In this country it’s a crime to be poor,” Dad would say, and proceed to challenge anyone to find him one inmate who was not.
“So, kiddo,” he would tell me, “you just have to avoid being poor— like a plague.”
Dad often made light of things, even the saddest ones, but he could be quite serious about them, too—he was, after all, a public figure.
When he was a young congressman, in his mid-30s, he liked walking with me, a teenager then, around his district, the second, particularly around the Escolta, in Sta. Cruz, and Quiapo. It voted him for five consecutive terms and might have done so more times if not for the cruel interruption of martial law.
He would point out to me the sad situation of sidewalk and street vendors, the latter even having to risk life and limb for the prospect of a sale—a stick of cigarette or Juicy Fruit gum or a piece of Mentos candy—and both subject to the inconsistencies of law enforcement.
“It’s sad,” he’d say, “when people cannot survive without breaking the law.”
Much older and already retired, he set me straight whenever he noticed my exasperation at public-transport drivers who disregarded traffic rules and fellow motorists: “The poor fellows are earning a hard living, kiddo, while you and I are being driven in this air-conditioned car and have only to risk being delayed.”
Titong was, after all, the son of his father, Rafael, my grandfather, the most considerate man I’ve known. He’d be upset with anyone reprimanding a subordinate in public: “All they have is their pride; let us not take that away from them.”
Lolo Rafael lived on Park Ave., in Pasay City, since after the war and until he died, at 81. Huge homes lined the avenue and moderate ones the side streets. Lola Enchay was a prized customer, a suki, at the neighborhood sari-sari store, mostly for Cosmos sarsaparilla, and the small bakery, for pan de sal and her favorite galletas.
Lola knew the storekeepers by name. Lolo liked that; he believed that acquaintanceship between classes was not only healthy, but also natural, and that a disconnection would impoverish all. He himself went beyond a casual greeting—he stopped to chat with vendors outside the Ideal Theater, in Sta. Cruz, where he held office. He turned down invitations to live in any exclusive and gated village.
Now that Lolo and Dad are gone, it’s Vergel, my husband, who sets me straight. Watching television reports of a typhoon, he caught my impatience with people in its path who had ignored repeated advice to evacuate.
“It’s not easy to leave just about everything you have—which is next to nothing—with little or no chance of recovering it,” he said.
At every election, again, it becomes hard for me to understand why the poor squander away the only real power they have, either by selling their vote or wasting it on an emotional choice, even if the choice is an obviously inept rogue.
Deprived of enough education to afford them a studied choice, they naturally go for the movie star or the dynastic candidate—as they say, it’s all about “name recall.” I guess I more or less know all that, but continue to expect too much, since the poor themselves stand to be victimized by their own bad vote.
As the rights lawyer Harry Roque says in a context not so different from Dad’s, “Don’t ever become a victim in this country.”
Roque should know: He’s championing justice for the victims of the Ampatuan massacre, in which 57 people were waylaid and murdered in a most cruel way. Two witnesses have been assassinated, and the case has hardly moved all these three years, state interest having apparently waned.
Avoiding becoming victim or poor seems to me hardly a matter of choice for many in this country, and the Black Nazarene procession, a ritual that draws millions of devotees year after year, tends to accentuate the desperation: They have been looking for a miracle, collecting on a promise.
This New Year I received by e-mail a shimmering picture of an Angel of Abundance, itself holding out the promise of fortune arriving—in two days if the mail was forwarded to 12 friends and in four if forwarded to only six. But it warned that “deleting this would make you beg.”
Not taking much of a chance, I sent it to six. The warning more than the promise got me. It came back to me as a forwardee. I decided to delete it eventually, but not before forwarding it to yet another six. Imagine if someone started a similar e-mail campaign in the name of the Black Nazarene, which attracted nine million devotees this time around.
Anyway, it would be all in keeping with every hope for a prosperous New Year.