Archive for December, 2012

Filipino Squatters’ Tales, Part 2

by on Friday, December 21st, 2012

Maria’s neighbors

Thanks to Maria for the interview and pictures.

Maria’s story

Entry to Maria’s house

My name is Maria. I was born in Leyte Province, but I’ve been living in Metro Manila since 1979. I’m married to a man who is much younger than I am. We have no children. My husband is only able to get temporary jobs, but he’s a hard worker, and he can fix anything. I’m working part-time as a housekeeper. My boss is very good to us, like family. We have a small room in her house, where we stay about half of the week.

Our own residence is built on public land.  Our house is small, less than two meters by two meters, but it’s okay for us. We have running water and a small shower, but no CR [comfort room, or toilet]. Some of our neighbors have their own CRs, but without a septic tank. The waste just goes down a hole and into the river. We were told we couldn’t have a septic tank because the land was below water. Our community CR serves about 50 families. Sometimes when I have to wait a long time, I say to the neighbor, “Kuya [older brother], can I use your CR?” “Okay, okay, no one is in there.”

House of Maria and her husband

We don’t have our own meter base for the electricity. We used to have a neighborhood electric meter base with about 20 families tapped into it using sub-meters. The electric company had approved it, but then the company pulled the meter out because some neighbors couldn’t pay their bills on time. They had a lot of other expenses like for food and money to send their children to school. The total community bill might be 23,000 to 26,000 pesos. So the company said that to keep the meter base we would have to pay a deposit of 26,000 pesos [over $600]. I have a friend who has her own meter, so I asked if I could have a sub-meter hooked up to her electricity. Now there are six families on one meter. My friend didn’t want to add too many people because if you use more than 100 kilowatts the rate goes up.

In 2005 we were living in about the same place but at a lower level than now. The houses were just small rooms stacked one on top of the other—bottom, middle and top—and also wall to wall. Every family had a room about the size of an average middle-class bathroom. People from the barangay [local community office] said 18 families had to move within a week because our houses were going to be demolished to make room for the road widening. The compensation was 18,000 pesos [maybe $375 at that time] per family. We were just renting, so the owner of the house gave me half. The barangay said, “You can rent another place.” But where we were, near Marikina City, the rent for a small room would be 1,500 pesos, not including water and electricity. So how many months would 9,000 pesos last? We told them it would be okay if they just gave us a lot where we could build our own houses. Some politicians told us that they would help us. They showed us a place somewhere in Rizal Province. But that was seven years ago, and they haven’t done anything.

Woman cooking in the community outdoor kitchen

After the demolition, some city councilors from Quezon City lent us a tent. It was a big tent, so two families had to share it. We put up a sheet or a blanket to divide the space. We lived in that tent for almost a year. In the summer it was really hot. Because of the heavy rainfall, my husband and I built a wooden platform so the tent would be higher. When we had flood waters, the current was so strong that we had to hold onto the tent to keep it from washing away. Because we didn’t hear anything from the politicians who promised to help us, the barangay captain said, “Oh, you should just build new shanties above where you used to live.” One day we just fixed our place. The rooms are kind of like a train with one car coming right after the other. That’s our home now.

The next thing was in April, 2012. [In December, 2011, the floods and mudslides in Cagayan de Oro had brought severe criticism on the heads of local officials for not moving people away from places that were known to be unsafe.] Our mayor came to see us with a television crew from ABS-CBN. They came to our neighborhood and also to the rich gated community nearby, where some of the homes were on the fault line. The mayor and the television crew interviewed us, and they said, “You have to move because this place is dangerous. It’s on a fault line.” We agreed that we wanted to move to a safer place. Some people said they wanted to stay, and they were told, “Okay, stay if you want. But if there’s an earthquake no one will help you.”

Man bathing by throwing water on himself

The barangay pushed us to submit the required papers to the National Housing Authority. Married people had to submit their marriage contracts, people who were living together had to turn in cohabitation documents, and single people their birth certificates—because there were some single parents living there. Then you had to give them a barangay clearance document stating that you were really living in that place, family pictures and identification cards. They offered no compensation for our houses. The authorities would just make houses available for us. They call it rent to own. It’s a 30-year plan. The first year it’s free, then for five years it’s 200 pesos a month, then 400, at the end 800-something. It’s still cheap.

City Hall took us to the new location by bus. It was out in Rodriguez, Rizal Province, near the markets but far away from my work. I think on an average day getting to work by jeep would take two hours. The houses were already built. There was no problem about running water, but electricity was only available from six to ten in the evening. It wasn’t supplied by the electric company, just by generators. They said you couldn’t use refrigerators because of the lack of electricity. You could use electric fans, but not during the hottest part of the day. Food was okay because it was near the market. The houses were small, maybe three meters by three meters, which included the CR and the sink. There was a space of about one meter in front and in back for laundry and storage. For my husband and me that would be okay. But if you had a family with five growing children it would be much too small.

Child leaning on Maria’s locked water faucet

The senior citizens and the parents with small children wanted to know about access to hospitals. They said the closest was on East Avenue in Quezon City, which was two hours away. What if you didn’t have your own transportation?  Right now, in a community of 70 families, there are maybe ten motorcycles which the men use to get to work. So if you had a heart attack in the middle of the night you would have to knock on the doors of people who had motorcycles. It would be difficult to find someone to drive you two hours to the hospital. Even then you would have to sit on the back of the motorcycle while it drove past a smelly garbage dump and over a dangerous road with a steep drop. You could also go via Marikina, where the traffic would be worse.

One of our barangay officials told us we would be moving there before Christmas. But in August one of the two relocation sites in Rizal was flooded up to the roofs of the houses, and there were some mudslides as well. So City Hall told us that the flood victims would be moved first. They had priority. They would go to the higher area which wasn’t flooded. Work would also be done on the flooded area to raise the ground and to build a levee to protect it from the river.

We’re happy in our current place. The neighbors are very nice, and we’re near everything—market, downtown, the malls, the hospitals—and only fifteen minutes or so from my work. We were told just to keep in mind that eventually we’d be moved. But we don’t know yet when it will happen. I may be old by then.


A reader writes:

I just want to share my experience in the squatters’ area.

Back in high school, I stayed for a few days in the squatters’ community near Kamias. I had to stay there with an aunt as we waited for our ferry schedules. The people there were very helpful, despite their living conditions. The toilet was a bucket lined with an SM plastic bag. The bath doubled as a urinal. Three families lived in one room. We stayed in a separate room the size of a large broom closet. Some years later, I heard the families were forced to move out because they were on public land. I never saw any of them again. My aunt moved to a decent boarding house.

In college, I rented a place… a hovel… near the campus. The land was public, but a lot of families managed to build cramped quarters there. I stayed in a converted garage made of hollow blocks and a rusty tin roof. I considered myself lucky to have a working toilet, tiny as it was. But it was difficult, because the floods kept ruining my school projects. Rats would scurry across my bed. The kitchen floor was made of dirt which turned to mud during rainy season. The tap water often had a yellowish color. I experienced weight-loss of the unhealthy variety. A neighbor would occasionally steal my things. It was the kind of living condition that I don’t wish anyone to go through. I lived there for two years because it was cheap.

Soon, I was tired of rallying in the streets for “rights.” I was tired of all the “conspiracy” against the “masses.” I was tired of the lies that some politicians promised. No more excuses. I realized that sometimes we can’t simply accept our squalid situation and hope the government will intervene. After a lot of planning and saving, I had enough resources to pack up and move out.

Personally, I believe everyone has a choice. It’s not going to be easy, but the choice is there.

Filipino Squatters’ Tales, Part 1

by on Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Jose and Fely in their outdoor work, shop, cooking and sleeping area

Many times in the past when I’ve heard, “I don’t see how people can live like that,” a judgmental statement, but also the truth. Without access to the details of everyday lives of people from another social group—nationality, ethnicity, social class—we don’t see how they live. We  don’t see, for example, the one-room living quarters of Chinese teachers, watch them cook with a charcoal stove on the balcony, wash clothes at the communal tap or divide the room with sheets suspended from wires in order to create a hospital-ward type of privacy.

My friend Mang Urot goes beyond merely providing the occasional hand-out to the “less fortunate,” which is common in the Philippines. He wanted his family to experience three days of actually living with the squatters who were family friends. He’s intent on raising children without prejudice. The whole family is active in Mang’s soup kitchen, his mission in life. (See the photo essay at On December 1, in response to my post on the soup kitchen, a television crew turned up to interview people and film the event.)

Much of Makati is private land with luxurious surroundings: new buildings of concrete, glass and steel, pristine sidewalks, manicured lawns, and many chain coffee shops which will sell you a cup of tall capuccino for $2.71. In contrast, more than half of the population of Metro Manila survives on less than a dollar a day. Metro Manila is in the midst of a clean-up operation to rid itself of the squatters’ communities which have arisen uncomfortably close to the opulence.

One night this summer Mang said to me, “I want you to come to Makati to meet some friends of mine whose home is going to be demolished.”  I grabbed my camera and we went, accompanied by another friend who translated.  Fely’s speech contained a lot of Filipino repetition, such as restating each of my questions before answering it:  “You ask me how we know Mang Uroat…” or “You ask me how long we’ve lived here….” After some thought I edited this out since readers might find it irritating.


Mang introduced us to his friend, an old friend of his father’s who is widely respected in the area and called “godfather” because of the way he looks after others. Josie  has a peanut selling business, and he provides employment for people who come up to Metro Manila from his province and want to work as peanut vendors pushing carts. While Mang talked to his friend, my friend and I accompanied his wife Fely to the house. The shanties were lined up like matchboxes.

The ground floor was a bare room with large, empty buckets which seemed to substitute for running water and toilet facilities. Ladder-like stairs took us to the second-floor room, where the family’s possessions lined the walls. We sat on the floor. On rainy nights the family also slept there. The daughter, her husband and grandchild had the room above, where the walls were covered with bright curtains in various patterns.

Across the street was an outside shelter which held the cooking space, the shop for making repairs and roasting peanuts, the dining area and the sleeping area for nights when it didn’t rain. In the Filipino tradition of offering food to visitors, after the interview Fely and Jose gave us a tasty meal of rice and sardines in tomato sauce. They were very gracious.

Three generations in the second-floor room

Fely’s story

The second floor room

Mang Urot’s father and my husband are old friends, and so he and Mang also know each other. When Mang’s father was still alive, Mang invited my husband to his house. After that Mang, his wife, his daughter and his son stayed here for three days. There was no special reason. Yes, we went to Mang’s soup kitchen where he gave out food, slippers [flip-flops] and other stuff.

We’ve lived here since 1970. I was single then, and that’s when I met my husband, who was living here in this place near Makati. I came from Sampalok [in Manila] because I used to work there. After that I worked in Makati as a housemaid.

This is our grandchild. My daughter here lives in the other house [the room upstairs] because of her husband. Three families live here. There are two upper levels. We still do our cooking outside, using firewood. But if it’s training we cook inside on a kerosene stove.

The translator friend

Our houses are being demolished. City Hall said that by July 16 of this year they’ll be moving us to another place. We have an organization here, a neighborhood association, and our president went to the Senate to ask for help from Vice President Binay, the former Makati mayor. He wasn’t there, but his staff accepted our request for an extension of the deadline. It’s our feeling that they want us to move sooner. Then the next day some concerned citizens from our group went to City Hall, and they heard that our request had been granted and they would give us an extension, so we would be moving next year, maybe May, 2013.

The ladder going upstairs, plus informal electric wiring

It’s not just that we don’t want to move. We don’t have a choice. That’s the government’s plan. Our only request is that they move us to a place where we’re not squatters anymore, where we can have our own land. Earlier today we heard the news from our barangay [community or local officials] that the demolition will push through. So they told us to submit the required papers to the barangay. Only the people who were householders in 2000 and earlier will get compensation. My youngest daughter just got married in 2004, so her household is not included. I have a son who has been living with his wife since 1999, and they have three kids. He should be included, but he can’t submit papers because right now he’s in jail. I’m not included either because I have no proof of residence, only a written transcript from 1986 when I was relocated to Cavite after my house here was demolished. [Compensation from the National Housing Authority is only given once. When you’re sent out of town you’re expected to stay there.] I’m worried that the required papers for my children aren’t complete. I’m concerned because they have families and they have to earn a living.

The third-floor room decorated with curtains

We’re supposed to be relocated to a place outside Calawan, Laguna, near Quezon Province, where there are no jobs. [Relocated people have also returned after finding no electricity. The site is out in the middle of nowhere, far from children’s schools, hospitals and employment. There is well water.] Here we can be street vendors. If you’re not lazy you still can survive here. We sell peanuts. That’s our source of income. We have ten pushcarts. We used to have more, but the price of peanuts went up, so we had to cut back.

Mother, daughter, grandchild

People from City Hall told us, “You have some options. If you’re among those being compensated for your home, we will either relocate you and give you a small, empty lot to put a house on or we will just give you cash. If you’re not one of those being compensated, we will just give you transportation back to your province or wherever.”  The problem is that if we accept the offer from City Hall and take the piece of land they give to the family, we’ll still be squatters because we’ll only have the possessions we can take with us.

I’m not working now because I have a heart condition and poor eyesight. Our medical care is just the barangay health center because it’s a free clinic. It’s sort of good. You get whatever is available depending on your condition. I have my heart condition and my diabetes and hypertension. Every day I take the medicine for these conditions. In the provinces my birth date was recorded as 1961, but it’s probably 1953. I don’t have a birth certificate, only a baptismal certificate. But lack of papers isn’t really a big problem. If they ask for papers I produce my marriage contract.

You’d like to take some pictures? Okay. Where? Thank you, Carol.

Update from Mang Unrot

The squatters’ colony was demolished probably in October or November. After the demolition some of the squatters accepted the money from the city government. Most of the people went to the relocation site in Calawan, where there are no permanent jobs yet. Most of the people would be new to that environment.

Jose and Fely came back and were able to find a vacant lot probably less than a hundred meters from their old home, on the same street in the area where they’ve been living for thirty or forty years. They live there now with most of their extended family. When I talked with him I saw that there were probably twenty or twenty-five families occupying shanties on the new vacant lot. Jose is still doing business with his boiled peanuts and mineral water. The demolition was just an interval in the cycle. The city tears down their houses, they go back, they put up shanties again, then they go on with their lives.

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