Filipino Squatters’ Tales, Part 1

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. (Link)

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 cappuccino 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

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 ladder going upstairs, plus informal electric wiring

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.

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.

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.

Mother, daughter, grandchild

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.