My wife Alice and I were ninang and ninong recently to 24 couples who were married on the banks of Estero de San Miguel. The estero hasn’t been a famous venue for weddings, to say the least, but in the near future we may be surprised.
The couples will move a few meters along the estero from the fragile, congested shacks they now live in to beautiful family houses. Thanks to their own determination and the wisdom of a few government officials, they will look out their windows each morning to a clean estero, trees along the banks full of birds bathing in fresh air and sunshine. The only noise beside the birds will be students heading for Claro M. Recto High School. This is an example of the on-site, in-city housing President Aquino has promoted.
Urban poor people are often defined as families that live illegally on land they don’t own, in rundown, dilapidated houses. Does the shift of our 24 couples to the new houses mean they are no longer urban poor? Not in most people’s eyes: urban poverty is still linked to low incomes. But this tag may soon disappear from our 24. They may now be below the poverty line, but they are located in the heart of Manila, and so can take advantage of every job opportunity. Also their children are graduating from the nearby colleges at a higher rate than in other poor areas and they will soon bring good money home. The couples will then be above the poverty line. Are there other urban poor stereotypes that must be shed? Perhaps, but first back to the mass wedding?
We know how much excitement one bride can cause, so imagine the clatter and clutter as 24 got ready. Add to that the playfulness of their 50 or so children. Sadly for romantics, they were not marrying out of young love but because they needed a marriage license to enter the government housing project. Whatever the reason for it, the ceremony awoke in the couples an understanding of how much they had come to depend on one another over the years. Deep appreciation may be another name for love.
Remember the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof,” when the man asks his wife of many years, “Do you love me?” The wife makes fun of the question. What’s happening to him, she muses, and then she sings: “Do I love him? For 35 years I washed his clothes, cooked his meals, raised his kids, milked his goats, if that isn’t love, I don’t know what is?”
Urban poor areas are usually accused of being dirty, of harboring criminals, of allowing rowdy drinking and needless violence and of standing helpless in the face of corrupt politicians and drug gangs.
The 24 couples don’t want that identity, anymore than other groups of people would want it, and they have taken steps to eliminate such activity. They have put together a Management Estate Agreement that covers all the above, from garbage to drugs. They say they will put an end to the public drinking that leads to violence and all the other mistakes. Will that remove the last taint of urban poverty or are there other aspects of urban poor culture that need to be changed? Maybe not, but let’s not look only at negative qualities.
The urban poor may also have admirable qualities. The people of the Estero de San Miguel, for example, have shown remarkable strength of will in pursuit of their rights.
Vendors, drivers, scavengers, tricycle drivers, security guards, unskilled construction workers and small-scale businesspersons, they are not powerful in the eyes of society, but they have outlasted the powerful government officials who sought to evict them. They have attended close to 150 meetings with government agencies to get their housing on the estero. It seems a remarkable record of perseverance.
A few days before Christmas in 2011, President Aquino announced there would be groundbreaking for a housing project on the estero within a few weeks. However, an agency head called the people and said she was coming with a committee and she would decide about the groundbreaking, whether it would go ahead or not. The people told her, “Don’t come; you’re not welcome with that news. We won’t let you enter.” The day after Christmas, the community burnt to the ground. They didn’t give up. The people rebuilt. There were many other threats and endless anxiety over the years. Now they will live in the nice houses on the estero banks, with only the sounds of the birds and children on their way to school to disturb the peace.
With the help of their allied NGOs—Urban Poor Associates and CO Multiversity among them—some old notions about the urban poor are being redefined: They are learning to make their own analysis of their situation; to choose the solutions they think best to put together their own people’s plans for housing; and to undertake actions that are most appropriate. They have learned to organize, and they deeply appreciate solidarity. They act democratically in a persevering and resilient fashion. All this should be added to their usual age-old care for one another—they have always helped each other when times were tough.
“Urban poor was once a name assigned to poor people who lived illegally on land in rundown, degrading housing, in communities marked by violence, noise, drugs and abuse of children. Common usage now adds that they are well organized, democratic, independent in their thinking and planning, have great respect for one another and community solidarity, are persevering and resilient, and do not accept corrupt politicians and drug gangs easily.”
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [email@example.com].