Friday, April 11, 2014

Palm Sunday invasion

Philippine Daily Inquirer
by Denis Murphy

On Palm Sunday, people are likely to think of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, or of their sins, perhaps in preparation for Holy Week. Instead, I remember the great invasion of the Department of Public Works and Highways compound in Parola, Tondo, by the Zone One Tondo Organization (Zoto) on Palm Sunday 1972. Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem, and the poor people of Tondo entered the DPWH compound. Both were peaceful events, and a delight to the poor.

Zone One was the southernmost third of the untitled stretch of land along the piers known as the Tondo Foreshore Area. Zoto, the people’s organization born there with the help of a group called the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization, or Pecco, was the first of the many mass-based, democratic and nonviolent poor people’s organizations to rise in urban poor areas. Zoto’s main task was to oppose then President Ferdinand Marcos’ plan to evict all 180,000 people living in the Tondo Foreshore Area and replace them and their dwellings with a business center, upscale housing, hotels and casinos. Zoto sought the people’s power, which in this instance meant the ability to negotiate with the government as an equal on the matter of the Tondo Foreshore Area, because it involved their homes, jobs and children’s future.

The Zoto area was the very crowded home of some 10,000 families. Zoto was a very frisky organization, and for some time had cast envious eyes on the large and empty DPWH compound in what is now Parola. On Palm Sunday Zoto mounted an invasion. We had read of land invasions in Latin America by people like John Turner; Zoto thought that whatever Latin Americans could do, Filipinos could do better.
When the day broke, thousands of poor people lined up at the gates of the compound carrying palm branches, hammers, saws, pieces of roofing, and lumber. It was a religious procession as well as social action. The guards left when they saw the huge crowd.

The people opened the gates and in we walked in a procession, singing hymns and waving our palm branches. I was one of the two “officiating” priests. We blessed everything with holy water—the people, the wood and GI roofing that the people carried, the land, even the cats and dogs. I believe we felt some of the excitement that the Jewish people felt while crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.

The people shook their palm branches as they do in church, making the sound of a great rush of wind. Hundreds of children ran alongside the marchers. We began with a Mass, and then construction started.
Those in charge of the invasion had a subdivision plan, a people’s plan, which they implemented. Each family got 32 square meters. They had two weeks to build, or the land would be given to some other needy family. The roads were five meters wide. There were a basketball court, a chapel area, and a place for a community center.

The families began building. The area was named Bonifacio Village, after the national hero who was born in Tondo, not very far from the invaded land. About 500 families moved in, I think, but I am not sure.
It turned out to be a very peaceful, well-run and tidy community in the years that followed. There were all types of ideologies in the Zoto area in those years. For some, Bonifacio Village was the first commune; for others, it was the first free zone of peace; for yet others, it was the beginning of a large Basic Christian Community.

In 1980 the people of Bonifacio Village transferred to the Dagat-Dagatan relocation area just north of Tondo. Each family received 96 square meters and a core house at a cost of P96 per month. The Parola land stood empty until President Cory Aquino came to power, and the rumor went around that all empty lands in Manila were up for the taking. Soon, the area called Bonifacio Village was packed with new groups of urban poor people, more people than ever before. It is now a crowded place of decent people trapped in near-subhuman housing conditions.

The people of Zoto built Bonifacio Village with no substantial help from the government or nongovernment organizations. They believe that if the government allows them to develop their communities as they think best, and only intervenes when they ask for help, they can solve our housing problems in a few years. The government must provide the land. If the government doesn’t provide land, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people start invading idle land.

This is the only large-scale urban invasion I know of. It seems the poor were more adventurous in the early 1970s than in the succeeding years. As the succeeding administrations, beginning with Cory Aquino’s, became friendlier, the people were more given to dialogue and negotiation.

Some say poor people’s organizations have been largely domesticated. It may be a necessary step in a maturing relationship between the poor and the state, but we miss the spirit and liveliness of the old days.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates (

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