Mending the House
My brothers and I helped each other with the repairs needed to improve our house. The cans of Davies paint piled up on one corner and, on the other, a stack of tiles was waiting to replace the linoleum that temporarily covered the floor.
“Home,” my mother said, her hands were up in the air as if directing the sounds of the sander refining surfaces and the saw cutting wood into pieces to harmony. “Finally,” she continued, emphasizing the years the house remained unfinished since the National Housing Authority (NHA) turned it over to us.
On the radio, the anchor man was delivering the news: thousands of KADAMAY (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap) members and other informal settlers occupied the idle housing units of the NHA in Pandi, Bulacan, Philippines. The news ended with a thudding sound of a hammer that reminded me of the memories of being homeless in Iloilo City for years.
* * *
The year was 1995. At the fire station, our first house, the screaming siren of the fire trucks would wake us up. We covered our ears with our palms and ran to our mother. My father, while working as a labourer in a lumber and hardware business in the morning, served as a volunteer-fireman at night, which gave us the opportunity to live at the fire station for free.
My mother started to run a carinderia stand in front of the fire station. She would wake up at 3 am to go to the market and buy the ingredients for the food she would cook. At 6 am, she would sell food in the street. Earning on her own, she decided to look for a house to rent where we could live.
When we started school, we had to transfer to another apartment closer or walking-distance to our school so that my mother did not have to bring us there or fetch us. The following year, we were informed that we had to look for another place because the owner wanted to convert house into a business establishment, prompting us to leave. My mother found one nearby, but a few years later, we were asked to leave for the same reason.
Every time my mother looked for an apartment, I went with her around the city. The caretaker asked questions, as if investigating a crime.
“What do you for a living?”
“I sell food in the street.”
“How many children do you have?”
“Five. They are all boys.”
“Are you sure you can pay the rent?”
“Yes. Of course,” my mother answered, sounding defensive.
The caretaker would not believe her. “Maybe you can try some other time? Currently, we don’t have space available for you.”
“It’s okay,” she lied. “We’ll just look around. Thank you.”
Transferring from one apartment to another, we lost some of our possessions either because we were too tired to carry them with us or we intentionally left them to pay the remaining rental fee. My mother found it difficult to comply with the house rental requirements: one-month advanced payment and two-month deposit.
I knew my parent’s income wasn’t enough when the caretaker came to our carinderia several times in a day. I tried to eavesdrop, but I never heard their conversation. The caretaker was looking down at my mother and, from time to time, pointing her finger at my mother’s face, her arms on her hips and her mouth endlessly twitching. Watching them from afar, I felt I was watching a film with no recorded sound or subtitles. In that movie, my mother was the protagonist antagonized by the villain played by the caretaker.
My mother returned inside her carinderia. She fished out her Good Morning towel from her apron to wipe her face that was covered by sweat. She smiled at me, pretending everything was fine, and went back to serving her customers who were waiting for their orders.
We grew tired and restless of looking for a place that would accept us in the city. The rental fee of the apartment was getting more expensive every year. Every time we transferred, it seemed that we were getting far from the city, as if we were being thrown out because we could no longer afford to live in such a place.
My brothers and I were growing and so were our expenses, making my parent’s meagre income insufficient to pay for the school tuition and our apartment’s fee. One day, mama told us we were transferring to a place where there was no need to pay.
“Masinardinas lang ta danay,” my mother said. Let’s just play like sardines in a can. The six of us forced ourselves to fit in a shanty house that had only one room, which served as the living room, the kitchen and the bedroom. We found ourselves settling above the river of Iloilo City. We were called squatters.
In the squatter area, the houses were barong-barong, made of light materials. The walls were made of rattans tied together and the roof was dried coconut leaves carefully woven into a wide mat. Some passers-by claimed that pigpens looked better than our houses. My father did not usually come home. He once said, “If ever a fire would break out in our place, it would look as if our houses were flat-ironed.”
Located at the back of a slaughterhouse, the whole community stank of animal carcasses and manure. The first time we ate, we heard buckets of water flushing the toilet. My mother’s face turned red when she saw the shit floating. The wind passing through carried the smell of our neighbour’s toilet. We lost our appetite despite our mother’s cooking. We pinched our noses to stomach the smell and continued eating.
“Let’s just smell it all until it’s gone,” my brother joked. But we all did it, and we laughed at ourselves.
As time went by, I learned that our neighbours and my parents shared the same story: they were people who came from the provinces. They tried their luck to find better work, a better life in the city. But they failed. Squatting above the river provided us free housing. Often, my mother, in an attempt to convince herself about her decision, said, “At the end of the month, I won’t have a headache thinking how to pay the rental fee.”
Oftentimes, we joked, “Our neighbours are rich. Look at them, they are living under the bridge. Just imagine the millions the government spent to build that.”
One day, a woman knocked on our door. “Good morning, Sir. I would like to share the gospel of the Lord with you.”
I stood up and rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand. “It’s Sunday, after all,” I thought to myself.
“What do you think of the house of God?” she asked me, starting the Bible study.
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
“Look around you,” she instructed, pointing at our surrounding. The diapers, plastic bags and bottles, and sachets of soaps and shampoos were floating on the black-coloured river. She wrinkled her nose and twisted her mouth and face. Catching a foul smell, she forcefully exhaled and hurriedly fished out a handkerchief to cover her nose. “It smells like a septic tank here,” she continued. Without letting her finish, I asked her to leave. I closed the door and went back to sleep.
Though there were pieces of plywood that separated us from our neighbours, there was no privacy when it came to our conversations.
“Ginamos na naman,” the child grunted, complaining about how sick he was of the food that was always served on their table. Fish paste again.
“Be thankful you have something to eat. Some of our neighbours have nothing,” the mother lectured her son.
In the middle of the night, a fight between a father and a son broke out.
“Where is it?” the father beating his son. He was asking about the rice they were waiting to cook for their dinner. By the mere sound of the boy, we knew his son was drunk. Tomorrow morning, we learned that instead of buying rice, his son bought a bottle of Tanduay Rhum.
Every June, at the start of rainy season, the barangay captain came and went to our place, begging us to leave and seek shelter in the barangay hall and chapel. We secured our houses by placing used and old tires on our roofs, so they would be heavy enough not to be blown down by the wind. The waves would be unforgiving. We remained awake throughout the night to keep watch so that we and our barong-barong would not be drowned by the water.
The next morning, after a typhoon lambasted our community, we would look at our neighbours to ask if how they were. Though we did not build anything physically strong, this kind of relationship, this system that we had was something that nothing could destroy. If one member of the squatter area died or was sent to the hospital, we all gathered together and gave financial support or whatever we could.
Every night, before sleeping, we opened our doors to look at our view: a prominent subdivision; their houses were built with a strong foundation, intricate designs, swimming pool, well-painted walls that made them appear well-lit, and had household helpers available so they would not have to lift a finger. We laid on the floor that served as our bed. The waves kept coming back and forth, rocking us to sleep.
The city’s economy had started improving. Cars crowded the city. Grasses and trees were uprooted to give way to road expansion. Malls and business establishments of various sizes sprouted everywhere. As their way to clean the river, the government relocated us to the outskirts of the city.
A squatter area was believed to be a place for criminals and the uneducated. When someone was misbehaving, that person would be corrected: “You’re acting like you’re from a squatter area.” There were mandatory meetings and seminars on good manners, proper hygiene and laws, among others. The speakers included government officials and other known individuals. In one of the meetings, we were told that the housing units would be a concrete two-storey houses equipped with a bathroom and electricity, and our relocation site would be called Iloilo Riverplains Subdivision.
The people whispered to each other subdivision. “Finally, we will live in a subdivision,” one mother proclaimed, and that was followed by applause from the attendees. While at the corner, I contemplated the word riverplains, which, I thought, was a reminder from where we came from.
When we were transferred, my mother said, “I hope this is it.” A truck picked our things up and took them to the relocation site. With other squatters, we put our things in the vehicle used to transport pigs and carabao destined to be slaughtered.
We, the squatters of Brgy. North San Jose, Molo, were the first occupants of the housing projects. The exteriors of the houses were painted well. But when we got inside, we realized the houses either were not yet done or their construction was rushed. The walls were not finished. They weren’t two-storey. When it rained, the raindrops found their way inside the house through the leaking roof.
The relocation site was in the middle of a rice field. It was agricultural land converted to residential. The first night that we were there, I went outside; the streetlights weren’t installed yet. There was nothing but darkness. The glittering lights of the distant houses reminded me of how far we were from the city. I looked up and saw a blanket of stars that, I thought, I would never see if I were in the city.
Transportation was our major problem. To go outside the relocation site, we had to take a motorcycle ride. On the highway, we had to take several jeepney rides to get to our workplaces. We felt staying at our new place was costing us more money. Our neighbours thought of going back to the city to squat somewhere that hadn’t been relocated yet.
I went around the village to see our new community. I talked to a new neighbour whose name I was not able to ask. He told me there were others who would be transferred here. They would come from different squatter settlements: riversides, under the bridges, cemeteries and other private and government properties.
Realizing that the housing projects were substandard, I told him, “You know what? This is corruption. They will make it appear that these are beneficial for us. But as a matter of fact, it’s the pockets of those people behind this project that benefit the most.”
He looked at me as if I were a weird boy saying things he did not understand. “Just be thankful you have a house,” he silenced me.
Later I learned that he received a housing unit because he was close to the barangay captain of their place. When the other squatters started occupying the housing units, I was shocked to see cars parked outside the village. Little did I know that some staff of the organization in charge of identifying the beneficiaries sold some housing units. Questionable information about the occupants surfaced: they were related to the barangay captain, they were rich, and they did not come from squatter areas.
As part of the monitoring and evaluation of the project, the NGO’s staff came and inquired about our situation. A venue was provided wherein we voiced our problems. At first, during the meeting, not a single person raised his or her concern. But after they went out of the halls, they gathered together and complained. Someone volunteered to express their sentiments with the promise that the other attendees would back her up. They collected their voices together and some issues were noted: transportation was a major problem, water was dependent on the well-water pump system, which would dry up during summer, and children complained that their schools were far.
After a few months, a jeepney route from our community going to the city was placed; a piped-water supply system was installed; and a public school, both for elementary and secondary education, was built exclusively for the community.
* * *
Days after the KADAMAY members took over the empty housing units, their situation created a heated discussion on the internet. KADAMAY was asking the government to provide them access to water and electricity. They promised to pay. There were two opposing sides: there were people saying they should not depend on the government to own a house, and the other people said that it was their right to assert to have access to housing.
A picture of a person being kicked by a policeman started trending. No demolition, no relocation, said the caption. This had been our bedtime story. We were grateful we did not have to experience the violence: being bashed online, tortured by policemen and washed by fire hoses.
It brought out the monster in people. Most liked comments included “It’s their fault!” “So what do you really want, to live in a subdivision?” “These people are really choosy.” “They have too many children, how could they afford to live?” “They are poor because they are lazy.”
Each time stories of homelessness and living in the slums would air on television, we would look at each other, as if deep inside, we knew their situation and that only those who had experienced the same thing could understand.
It’s already rainy season in the country again. A number of unforgiving typhoons will lambast our houses. We feel a little safer now. We are no longer afraid that the wind will blow our roofs off or the water will take our houses.
My mother bought a lot of things to decorate our house: a new set of furniture, utensils and air-freshener, among others. Inside, on the wall, she hung the certificates saying we owned the house. Our family pictures were placed, too. On the front door, she tightly hooked the signage HOME SWEET HOME.