I woke up one morning, still rubbing the sleep from my eyes. It was barely noon but the street was already noisy with it’s usual racket. The sound of wood hitting laundry. The clucking of roosters used for cockfights while being fed. The shuffling of playing cards and the placing of bets. The rattling of bingo tiles and the anticipation of shouting the word “bingo!”. This is the sound of our neighborhood.
I was about to go to the small store to get myself one of those 25 cent bubble-gums, when a man ran in front of me. He was fast but I saw him clutching his shoulder which is dripping with blood. Another man ran after him, clutching not his shoulder, but a long sharp metal object, probably an ice pick, probably the reason for the bleeding shoulder, shouting after the bleeding man, asking him to stop.
The chase continued on to the next street. If you can call the streets there a street. A small car would have a hard time fitting in there. Not that any one there owns a car. But I digress. The chase, the bleeding man, the man with the ice pick, those must be traumatizing scenes for a 4-year-old, or for anybody. No one called the cops, no onlooker screamed, because that chase is as normal of a scene as any of the uproar that fill that neighborhood. It was nothing more than a daily dose of entertainment, presented to you by the residents of Punta, Sta. Ana Manila. And it was barely lunch time too.
We used to live in the slums. Informal settlers. The Projects. Tenements. It doesn’t matter what you call it, because back then I didn’t know the difference anyway. All I know is, we live in Punta Sta. Ana, a district of Manila. A place dubbed as the “Little Tondo”—if you’re Filipino, or have lived in the Philippines, you may know that Tondo is associated with violence, crime, and dirt. So when you’re place is known as “Little Tondo”, you know to stay away. The ice pick chase is Exhibit A.
But when you’re a kid who know nothing else but the world of the slums, it doesn’t make any difference whatever it’s called. All I knew is that we lived there, in Vulcan street, and I liked it.
People who have never lived in the slums or have never stepped into one, probably wouldn’t understand this, but we also categorized the people there as rich or poor. You may wonder why, in a place that is profoundly the dirt of society. A squalor. A place with no reliable sanitation or order. Clearly, this place is only meant for the poor. That anyone who chooses to live there is unfortunate and a known derelict. But it may be the slums but we still brand people.
You have a colored T.V and a VHS player to match. You’re rich.
You’re father drives a jeepney for a living and gets drunk on gin every other night. You’re poor.
You have an Aunt who works as an entertainer in Japan (or Japayukis as we call it) who sends you imported chocolates every now and then. You’re rich.
You’re mom does laundry for a living and you have 9 other brothers and sisters. You’re poor.
In reflection, it doesn’t matter. Everyone in Punta Sta. Ana Manila are informal settlers. It won’t matter whether you’re tagged rich or poor by the community, everyone gets kicked out by whoever owns the land anytime they want. I don’t particularly remember anyone trying while we still lived there, but the point is, you’re going to have to fight to stay and live there just like everybody else.
I was 4, maybe 5, when my older brother and I were placed in the care of my Aunt. My mom got a job abroad, the same place where my dad has been working for the last few years. We left the slums and our slum neighbors. I left my public school and all my public school friends. It was replaced by the suburbs and suburbia neighbors. I was enrolled to a private Catholic school, the most expensive in the district. And the longer I stayed there the more I realized how incredibly unfortunate we we’re and how lucky we are to have the means to get out.
It was ages before I visited Punta again, I was maybe 9 or 10. We still have relatives that live there—even to this day—and we visit them once in a while.
Being back there was like waking up from a coma with no recollection of what happened prior. It’s like being re-introduced to people you knew all your life.
When you get out of the slums, transfer to the suburbs, people know about it. People who care—and there are a lot of them—talk about it.
So when my brother and I visited, it was like a coming of a celebrity. People stand outside their doorway to greet you. They say things like how much you’ve changed, how your dress is so pretty and how expensive your shoes look.
I remember it being so strange. I didn’t even know where to sit when just a few years ago I used to live in that very same house. Surrounded and doted over by the very same people.
But then again, people treated us differently too. They kept offering snacks, us awkwardly eating it. Fetching one of their kids to buy us a cold bottle of soft drink, us politely saying we’ve had one already. People constantly apologizing for the way they look or how awful their house smelled, manically arranging the stack of laundry to make room for us to sit, us saying never mind because we won’t be staying long, that we just dropped by to say hi.
Everything changed. Not only did we change from the move to the suburbs, people in the slums changed too, at least for me.
The last time I remember being there, I was maybe 21 or 22. I was going to one of the most prestigious *rolls eyes* universities in the country. Before that, I was transferred from another well known rich people type university. And before that, I grew up and graduated high school abroad. And of course, everyone in Punta knew about it. Everyone that cared talked about it.
I had no reason to go there but somehow I ended up on a bus headed to that direction. I thought, I was already there, might as well say hi to the few relatives we have who still there.
I barely stepped out of one of those mini boats (bangkas) you used to cross the Pasig River, when a bunch of shirt-less men greeted me, offered to escort me to my Great Aunts house. I politely said no, but they followed me anyway.
It was like the coming of a celebrity all over again. People I don’t even know, or remember, said hi. Elderly’s asking how my mom and dad are. Pubescent boys, that claims I used to go to school with them, inquiring if I have a boyfriend and if he’s treating me well because if not…*makes a fist*. Ladies, complementing my jeans and how white my shirt looks. Kids, staring up at me, open-mouthed, probably wondering who I was and what I’m doing there. Fish-ball vendors, taking a hurried picture of me using their second hand camera phones.
I smiled inwardly. Silently laughing at this, unnecessary attention. But I realized that the reason why people from there act like this towards me is because I managed to get out of the slums. Whether it’s by some form of luck or my parents determination and hard work, it doesn’t matter. All their fixated about is that I got out.
My going back there, to whatever reason it may be—voluntarily or not—it gives them hope. Hope, that someday they can also get out. That they can also walk the streets of Punta and dwell on the eyes filled with admiration. That my sheer presence is a sign that people can walk out of there and come back educated, employed, and proud.
To some people, who have not given up but has looked the realization of them being there for the rest of their lives in the eye, live vicariously through me. That by some mere form of acquaintance they have also attended a university. They would talk about me to their slum inhabiting friends, unbeknownst to my existence, with such pride. Like they had a reason for me getting out of there.
I cannot exactly say that I am proud of getting out of there or proud of admitting to coming from there. All it is to me, really, is a part of my history. My removing from there was not my formulated decision. That was something done for me by my parents.
Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful that I have been granted a privileged life but I don’t really see myself any different from the people that live in the slums. Because just like them, I can still be kicked out anytime fate decides me to. Because just like them, I am continuously living and fighting for my place in this world just like everybody else. The only difference is, I don’t live there anymore.
But if my suburbia upbringing. My arguably lower middle-class family. My economically useless Bachelor’s degree. And my white-collar job that I don’t intend to keep very long, means hope, or whatever, to someone else who wishes to live my life, then I’ll gladly take it.
Soon, when a bus ride takes me there again, I will look at everyone, smile and laugh, wave and cheer. And know, that I am back home.
*Pictures taken from Google Image
*originally posted on medium.com/@dora_argh