I hate the heat, but I have to thank the temperature for this surreal experience I had last Saturday. I would not have gotten up in an ungodly hour of 5:30 in the morning to go to Commonwealth Avenue had it not been for the sweltering heat in my room that I just had to escape. That and the persistence of Lana Linaban of Gabriela, who courteously but repeatedly asked me to tag along Angel Locsin and friends that morning and document a trip. “She’ll be in disguise,” said Lana, rather cryptically. That afternoon, Angel — more recently known to public as the beautiful she-wolf of ABS-CBN’s “Lobo” dramaserye — wanted to visit the Payatas dumpsite. But she wanted to freely move around and not have to dodge pesky media people (like me) and screaming fans. (Angel later tells of a mall shop that she visited recently where shop managers had to ask her to leave because of the amount of fans tagging along her, increasing tenfold the amount of possible shoplifters.) She wanted to visit Payatas incognito.
Since that Pinoy Weekly article came out last year, I have been a fan. Some of us bloggers even took turns defending her (in my blog, in Teo’s, and Ilang’s) when Angel got flak for changing networks. To me, she is a promise of something good coming out of that heap of crap called popular culture; her endorsements of Kabataan and Gabriela being just the surface of it. Angel promised not to disappoint, and she does not.
A fake bucked tooth, baseball cap, ordinary-looking tees over a long-sleeved dark blue camisa de chino, jog pants and sipit sandals were all that disguised Angel in Payatas. During a short briefing, the women from Samakana (Samahan ng Kababaihang Nakikibaka, an organization of urban poor women affiliated with Gabriela) discussed the security precautions they prepared for the visit — the husbands were to be security escorts, but we were to be perceived as “ordinary visitors” from the provinces who were checking out Payatas. Angel wanted to talk to the women and children who scrounged the trash for a living. She wanted to see for herself the grim and grime, and prepared herself for the stink.
And I was there to document, bringing along a Kodak camera (the organizers had advised to bring a “hidden camera”, still and video). But my job was not only to document, but to document Angel’s visit secretly without betraying her identity. Which means I had to act as if I was not photographing anything in particular, just the place and people there. This was compounded by the fact that dumpsite people (under an agency that the Quezon City Hall assigned to look over and run the place) disallowed anyone from photographing the mountains of trash and the people working in it. I suspect that the alleged corruption and payoffs that the administrators and private trash dealers were engaged in had something to do with such policy — and the people there said as much. When we arrived, the Samakana women asked those dumspite people if we can look around the dumpsite itself instead of confining ourselves to the shantytown just at the foot of the trash-mountain — and got the expected boot from a certain Col. Jaymalin.
Anyway, I managed to take a few shots of her looking around the community, talking with kids. One was a woman with a kid in her arms. She is in her 30s, and four-months pregnant, but is obliged to work in the dumpsite to feed her kids. She works the trash alternately with her husband who is a leader of sorts in the community — he gives out the IDs needed to allow people to scrounge the trash. She earns, at most, a hundred everyday, but it isn’t enough, so she raises chicken and a pig on the side.
Angel got to talk to some other kids who work in the trash picking out the plastics (plastic bottles are the most sought-after trash, sold at P23 per kilo). She pointed to the kids one plastic bottle lying around: “Eto, magkano ito?” One kid shook his head: the bottle, because it had something written on it, was worthless.
We got to a junkshop inside the community where a family was busy working a pile of styros from fastfood chains. A guy was segregating leftover rice from the rest of the leftover food (This reminded me of today’s rice crisis). This practice is called “pagpag.” A community organizer said that some of the “pagpag” food are recooked for the people to eat. Some even end up in carinderias inside the community.
All this hardly surprised Angel, who wanted to observe some more if not for a kid who stared so hard at her then grinned mightily and contorted his face to indicate his discovery. “I would have wanted to scrounge the trash myself,” she later said. After saying goodbye to the nanays, Angel and her gang of three (sis E, E’s husband N and Angel’s assistant) plus me rode a vehicle to go to another part of Payatas, the one that collapsed in 2000, killing over 200 people. Angel had heard of stories that bodies of some of the dead were never recovered and remain buried in the site — she had to see that part of Payatas. That part, however, had recently been demolished of another community of gleaners. So we only managed to sneak a peak at the impressive concrete monument that Gloria Arroyo had ordered built in memory of the 200 dead. That monument and the walk that leads toward it being the only concrete structures in the entire Payatas trash-mountain.
On the way home, N told of an organizer he knew in Payatas who was abducted and detained for a time by soldiers last year, election time. “They held her in the barangay hall,” N said. Angel fell silent in her seat, then asked why the activist was abducted. “They do that to activists,” explained N. Angel noted that the barangay hall is the most obvious place to illegaly detain activists. After this, N and E recounted other Payatas stories, like how local officials supposedly make a buck out of the people there, how bogus groups and even so-called religious organizations exploit the images of poverty there to get funding abroad.
To these she reacted in initial disbelief. Angel apparently does not believe right away everything she hears from her activist sister — she wants to see it for herself. Now that she has seen the faces of poverty, touched the trash and smelled its stink, she may later find the need to see the face of oppression, of dispossession, of neglect that perpetuates and feeds on the poverty. She seems hungry to learn more.
Meanwhile, I am still to fully digest that surreal Saturday. Mornings this summer are bound to get even hotter, so I expect to be out of my room and house more. Stories await me out there, and my feeling is that my own political education, too, has just started.
Here are the pictures of Angel Locsin in Payatas, as well as the YouTube video of her interview in The Buzz.
Meet Benito here.