Seven brave women
Late last month I sat around a table in our office with seven women from the Slip Zero area of Tondo, a rundown, 1.2-hectare patch of land between the huge Parola slum and the North Harbor piers. The women asked me to write something that might help ward off the threatened demolition of their homes in August. The Philippine Ports Authority and the people in charge of the modernization of the port have decided that all 200 families living in Slip Zero have to go.
Some of the women around the table have lived there since 1979. Two have given birth to and raised 10 children each in that starkly poor and troubled site. The women’s ages range from 36 to 50 years old; one older woman wouldn’t give her age. Among them they have 40 children.
If it were in a Wild West movie, the plot in Slip Zero may be described this way: “Two cattle barons move into a small town and connive with the local sheriff to drive out all the small shareholders. However, seven brave women and their friends face down the powerful men.”
Then I made a mistake. I asked the women if anything special had ever happened in Slip Zero. I thought that such a happening, if there were one, would be a good way to begin an article about the women and their area. They looked at one another in silence, and then one woman said, “When we came to Slip Zero, it was a marshland. We filled it in. We brought debris, earth, garbage little by little.” Another said, “We prepared the roads by ourselves, we put up streetlight posts so we could be safe at night. We sent our children to school.”
I asked, “Was anyone ever shot there?” There was silence, then one of the women began to cry.
“We have nothing like that, Sir Denis,” an older woman said as the other woman shed tears. It dawned on me, looking at their sad faces, that I had seemed to imply that nothing special at all had happened there, and that the wondrous feat of raising 10 children in our slums and sending them all to school, including high school and college, and all the hours spent at the children’s bedside when they were sick, and all their birth pains, were not important at all. I apologized as best as I could.
Something is wrong in our Christian-Muslim democracy when very decent people who seek only a simple life and a place to put down the four posts of their homes can be evicted by powerful businessmen and sent off to a place like Naic in Cavite, where other people from North Harbor were earlier sent and have since returned to Manila because there were no jobs there, and people who chose to stay there have had no electricity since November.
On a happier note, the women talked of the night at the Del Pan Sports Arena in March 2010, when President Aquino signed the Covenant with the Urban Poor promising that poor people would never again be relocated to distant places like Naic where there was no work, and that the President would proclaim land for the poor. They still hope Mr. Aquino will remember them and save them from eviction, which is the end of a happy life as they know it now. They remember the packed crowds of that night in 2010 and the cheering.
What side in this struggle would Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Gandhi favor? What would they advise? They would decide with the women, I believe. They would ask the men in charge to find alternative solutions to their problems. There are always alternatives. We don’t want to solve all problems by references to different religions, but there shouldn’t be glaring contradictions either between what a people believe and how they act. It is hard to imagine how a forced eviction of a poor woman with 10 children can ever be acceptable in a society that professes religious traditions.
I first went to Slip Zero 47 years ago as a Jesuit priest to say Mass. It was then part of a pier (Slip) that stretched out into the harbor, with a small chapel at the very tip. The leader, in that time before barangay captains, was a woman named Mildred, who was about the same age as the women around the table now. She was also the leader of the local gang; I forget if it was Sigue-Sigue or Oxo. She would arrange for the Mass if she was in a good mood, but if she was angry with a subaltern or a boyfriend, it was best to stay away from her. Often she walked around with a gun in her hand.
She had the same poor origins as the seven women talking with me now, but life had sent her down a different road. I gave her communion though there were probably many reasons not to do so in Church law. One Sunday before Mass, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who helped with the Mass and development work in Slip Zero took her gun from her when she was going around angrily looking for one of her boyfriends. The sisters gave it to me and I put it in the deep pocket of my soutana. At the consecration of the Mass when I genuflected, the gun banged on the cement floor of the chapel, and we all held our breath. At the end of the consecration I genuflected again, and again the gun banged on the cement.
“No more genuflecting, Father,” one of the sisters said, and we all laughed.
Mr. President, why not proclaim their 1.2 hectares, and the land in Isla Puting Bato, Manggahan Floodway and Lupang Arenda?
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (firstname.lastname@example.org).