Thursday, June 27, 2013

Knowing and unknowing

Marietta, a woman of buoyant good humor with whom we have worked for years on the R-10 road in Tondo, was telling us why she was happy with her new home in the resettlement area in San Pedro, Laguna. “I have a real home now,” she said. “When I die, my wake can be inside my home, not out in the street.” Traffic on the R-10 roars dangerously close to the poor people’s houses. Holding a wake there is a risky matter. We were surprised that Marietta, still in her 40s, should be thinking of her death and wake.

There are many things we don’t know about the urban poor, including the depth of their unawareness of matters that affect their lives. In a survey made of poor families living along the San Juan River in San Juan City and Quezon City, we found that most of them knew almost nothing about the Urban Development and Housing Act that sets limits on evictions, and nothing about the “Covenant with the Urban Poor” that was signed by President Aquino. The covenant restricts resettlement to on-site, in-city and near-city relocation areas, and forbids the distant relocation patterns of past years that saw up to 80 percent of the people sent to far-off sites abandoning their homes there and returning to Manila. There were no jobs. The poor are not aware they have housing rights guaranteed by law and the Constitution.

When the survey respondents were asked about eviction, they told the interviewers that they knew they were living illegally on the land near the river and therefore had no rights. They told the interviewers to talk to their barangay captains because they would do what these leaders told them to do. The barangay captains traditionally do what the mayor wants in eviction matters, so the poor were in effect turning over all decisions on the matter to the mayors who often are the source of evictions orders.

This ignorance of their rights can be a temptation to the government to ignore the people’s rights, though it seems that the government’s first task should be to inform the people of their rights. These days, even deadly criminals are so informed. We all know the short speech the detective gives as he puts on the handcuffs: “You have the right to remain silent. What you say may be held against you in court. You have a right to a lawyer…”
Are poor people denied similar information? Are they told, “You have a right to question the eviction orders, you have a right to near-city or in-city resettlement”?

We found that 90 percent of the communities along the San Juan River were unorganized. There may be a leader who takes care of Mass in the  capilla  during the fiesta or intercedes with the mayor in special cases, but there is no organization that brings the people together to discuss matters such as imminent eviction and how they should respond. The people, through lack of awareness of their rights and lack of an organization capable of a critical stance toward evictions, are very vulnerable to government “bullying.”

Most importantly, the poor people are not aware of how God looks on their situation, which is, of course, the way we should look on them. God doesn’t want them to live in slums. Neither does He want them forced or talked out of their homes and sent to places that, for lack of jobs, may be more injurious to them than life in the slums. He wants His people to be treated justly. Pope John Paul II once said through his Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace: “Every family that finds itself living in slum-like conditions through no fault of their own is a victim of injustice.” That’s injustice committed by the rest of society.

I feel we may be caught up in a gigantic typhoon of propaganda and spin. People are told they are being evicted “for their own good,” but the people say they have lived along the esteros and rivers for 20 or 30 years and no one has been hurt by the many floods they have experienced. Then we are told the poor families along the waterways are blocking the flow of water and causing the floods that bring the whole city to its knees. Actually, most families along the waterways are at least three meters from the water, and public works officials and World Bank experts have said they do not interfere with the flow of water. We are also told the same poor families pollute the rivers and Manila Bay itself. Research tells us only 5-10 percent of pollution is from the poor. If all the poor along the waterways did nothing all day except “make  ihi,” they still couldn’t pollute the rivers and bay, so vast is the volume of water.

What we need in the matter of pollution are waste treatment plants for industry that really work and treatment plants to serve the hundreds of thousands of families of all income levels whose waste is now poured directly into the Pasig River.

Our haste to evict may be leading us to illegal actions. Some lawyers believe the government plan to give evicted families P18,000 for rent in lieu of resettlement, with a promise to resettle them after a year, may be illegal.

We are gradually shifting all guilt and all necessary sacrifice connected with flood control on to the shoulders of the poor. Reality is much more complex. We are not informing poor people of their rights, though Ramon Magsaysay once promised, “Those who have less in life should have more in law.” We are not helping them organize so they can fully understand and deal with the evictions they face.

Does the country want to go down such a self-righteous road, blaming the poor for our ills, or can we face the huge, complex flood problem, and other problems linked to climate change, as one people, giving new meaning to the old slogan “one for all and all for one”?

There is time. The engineering work for flood control will not even begin for a few more years. Why not solve the problems we face with compassion for all our people?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Snows of yesteryear

Denis Murphy
Sixty years ago this month, a group of young American Jesuit scholastics, myself among them, sailed into Manila Bay. Fr. Francisco “Fritz” Araneta was our superior. He was home after years of study abroad, and began presenting his country.
He pointed out a young woman, a legendary heroine, asleep on the mountains. He spoke of Corregidor Island, and told us of its fall. Part of the story he got from another Jesuit, Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, who had been there with President Manuel Quezon until they left with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He told us there were sharks in the waters between Corregidor and Cavite, as if he expected us to jump in if he didn’t warn us. We saw nothing but green mountains and the blue sea. It was a wonderland.
We were in our early 20s. We would study philosophy at Berchmans College Cebu, then teach in one of the Ateneos before going on to theology. We had been 21 days on the old freighter Pacific Bear without seeing land, until we stopped at San Fernando, La Union, to unload the heavy-duty trucks intended for Ambuklao Dam.
I don’t remember much of the next few days. I recall visiting Intramuros and the immigration office there, and seeing the demolished walls of the city and the poor people everywhere, even on the site of the old cathedral. They were called “squatters” by everyone. I never dreamed I would spend most of my life working with these people.
At that time there were about 27 million Filipinos; now there are 93 million, more than thrice the 1953 figure. The extremely rapid population growth is arguably the most important historical fact of the last 60 years.
We were wearing white soutanas in public for the first time. We felt very odd, but the people didn’t seem to notice. I remember our trip to Cebu on the Basco, a small freighter, packed with people and cargo, chickens and pigs. All three days of the trip the people stared at us in our white soutanas and we stared at them; both sides were fascinated with what they saw. One in our group, Ed Spinello, had been a football player at Fordham University. He stood 5’9”, but he weighed at least 250 pounds. The people realized he never used the toilet. When he got up to walk around the ship, every eye followed him. Parents pulled their children out of his way.
Besides Spinello and myself there was Cal Poulin, who died in Cagayan de Oro in 2012. Asked once what he wanted on his tombstone, he said: “Here lies a Jesuit missionary of 60 years.” He died a year before that time was up. The fourth man was John Van Bemel, who left the Jesuits soon after ordination. We lost track of him. Spinello died shortly after ordination. Such are life’s vagaries.
We were fascinated by the way the mothers made “homes” out of the few square meters their family occupied amid all the cots and cargo in that ship. We were looking at families, not a crowd of individuals.
Flying fish followed us all the way with leaps of up to 20 meters. We saw the small islands scattered over the sea in their turquoise rings. We saw thunderstorms marching across the sea toward us on dark spindly legs. We were on our own; Father Araneta had stayed in Manila. For us it was a first-class adventure. Actually I think it was the love of adventure as much as the missionary spirit that moved us to volunteer for the missions in the first place.
We landed in Cebu on June 21, the feast of St. Aloysius Gonzaga. We knew the American scholastics who had gone ahead of us in 1951 and 1952. We met our Filipino classmates for the first time. Looking back now, I don’t see any way in which all Americans differed from all Filipinos. Some of each group loved philosophy, some found it torture. Some were interested in the fine arts, others were not.
We heard Ramon Magsaysay campaigning to become president at Fuente OsmeƱa. He said America would never give the weapons the Philippines needed to defeat its enemies (the Huks) “unless they saw the name Ramon Magsaysay at the bottom of the page.” He got a truly rousing reception in Cebu. Just four years later he flew from Cebu to his death.
One night not long after we arrived, I heard loud noises coming from the mountains behind the city. I left my room to see what it was. It sounded like people beating on pots and pans, and I saw rows of torches moving on the mountains. “What is it?” I asked the superstudious Filipino scholastic who lived next to me. He had a scholar’s interest in angels. Whatever problem came up in class, he related it to the angels: “What has this to say about the angels?”
He told me the people were making noise because they wanted the moon back. I hadn’t noticed the eclipse; nearly half the moon was gone and the night was darker. He said, “They believe the dragon took part of the moon and they want it back. If I were you, I’d stay in my room. Sometimes the people look for victims to sacrifice to the dragon. They prefer fair-skinned people. It’s about the light you see. Stay in your room.”
I stayed in my room until the dragon gave back the moon and the mountain people went to bed. My neighbor came and told me he was only kidding about the human sacrifice. It was the only time anyone can remember that he did something frivolous.
“What does it say about the angels?” I asked him. He laughed. It was the first time we saw him laugh out loud.
I once again thank the Filipino people, who have been angels mostly over the years.
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates [].

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Not the ‘gates of hell,’ but worse

By Denis Murphy
Manila is not the “gates of hell” Dan Brown described in his latest novel “Inferno.” If anything, it is worse. Brown and observers like him see only the shell of poverty, the part of it that is visible from a car or from a walk on the edge of an urban poor area near their hotel. They don’t know the truly awful scenes in the heart of the slums and they don’t know the people. And most Filipinos have little more real knowledge of the slums than our foreign friends do.
Foreigners and most Filipinos lack an understanding of why the slums are here, how little is done to help the urban poor, and how much courage and self-sacrificing love exist in the slums. Cardinal Chito Tagle and Pope Francis have urged us to listen to one another as a precondition for understanding one another: To understand all is to forgive all.
Yes, in the slums there are pimps, men ready to kill for P500, drug lords, child prostitutes, parents who encourage their children to become prostitutes; there are drunks, lazy people, opportunists, violent husbands, vultures who prey on the weak, and all types of bad characters. There are, however, as I have experienced in my 43 years of work in the Tondo-Baseco slums, men and women, especially women, of near-heroic love and unselfishness.
I also believe there are embers of compassion in all our people, so that a gesture of concern by a decent government or an engaged Church, or a group of young people, can fan the embers into flame and into genuine concern for the very poor. Why worry about what Dan Brown or others say? We will be judged on what we do to help the poor who are there before us, as Jesus promised they always would be.
Let me give an example of what embers of compassion look like and how these can be fanned into life.  We were driving on Aurora Boulevard in front of St. Joseph’s Church last week when we saw coming toward us, against the traffic, an older man, a scavenger, pushing a kariton that was piled high with the stuff he had gathered during the night. On top of everything was a cardboard box turned upside down, and balancing on the box were two small puppies. The box tilted this way and that and the puppies looked around for help. The man, who seemed to be in his sixties, was smiling at the dogs and reassuring them they were safe, and perhaps for a few hours at least he was smiling at life itself. After all, he had finished work and had earned his P150 or P200 for the night. He was on his way to the junk shop to sell his stuff and then he would head home for breakfast and bed with his puppies.
Then something remarkable happened: None of the drivers around us blew their horns at the man for coming against traffic and slowing them up in the rush hour. Ordinarily, these same drivers would be furious at a wrong-way driver. People have been shot for blocking traffic. Here no one was angry. They sympathized with the old man. Compassion was still alive.
Maybe the drivers liked the old man’s self-reliance and jaunty air in the face of poverty and old age. Maybe they liked his affection for the puppies. Whatever the reason, the drivers saw him as a good man in need of help. If there were a program for the old man, they would readily have signed on.
Let the old man stand as a symbol for the urban poor and the rural landless poor and the tribal people hustled out of their land by mining companies and others. The job of the government, the Church and ourselves, I believe, is to awaken the interest of all people in the poor of the country. Like the old man, most of the poor are decent, interesting people.
The poor need help. No one escapes poverty by himself or herself. Not Batman, Superman, or even the Irish superhero Finn McCool, who is so strong he can lift himself up by the scruff of his neck, can manage to get out of poverty unaided.
What might a program for the old scavengers and people like him be? We should note, first of all, that if he has a home, he is fortunate. There are hundreds of scavenger-families who sleep at night in or alongside their kariton. Let us talk about what can be done for them. At night they pull their wagons up on the sidewalk wherever they can and huddle together for the night, more like people in the Tabon Caves 50,000 years ago than residents of a modern city. They are liable to be beaten or robbed, or rousted by the police or by security guards, or well-off people who fear the presence of homeless people.
Suppose we set up camps around the city where the poor scavengers can come at night, where they will have water and be safe, where perhaps a medical person can examine the sick and the children can get a bite to eat, and maybe some tutoring. Can Ateneo de Manila University, Miriam College and the University of the Philippines open their parking lots at night to the kariton of the poor and homeless? The security guards are already in the schools to keep an eye on things. The homeless people will be safe and will leave in the early morning.
The schools can become homes of peace and compassion for the hundreds of young and old people who are literally homeless in the Cubao area.
What must be done?
Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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