread.
Like most political activity in the Phillipines, the organizing in Leveriza took on a new intensity in 1983 with the assassination of former Benigno Aquino. His death politicized Filipinos of all social classes. In Makati, Manila’s financial district, the middle-class employees of major corporations began to join anti-government rallies previously attended mostly by students. Eventually many of the top officers of those corporations began joining the demonstrations too. In Leveriza, Alay Kapwa members also joined the protests and then the political campaign that brought Corazon Aquino to power.
Interestingly, the Aquino assassination also erected an odd footbridge between Leveriza’s anonymous squatters and a few newly awakened members of the Makati business elite. During my stay the wives of both the finance minister and health minister occasionally stopped by Tita’s house to drop off rummage goods or donate books to the Alay Kapwa library. For a few, like Butch Santos, the involvement in Leveriza has gone deeper.
Their 43-year-old graduate of Columbia business school is the second-ranking corporate officer at a bank of 1,100 employees owned by his family. He lives in Forbes Park, one of Manila’s most exclusive suburban enclaves, in a house with five maids. But since meeting Sister Christine at a rally four years ago Butch has spent almost every Saturday and Sunday in Leveriza, organizing economic protests like soap-making or cigarette-selling and leading Bible studies. On occasion, he’s hosted Alay Kapwa gatherings at his Forbes Park home. One night, after I’d joined some Alay Kapwa women at a funeral service for a former Filipino senator, Butch invited us back to the senator’s home—the equivalent, perhaps of a tenants’ group from a Boston housing project joining the Kennedys at their compound in Hyannisport.
Today, Alay Kapwa contains about 500 members, mostly women, who run a dizzying array of projects. They operate cooperative food stores and a health clinic, distribute subsidized rice, sew napkins for export to Japan, and offer scholarships to Leveriza youth. They attend rallies and campaign for candidates. But the organization’s true impact can’t be measured in the number of pounds of rice distributed or song contests sponsored. The real work of Alay Kapwa, as articulated by its members, lies in the transformation of personal values, from apathy to citizenship.
Devotion to the public good is admirable anywhere, but even more so in the Philippines, where public life has rarely been viewed as anything more than an avenue for self-enrichment, and loyalties have belonged to family ,not neighbors or countrymen. The Marcoses may have added their special panache to the art of self-enrichment, and pushed it to new limits, but they didn’t invent it.
“If you cannot permit abuses, you must at least tolerate them,” former Senate President Jose Avelino told President Elpidio Quirino in 1949 after the senator became one of the few Filipino politicians ever censured for his dealings. “What are we in power for? We are not hypocrites. Why should we pretend to be saints when in reality we are not?…When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he made a distinction between a good crook and the bad crooks. We can prepare to be good crooks.”
It seemed to me that the transformations that Alay Kapwa sought were the ones the country needed if its lauded moment of “People Power” would survive as anything more than a sentimen- tal flash between a corrupt and authoritarian past and a bloody future.
“You Can’t Just Watch”
New values, unlike new roads or houses, are a subtle commodity, and it took me a number of months to appreciate what the organization has meant to Tita.
There were eggs, for example. As the purchasing agent for the 12 Alay Kapwa stores, Tita bought about 2,000 of them a week, carefully stacking them under the kitchen light each night to protect them from the rats. She spent hours a day etching account data onto five-by-seven notecards. The trust that her neighbors have shown in asking her to handle hundreds of dol- lars a week in egg and sugar purchases is a source of both pride and anxiety in her life. She lives in constant fear of broken eggs.
Gradually, Tita’s activism extended out of the neighborhood and into the nation. Though her mother and her brothers told her to stay home and out of trouble, Tita joined the Aquino cam- paign caravans that headed off to nearby towns. When the Constitutional Commission held hear- ings on the urban poor, Tita testified as the Alay Kapwa emissary. (“Wow, the inside of the Con- gress is nice,” she said.) When the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) called for volunteers, Tita spent a terrified day at Villamoor Air Base, guarding the ballot boxes as soldiers cast their votes.
“What is imperialismo?” Tita asked me one day. “I’m always hearing that imperialismo is the reason that the Filipino is poor, but I don’t know what is imperialismo.”
Tita may not have been briefed on the spray painted slogans that cover many Manila walls, but her intelligence had led her to raise impor- tant questions about the Philippine economy on her own. I learned this in a difficult fashion late one evening when I suggested that we eat at a nearby McDonald’s, the only restaurant open. Once inside, she fell strangely silent, obviously disturbed. When I asked what was wrong, she began a quiet but intense series of questions about American corporations and their effect on the economy of the Philippines. Were the pro- fits from our cheeseburgers going back to the States? She wanted to know.
Tita’s emerging politics and her ethic of Christian service have their roots in the Alay Kapwa Bible studies. Much of the genius behind Alay Kapwa’s work lies in its ability to make religious faith in Leveriza a force for good. In attending some of the Bible studies, I was able to see a bit of how this works.
One Saturday afternoon, I joined Butch Santos, his wife, and about 20 Leveriza women to discuss the first chapter of Acts. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you,” Jesus promised the apostles before ascending to the clouds, “and then you will be my witnesses.” What lessons does this promise hold for Leveriza?
For 45 minutes, the discussion wandered across the landscape of contemporary Philippine politics. Butch and the others said that the Holy Spirit bears resemblance to People Power. They were both forces that promised to transform communities, liberate them. But how does People Power now apply to Cory? To opposition leader Juan Ponce Enrile? Does People Power require a leader, or, like the Holy Spirit, does it transform the people after the leader departs?
As the conversation strayed and endlessly digressed, Butch tried to rein it in. “Jesus says be my witness,” he observed, “What does that require us to do?”
“Act, act, act,” said Tita’s neighbor Angeles Serrano, fruit vendor, grandmother, and local figure of respect. “You can’t just watch.”
Butch turned it back on her. “Why don’t you run for barangay captain?” he asked.
The increased political thoughtfulness that Alay Kapwa has brought to Tita is only one part of its contribution to her life. A second dwells in the more immediate arena of dignity and self- respect. I caught a glimpse of this at an Alay Kapwa song contest that marked the anniversary of Marcos’s ouster. ‘‘Maria, Maria,” sang Tita and her companions. “You’re not just for the bed- room; you’re not just for the kitchen. You’re a woman. You have rights.”
Tita’s self-respect was of the quiet variety, not brash or defiant. She often turned her humor on herself and her lot in life. When the scratch of the rats running through the ceiling grew particularly loud, she laughed. “They are very happy,” she said. The one time I saw her truly offended was when I returned home from a visit to the television station that anti-Aquino troops had occupied in January during a weak attempt at a coup. I told her that Marcos loyalists had gathered outside the station and begun singing “Cory, Cory, labandera”—Cory is a washwoman—to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Tita seethed for the rest of the day, not for the attack on the president, whom she much admires, and whose autographed photo praising Alay Kapwa hangs on her living room wall, but for the intimation that washwomen were unworthy. “There is nothing wrong with being labandera,” she said.
Shortly after I moved in, Tita asked why I spent so much time scribbling into spiral notebooks. I told her I kept a diary and a few days later, on a whim, I bought one for her, fully aware that a notebook might not be the gift of her dreams. Her excitement caught me by surprise. “I have so many stories to tell about what happens to me everyday,” she said. More surprising still, for a woman with little education and many chores, she began taking the time to record them.
Months later, she let me read some of her en- tries. They ranged from the price of dried fish to the funeral service she attended for the late Senator Jose Diokno, a human rights lawyer and acclaimed voice of Filipino nationalism.
One passage in particular is worth quoting at length:
“My work with Alay Kapwa is difficult,” she wrote. “Sometimes my head hurts from think- ing. . .At 4:00, eggs arrived. . .After carrying them I attended a Bible study and then solicited for the payment of eggs and went straight to the market, cooked and ate and totaled and listed. I was tired this afternoon. I’m sad because Em- met hasn’t come [home from Saudi Arabia] yet, but I’m happy because I participated in Alay Kapwa. Your body’s tired but the feeling is good because you’re serving your fellow man free and without payment. …”
The passage also shows the presence of tempta- tion. “I don’t have any intention of stealing the money,” she wrote. “I borrowed some but I paid it back, because it’s bad for me if I’m interested in things that are not mine. God knows what I’m doing.”
I puzzled over that passage. Her earnest words said a lot about Tita and the changes in her life, but there was something they didn’t explicitly reveal, a quality I couldn’t quite define, but that seemed an important part of her personality and her political transformation. Then I realized what it was: her willfulness. She writes, and often acts, almost as though she’s trying to convince herself of something that she doesn’t quite yet believe. Is it really true that “the feeling is good,” when “the body is tired”?
There are two value systems competing within her, and within most of her Alay Kapwa neighbors. The new ethic of public devotion is constantly at war with older inclinations of many kinds, including the simple desire to take care of one’s own needs first, never mind counting other peoples’ eggs. Tita’s mother and her siblings don’t understand her. They give her fruit from the farm to sell in Leveriza, and she gives it to her Alay Kapwa friends. Emmet, too, wonders why she’s off to executive committee meetings leaving him to go to the market and has asked her to give the organization less of her time. And Tita herself sometimes sounds disillusioned, especially if others don’t seem to be giving as much as she. The story of Alay Kapwa is a story of these competing values, public versus private.
An Ugly Argument Ensued
There’s much that Alay Kapwa hasn’t transformed. At times, Tita’s religion and her politics both gave me reason to pause. Her religiosity, for example, seemed a quirky amalgam of new belief and old. It could seem quite sophisticated, like when she told me she had asked God, “Why if you love your Son are so many people fighting? Why are so many Filipinos poor?” When I asked what God had answered, she laughed. “Not yet,” she said.
But at other times, she seemed to embrace with zeal the more superstitious aspects of religious practice, to the detriment of her other values. She was devoted to a mobile Leveriza shrine called the Lord of Pardons, a half dozen porcelain statues, draped with flowers and surrounded by candles, that rotates homes on a weekly basis.
One day, a quarrel broke out over the shrine. Its owner, whom everyone called only “the old one,” wanted to interrupt the rotation and take the shrine to a church to be blessed. The devotees objected to its leaving the squatter area. An ugly argument ensued and one Alay Kapwa member threatened to start punching the old woman who owned the images. I asked Tita who was at fault. “The old one,” she said insistently, more worried about a missing statue than about the abuse of an old woman.
On another ‘occasion, it was her political sensibility that surprised me. I accompanied Tita and her companions on a trip to Villa Escudero, a hacienda several hours outside of Manila. The plantation’s scale spoke volumes about the nation’s history and economics. We traveled a kilometer by motor scooter through coconut groves just to reach the reception center. Our tour guide, Sebastian, declined to answer my question about the hectarage, explaining that current passions for land reform make such disclosures imprudent. Sebastian led us through the family museum, past the big game trophies, the set of Nixon-Marcos-Pinochet commemorative medals, the note from Imelda (“I came, I saw, I was conquered!”), and, inexplicably, the aging baron’s port-0-potty (“This is where he made his pooh-pooh,” Sebastian explained). Between the tennis trophies and the rare butterflies we came across a small note, handwritten in magic marker, of- fering the hacienda owner’s professed philosophy of life.
“Live simply,” it intoned. “Expect little. Give much.”
The irony of the sign was too much and I stopped to scribble it in a notebook. Tita and a neighbor stopped too, and smiled approvingly at my note-taking. They agreed quite without irony that it was a beautiful philosophy, worth preserving. For all the rallies they had attended, none seemed to see the political significance of this vast estate.
The nuns’ politics could provide different reason for pause. While the thrust of their teachings-the need for greater national independence and pride-was admirable, their recitations were often formulaic.
“Are you CIA? ” Sister Christine asked, the first time we met.
“I have American blood in me,” said another nun, with a grandfather from Tennessee, “but it’s not imperialist.”
“Me too, Sister,” I said.
My presence at one Alay Kapwa meeting launched one of the Sisters into a discussion of how Americans promote the use of condoms in the Philippines because they fear the Filipinos’ numbers. She also explained that by eating can- dy bars, Americans deprive Filipino children of sugar. This seemed a particularly poor example of economic exploitation given the islands’ un- sold sugar surpluses and idle cane workers.
I set off another discourse one hot afternoon when I stepped across the alley to buy a soft drink. Thinking it would be rude to treat only myself, 1grabbed one for each of the Alay Kapwa members gathered for a meeting at Tita’s house. My fumbling entry with seven bottles of Sprite launched Sister Evelyn into another lecture on the evils of multinational corporations in the Philippines, and seemed definitive proof of my CIA ties. The rest of the women drank without complaint.
Whatever its shortcomings, the political culture being built by Alay Kapwa looked pretty good compared to the alternatives on the left and right. 1didn’t fully appreciate the Alay Kapwa work until I met the local power structure, one priest and 15 barangay captains.
Marcos Loves the Little Man
Among the constant rumors churning through Leveriza’s gossip mills, one of the most interesting held that Leveriza’s parish priest was related to the Marcoses. The biggest challenge I faced in checking the rumor was finding Father Vicente Dacuycuy awake. For three days in a row when I stopped by his office at various afternoon hours, he was said to be napping. When I finally caught him, he said the rumor had arisen because Marcos’s mother, a friend of a friend, had atten- ded his first Leveriza mass.
Blood tie or no, Father Dacuycuy could find little to fault in the decades of Marcos’s rule. “It’s really hard to criticize,” he said. “Because when you get in that position, maybe you’ll do worse.” As for martial law, he said that Marcos was sim- ply acting as any father would when faced with disorder among his brood. “You have to punish them,” he said. “That’s your responsibility.”
Father Dacuycuy seemed to conceive of his own role similarly, as that of a cold-eyed disciplinarian. He feared that the Sisters pandered to people and risked spoiling them. “As regards the administration of sacraments,” he said. “The people want this free. What would happen if I allowed that? The church is here on earth and has material needs too.”
When I asked Father Dacuycuy to name his proudest accomplishment during his decade in Leveriza, he mentioned two mass weddings for couples who were living together with only civil marriages or no marriages at all. “That is one of our big problems here,” he said.
A second pillar of authority in Leveriza consisted of the barangay captains. The system of barangay government was put in place by Mar- cos shortly after the declaration of martial law. Marcos endowed the captains, who presided over units of several hundred families, with minor policing powers and with control over a few pro- grams like recreation.
My visits with one captain, Ador Reyes, taught me much about the loyalties Marcos commanded and the resistance the nuns have faced. He is a thickly muscled man, who favors tank tops and jeans and runs three small pool tables off one of the alleys. He supplements that income with bit parts in Filipino movies. Ador got his start in politics as a bodyguard, first to a city councilman and later to the Manila mayor. His alley-side office is decorated with souvenirs of his twin pas- sions, film posters and autographed portraits of politicians.
While the nuns regularly denounce the presence of American military bases and corporations, Ador spoke of the U.S. in the admiring terms typical of his generation. He was 11 years old when American GIs arrived as liberators, bestowing their fabled chocolates and cigarettes.
He said he cried the day in 1946 that the Ameri- can flag was lowered and the flag of the independent Philippines raised in its stead. “The US. is the greatest country in the world,” he loudly announced. “Who else would lend you so much money and never make you pay it back?”
Ador’s career affords a glimpse of the skill with which the Marcoses cemented political loyalties, even among such minor clients as a squatter area barangay captain. In Ador’s case, the courtship seems to have begun after he helped foil a kid- napping attempt outside the Manila zoo. Two days later, Ador said, a soldier arrived in Leveriza and summoned him to Malacanang Palace. Ador replayed the scene for me:
“Good morning, Mr. President,” Ador said. “Anything I can do for you Mr. President?”
Marcos said, “Good work. You wait for Madame Imelda.”
As a token of appreciation, Madame Imelda presented Ador with a presidential medallion—and an envelope containing $700 in pesos. The solicitations didn’t stop there. “Every birthday anniversary I receive a letter from Mr. President Marcos inviting me to Malacanang,” Ador said. The story is probably embellished, but Ador did show me one of the letters and a souvenir box stamped with Imelda’s name.
Other government benefits have also come his way. By his own account, Ador used about $5,000 slated for neighborhood development to put up a two-room building. It contains a bed, a desk, his film posters, a stereo, and other personal belongings. While some might call it a house, Ador calls it a barangay hall. “I sleep here so my constituents will be very confident when they call me,” he said. “I want to give my full services to my constituents, sometimes one o’clock in the morning, sometimes two o’clock. . . .”
While Ador’s material gain certainly gave him reasons to say nice things about Marcos, I was surprised to hear the conviction in his voice when he spoke of the exiled leader’s greatness. He said he wished “Mrs. Aquino” no harm, and that he hadn’t joined the loyalists demonstrating against her. But he insisted on playing for me a taped Marcos speech broadcast from Hawaii, and his voice carried a trace of almost religious longing when he mentioned Marcos’s name.
“Mr. President Marcos loved the small people, the poorest people,” Ador said, perhaps think- ing of the past payoffs he himself had received. “If he steals money from the government, he gives it to the little people of the Philippines, not to himself.”
More puzzling than Ador’s devotion was the enthusiasm of those who had gained nothing themselves, but who still voiced the “little man” line on Marcos. One afternoon in the poorest barangay in Leveriza, I ate lunch with a hefty man who makes his living as a night security guard at a Max’s Fried Chicken restaurant. Nonie works seven 12-hour shifts a week and earns $55 a month. He lives with his wife and two children in a six-by-ten foot room, eating and sleeping on the floor. They take showers at a public faucet beside a garbage dump.
We began talking politics and the “little man” litany began. As an example of Marcos’s efforts to improve the average Filipino’s life, Nonie cited roads and bridges that had made transportation in his native province easier and had provided jobs. He also mentioned the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the $8.5 million concert hall Im- elda erected to entertain playmates like Van Cliburn and Christina Ford. It was three blocks from his house. He had never been inside.
Bare-chested, hunched over a plate of fish and rice, Nonie boasted that he and Marcos belonged to the same club. He called it “Takosa,” a Tagalog expression I’d never heard. I looked puzzled and he began to laugh. It stands for “takot sa asawa,” he said—“afraid of the wife.” He and Marcos- had the same problem, he explained, controlling extravagant wives. Yes, the Marcoses stole a lot, he finally conceded when 1asked about the miss- ing billions. But it was only government money, he said. Nonie works for a private company. It had nothing to do with him.
Plotting the Class War
Unlike older Filipinos, those now in their late teens and twenties never knew GIs with chocolate bars. They’ve been fed on slogans instead, like “Down with the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship,” and, more recently, “Down with the U.S.-Aquino dic- tatorship.” The slogans have made a mark.
With few exceptions, the most thoughtful and energetic of Leveriza’syouth displayed at least a sympathy for the politics of the left, and many had actually joined left-leaning organizations, both legal and illegal. Those with more average abilities tended to lead less politicized lives, focus- ing on trade schools, dreaming of a rare spot in the U.S. Navy. Others, with fewer scruples or ideals, opted for gangster vocations in the near- by red light district, or perhaps became cops.
This crude correlation between talent and vaguely leftist leanings held true in Tita’s family as well. Her oldest child, Rolando, was a 19-year- old of average ambitions enrolled without interest in a technical school. His outside activities included little besides an occasional game of pool or basketball. To the extent he possessed a political sensibility, he claimed to back Marcos. “Marcos is stronger than Cory,” he would say. But his assertions seemed designed more to an- noy his mother than to advance a political cause.
Tita’s next eldest, Ruwena, was the household’s popular culture maven. A birth defect left her with a weak heart that had forced her to quit school. Ruwena whiled away her days at the counter of the co-op store, spinning the radio dial from one Top 40 hit to the next, earnestly debating the celebrity news. Will Sharon leave Gabby? Is Lot-Lot going steady? Saturday nights found her planted in front of the TV for the weekly installment of Inday Badiday’s “See True,” where teenage film stars told the Filipino Rona Barrett whether they were “serious” or “just friends.” One night Tita interrupted and switched to a Tagalog news show on the economy, leaving Ruwena shrieking.
(Perhaps the left has it right about religion be- ing the peoples’ opiate, but in Leveriza I think television is more narcotic. Filipino TV revels in bad imitations of the worst of American offer- ings, poisoning the national imagination with a steady diet of game shows, beauty contests, and plotless martial arts films. Every day, in tens of thousands of shacks across Manila, squatters watch four-year-olds dance to “Surfin’ USA,” competing for the title of “Little Mr. Pogi,” Taglish for Little Mr. Handsome.)
Tita’s third and most talented child, 16-year- old Rosalie, took only a casual interest in the vapid songs and films that held her sister en- thralled. She is serious, occasionally brooding, and unusally devoted to her studies. While Tita’s other children were skillfully devising ever-new excuses to miss school, Rosalie would defy her mother and hike to class with the flu.She spent much of her spare time singing political songs in the alleys and writing plays about class conflict.
One typical play opened with a scene in a squatter area where a group of poor women were sharing a meal of shrimp paste and cheap fish. The second scene flashed to the house of a rich family where a plot was being hatched to raze the squatter area and put up a factory and a disco. In the end, the bulldozers won the battle, but a coalition of poor came together and promised to keep fighting the war.
Rosalie was plotting the class war on paper, but a few people in Leveriza were waging it for real. Several years ago, a communist assassination squad known as a sparrow unit murdered a Leveriza cop as he straddled his motorcycle in the morning. The officer, patrolman Fernando Barateta, was a member of a SWAT team who had earned the communists’ ire with his reputation for brutality in breaking up demonstrations and picket lines. A number of Leveriza teens enjoyed the story of the patrolman’s encounter with the people’s justice and told it with obvious pride. He had “blood debts,” they said.
I met few in Leveriza who claimed to belong to the Communist Party of the Philippines. I met more, particularly students, who belonged to one of the banned organizations of the National Democratic Front that supports the communists’ war on the government. I met a larger number still who belonged to legal groups that subscribed to many of the same beliefs. To encourage such activity, the CPP had sent a few organizers into Leveriza. “Ka” (for “kasama,” or comrade) Tito Santamaria was one of them.
At age 26, Tito (not his real name) was mar- ried and had a child, and had spent the past eight years of his life working full time as an unpaid organizer, living on whatever donations he could solicit. Tito grew up in a squatter area not far from Leveriza, the son of a dressmaker and a public school teacher. Like most of his comrades, he was careful to provide me with a precise reading of his class origins, which he described as the “lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie.”
His introduction to politics followed a common pattern, coming during his student days at one of Manila’s many diploma mills, where he began to attend teach-ins conducted by the leftist League of Filipino Students, a legal organization. A few months later, he was recruited into Kabataang Makabayan (“Nationalist Youth”), part of the outlawed NDF. After cutting his teeth for a year or so on student organizing-opposing tuition hikes, agitating for greater student coun- cil power-he was invited into the CPP itself. “They watch you, like the banana,” he said. “Un- til the time when you are ripe.”
Along the way, Tito received instruction in the three “isms” that the left holds responsible for Filipino poverty and oppression: feudalism, imperialism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Armed with these tools of Marxist analysis, Tito and five other C P P organizers arrived in Leveriza in 1981, he said, hoping to mobilize the masses. But the protests they sought never materialized. Demonstrations required bullhorns, leaftlets, and money for transportation, Tito said, but he had been trained mostly in isms. “Our leaders did not teach us how to launch local struggle,” he explained, “because our leaders also did not know how to launch local struggle.”
As the barangay captains had feared, Alay Kapwa became a target for C P P manipulation, as Tito and his comrades joined meetings and Bible studies. On one level, they have failed so far. The CPP urged a boycott of the 1986 presidential election calling it a sham; Alay Kapwa ig- nored the boycott, throwing its energies behind the Aquino campaign. The CPP urged Filipinos to vote against the new constitution, which Sister Christine helped write. Alay Kapwa members, viewing the vote as a referendum on Aquino, attended rallies for its support. The CPP urged a boycott of last spring’s congressional elections. But many Alay Kapwa members joined campaign demonstrations and most supported the Aquino ticket. “Until now, we still only influence a hand- ful of people there,” Tito lamented, explaining that the people lacked the “consciousness” to recognize Cory Aquino’s “fascism.”
Sister Christine and Butch Santos know that Alay Kapwa is a target, and argue that in fact the group hinders the C P P by offering an alternative ideology. “It proves that you don’t have to be a communist and you don’t have to be a rightist,” said Sister Christine. I did meet a couple of women who said they had been persuaded by the communists’ militant views until they got involved with Alay Kapwa, which acted as a moderating influence.
But I also met others, particularly among the young, who saw little difference between the “nationalist” goals of Alay Kapwa and the “nationalist” goals of the CPP, who saw no conflict in an avowal of support for the Aquino government, and one for the communist guerrillas wag- ing war against it. (Sister Christine herself voices only occasional anticommunist critiques, while saving her most vituperative attacks to denounce the “rightists,” her most scornful term.) Then again, ideological confusion seems an inevitable risk when asking previously apolitical people to begin thinking about politics. Thus far at least, neither the communists nor the loyalists seem happy with Alay Kapwa, which is, I think, one good sign.
While Tito failed to spark a revolt, he and others like him did have some success in spread- ing the word about the three “isms.” He, and thousands of other young organizers have spread other words as well: Central Intelligence Agency, Low Intensity Conflict, Phoenix Counterinsurgency Plan, General Singlaub, IMF-World Bank. I was constantly hearing this technical vocabulary of leftist critique spilling forth from people who spoke little other English.
At times, something gets lost in the translation. In a conversation one night, one of Tito’s students turned the three “isms” into four and began telling me about “bureaucratism,” and “capitalism,” until the embarrassed cadre intervened.
What seemed most troubling about the left in Leveriza, and elsewhere in the Philippines, wasn’t the casual embrace of Marxist vocabulary, but a certain blitheness towards the potential consquences of revolution. Tito voiced sanguine assurances that jobs and freedom, a free press, and free vote would blossom just as soon as the imperialists were smashed. Hardly anyone I spoke to, whether Leveriza pundit or mountain commander, paid heed to the thought that revolutions can go astray.
Certainly Southeast Asia offers no shortage of examples. In Leveriza, many spoke of American misdeeds in Vietnam. And given decades of U.S. support for the Marcos regime, they had cause to be apprehensive about U.S. intentions in the Philippines. But no one mentioned the Killing Fields, even as the detritus of that revolution continued to wash up on Philippine shores in their battered boats.
Sitting in the alley, fielding questions about U.S. “imperialism” one day, I asked if the revolution in the Soviet Union had been betrayed. While many had voiced admiration for the Sandinista triumph, the Russian Revolution seemed to be one they had missed. “The Soviet Union, is that communist?” someone asked. A conference ensued, and a consensus was reached. “It’s communist,” answered one activist, “but revisionist.”
I joined this group one afternoon for an anti-Aquino march on Malacanang Palace. It was an indignation rally, launched several days after government soldiers had opened fire on a crowd demanding land reform. The shooting left 16 dead and 100 wounded.
The soldiers’ brutality was clear and the tens of thousands of demonstrators were more than justified in their ire. Yet there was something slightly haunting about watching them march past the palace, with faces covered in red scarves, hands raised overhead and bent into imitation pistols, fingers pulling mock triggers. It may not be long until those hands hold real guns. And there’s reason to question whether what speeds from the barrel will be justice.
Tita, as it turns out, stayed home from that rally, which she feared would end in violence. But a few days earlier, when the farmers had been wounded, she and other members of Alay Kapwa cooked large cauldrons of fish and rice and set up a relief post, feeding hundreds.