Filipino Squatters’ Tales, Part 2

Maria’s neighbors

Thanks to Maria for the interview and pictures.

Maria’s story

Entry to Maria’s house

My name is Maria. I was born in Leyte Province, but I’ve been living in Metro Manila since 1979. I’m married to a man who is much younger than I am. We have no children. My husband is only able to get temporary jobs, but he’s a hard worker, and he can fix anything. I’m working part-time as a housekeeper. My boss is very good to us, like family. We have a small room in her house, where we stay about half of the week.

Our own residence is built on public land.  Our house is small, less than two meters by two meters, but it’s okay for us. We have running water and a small shower, but no CR [comfort room, or toilet]. Some of our neighbors have their own CRs, but without a septic tank. The waste just goes down a hole and into the river. We were told we couldn’t have a septic tank because the land was below water. Our community CR serves about 50 families. Sometimes when I have to wait a long time, I say to the neighbor, “Kuya [older brother], can I use your CR?” “Okay, okay, no one is in there.”

House of Maria and her husband

We don’t have our own meter base for the electricity. We used to have a neighborhood electric meter base with about 20 families tapped into it using sub-meters. The electric company had approved it, but then the company pulled the meter out because some neighbors couldn’t pay their bills on time. They had a lot of other expenses like for food and money to send their children to school. The total community bill might be 23,000 to 26,000 pesos. So the company said that to keep the meter base we would have to pay a deposit of 26,000 pesos [over $600]. I have a friend who has her own meter, so I asked if I could have a sub-meter hooked up to her electricity. Now there are six families on one meter. My friend didn’t want to add too many people because if you use more than 100 kilowatts the rate goes up.

In 2005 we were living in about the same place but at a lower level than now. The houses were just small rooms stacked one on top of the other—bottom, middle and top—and also wall to wall. Every family had a room about the size of an average middle-class bathroom. People from the barangay [local community office] said 18 families had to move within a week because our houses were going to be demolished to make room for the road widening. The compensation was 18,000 pesos [maybe $375 at that time] per family. We were just renting, so the owner of the house gave me half. The barangay said, “You can rent another place.” But where we were, near Marikina City, the rent for a small room would be 1,500 pesos, not including water and electricity. So how many months would 9,000 pesos last? We told them it would be okay if they just gave us a lot where we could build our own houses. Some politicians told us that they would help us. They showed us a place somewhere in Rizal Province. But that was seven years ago, and they haven’t done anything.

Woman cooking in the community outdoor kitchen

After the demolition, some city councilors from Quezon City lent us a tent. It was a big tent, so two families had to share it. We put up a sheet or a blanket to divide the space. We lived in that tent for almost a year. In the summer it was really hot. Because of the heavy rainfall, my husband and I built a wooden platform so the tent would be higher. When we had flood waters, the current was so strong that we had to hold onto the tent to keep it from washing away. Because we didn’t hear anything from the politicians who promised to help us, the barangay captain said, “Oh, you should just build new shanties above where you used to live.” One day we just fixed our place. The rooms are kind of like a train with one car coming right after the other. That’s our home now.

The next thing was in April 2012. [In December 2011, the floods and mudslides in Cagayan de Oro had brought severe criticism on the heads of local officials for not moving people away from places that were known to be unsafe.] Our mayor came to see us with a television crew from ABS-CBN. They came to our neighborhood and also to the rich gated community nearby, where some of the homes were on the fault line. The mayor and the television crew interviewed us, and they said, “You have to move because this place is dangerous. It’s on a fault line.” We agreed that we wanted to move to a safer place. Some people said they wanted to stay, and they were told, “Okay, stay if you want. But if there’s an earthquake no one will help you.”

Man bathing by throwing water on himself

The barangay pushed us to submit the required papers to the National Housing Authority. Married people had to submit their marriage contracts, people who were living together had to turn in cohabitation documents, and single people their birth certificates—because there were some single parents living there. Then you had to give them a barangay clearance document stating that you were really living in that place, family pictures and identification cards. They offered no compensation for our houses. The authorities would just make houses available for us. They call it rent to own. It’s a 30-year plan. The first year it’s free, then for five years it’s 200 pesos a month, then 400, at the end 800-something. It’s still cheap.

City Hall took us to the new location by bus. It was out in Rodriguez, Rizal Province, near the markets but far away from my work. I think on an average day getting to work by jeep would take two hours. The houses were already built. There was no problem about running water, but electricity was only available from six to ten in the evening. It wasn’t supplied by the electric company, just by generators. They said you couldn’t use refrigerators because of the lack of electricity. You could use electric fans, but not during the hottest part of the day. Food was okay because it was near the market. The houses were small, maybe three meters by three meters, which included the CR and the sink. There was a space of about one meter in front and in back for laundry and storage. For my husband and me that would be okay. But if you had a family with five growing children it would be much too small.

Child leaning on Maria’s locked water faucet

The senior citizens and the parents with small children wanted to know about access to hospitals. They said the closest was on East Avenue in Quezon City, which was two hours away. What if you didn’t have your own transportation?  Right now, in a community of 70 families, there are maybe ten motorcycles which the men use to get to work. So if you had a heart attack in the middle of the night you would have to knock on the doors of people who had motorcycles. It would be difficult to find someone to drive you two hours to the hospital. Even then you would have to sit on the back of the motorcycle while it drove past a smelly garbage dump and over a dangerous road with a steep drop. You could also go via Marikina, where the traffic would be worse.

One of our barangay officials told us we would be moving there before Christmas. But in August one of the two relocation sites in Rizal was flooded up to the roofs of the houses, and there were some mudslides as well. So City Hall told us that the flood victims would be moved first. They had priority. They would go to the higher area which wasn’t flooded. Work would also be done on the flooded area to raise the ground and to build a levee to protect it from the river.

We’re happy in our current place. The neighbors are very nice, and we’re near everything—market, downtown, the malls, the hospitals—and only fifteen minutes or so from my work. We were told just to keep in mind that eventually we’d be moved. But we don’t know yet when it will happen. I may be old by then.

A reader writes:

I just want to share my experience in the squatters’ area.

Back in high school, I stayed for a few days in the squatters’ community near Kamias. I had to stay there with an aunt as we waited for our ferry schedules. The people there were very helpful, despite their living conditions. The toilet was a bucket lined with an SM plastic bag. The bath doubled as a urinal. Three families lived in one room. We stayed in a separate room the size of a large broom closet. Some years later, I heard the families were forced to move out because they were on public land. I never saw any of them again. My aunt moved to a decent boarding house.

In college, I rented a place… a hovel… near the campus. The land was public, but a lot of families managed to build cramped quarters there. I stayed in a converted garage made of hollow blocks and a rusty tin roof. I considered myself lucky to have a working toilet, tiny as it was. But it was difficult, because the floods kept ruining my school projects. Rats would scurry across my bed. The kitchen floor was made of dirt which turned to mud during rainy season. The tap water often had a yellowish color. I experienced weight-loss of the unhealthy variety. A neighbor would occasionally steal my things. It was the kind of living condition that I don’t wish anyone to go through. I lived there for two years because it was cheap.

Soon, I was tired of rallying in the streets for “rights.” I was tired of all the “conspiracy” against the “masses.” I was tired of the lies that some politicians promised. No more excuses. I realized that sometimes we can’t simply accept our squalid situation and hope the government will intervene. After a lot of planning and saving, I had enough resources to pack up and move out.

Personally, I believe everyone has a choice. It’s not going to be easy, but the choice is there.