Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Santa in Balintawak

Inquirer Opinion / Columns

Commentary : Santa in Balintawak

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: December 29, 2009

IF you would like to know how it feels to be a presidential candidate, a movie star or even a pope, just dress up as Santa Claus and go to a poor area of Metro Manila. You will need bodyguards to protect you, not from pickpockets and addicts, but from the crowds of children who will drown you in their affection and excitement if you are not careful.

I was Santa Claus this year to hundreds of young children of the scavengers and market workers who live against the wall of the GenTex Compound in Balintawak. When we were near the place, I put on my red Santa jacket, white wig and whiskers and began to wave to people along the way. Everyone, even the tough guys stripped to the waist who looked as if they were ready at any time for a knife-fight and the tired-looking women, smiled back and waved. If I waved back and forth quickly, the people waved quickly, and I felt like Noynoy Aquino or Manny Pacquiao. When I waved slowly the crowds waved slowly and I felt like Pope Benedict XVI. I knew how he must feel speeding through crowds in his pope mobile. Everyone recognized Santa; everyone was glad to see him. It was an exhilarating feeling.

The sponsors had given me bags of candy to distribute to the children. Be careful doing that! Hundreds of children coming at you to get their candy is scary. Don’t try it unless the children are lined up safely in some sort of traffic control contraption designed by Bayani Fernando and watched over by their mothers. I told the children all about Santa, who he was and where he came from and what Santa wanted for them and their city when they grew up. There should be enough food for everyone, good schools, and good jobs for all, I told them. I sensed the children wishing in their own way that I’d hurry up, so that the gift-giving and the meal could begin.

The children were strikingly beautiful and I thought I recognized some of them.

In 1998 a demolition team from Quezon City Hall came to evict the people living in this same place. The people asked them not to insist on the eviction because five of their children were sick of dengue and might die if they were forced to sleep in the open. One child had already died of the disease, the people said, and showed the team the body of the child which was still in one of the houses. The demolition team examined the dead child and still tore down the huts. In the morning the five children were dead. The parents went to the mayor who told the miserably poor people he would pay 20 percent of the burial expenses and no more.

We had young community organizers working with us in that place, who brought the coffins holding the children to City Hall. We arrived in a truck. The guards said we couldn’t unload the coffins, but they were afraid to come close to the dead bodies to stop us. We lay the dead by the main flag pole, and stayed there all day while a drum beat a sad rhythm. At first the mayor refused to come down, but when it looked as if we might stay and the media were gathering, he did come. Eventually he agreed to bury the children, relocate the families to Payatas and punish the demolition team.

We buried the dead children then in the saddest funeral I have ever attended. We were in the pauper’s plot of the cemetery where the bones of other dead stuck out of the soil. There was no priest or anyone to say a prayer, except the parents and neighbors.

The families of the dead children still live in that area. The children greeting me as Santa Claus may have been their brothers and sisters. The place is as dirty and crowded as ever and the people are still threatened with eviction.

God keeps giving us beautiful children and we keep forcing them to live in slums like Balintawak. “What have you done with my children?” God may well ask us one day. While we rebuild the city after “Ondoy,” can we concentrate on what is the most important need for us to worry about, namely, the future of the children of the poor?

It is Christmas, isn’t it? Good things can happen.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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