And still, ‘mahirap’

And still, ‘mahirap’
By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANUEL VILLAR HAD A MOST INTERESTING answer to the pile of evidence that they were never poor and that his kid brother did not die because they were poor.

His brother, he said, was in fact rushed to FEU because it was an emergency, and nobody thinks about expense during an emergency. But he was taken in as a charity patient. He died in any case because they could not afford the cost of his treatment. Their house in Tondo was so small all nine of them slept side by side on a single mat under a single mosquito net. That was what made his father take out a loan from the GSIS to buy the property in San Rafael payable in 20-25 years.

Even if these were true, and they can be easily disproven (except for the part where they all slept on a single mat, which only they can say), none of it makes things better, it makes them worse. They speak of values, or scale of priorities, or sense of proportion that do not commend him for president.

At the very least, why the utter powerlessness in the face of getting a brother cured, or at least in getting treatment for him, and the sudden powerfulness in the face of getting a house built? If you can secure a loan for a house payable in 20-25 years, why can’t you secure a loan for hospitalization payable in a lifetime? What kind of sense of values or scale of priorities is that?

The loan from the GSIS is already a dead giveaway. If you’re poor, you have no access to institutions like the GSIS. Access is one of the definitions of not-poor. Certainly access to government institutions is not a feature to be found among the dirt poor, which is how the bearded, motorcycle-riding, pistol-toting, “5-6” loan shark became a feature of the landscape. Even if you did manage to apply to the GSIS, the chances even then of getting a housing loan from it if you’re really dirt poor are, well, about the same chances as that story that Manny Villar really came from poor is true.

This thing particularly resonates with me because I know whereof he speaks. I do come from poor. We rented a tiny place in Naga City for P15 a month, and its ceiling was so low the American Jesuit who visited us had to stoop at the doorway to get in. We slept on a single mat under a single mosquito net, which was fine in the rain but not altogether pleasant in summer, notwithstanding that the temperature in the province, being smog-free, tended to fall drastically at night.

When my younger brother got polio, we all rushed to Manila to get him cured. We had nothing to sell, which is why I understand the full meaning of that word “proletarian,” whose fundamental condition is having no property. At least the Villars had their house in Tondo which they could have sold if it came to that. By dint of my father borrowing from kin and friend and taking advances on his pay, and by dint of him vowing as well to make a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for whatever help she could give, my brother recovered. Not completely, he still suffers from a limp, but he recovered. My father honored the vow he made to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, completely wholly despite the cure being arguably partial (he was not one to bargain with Providence) dragging me along every Wednesday late afternoon to the Naga Cathedral (“Why me?”) for it.

It’s called resolve, it’s called resourcefulness, it’s called dedication.

A friend not quite incidentally texted me the other day to say, “How can you be poor and study in the Ateneo de Manila?” In my case, simple. I did not pay a single centavo for it, a whole slew of scholarships did. In fact I not only did not pay a single centavo for it, I brought home a few pesos saved from my allowance by dint of eating bread with marmalade as palaman for supper. What can I say? I was brilliant then as I am now. Which allowed me to escape a lifetime of poverty, in more ways than one: I not only escaped the crushing physical poverty of want, I escaped the even more crushing spiritual poverty of need. That is the need for more and more money, whatever it takes, which is a far more impoverished state than the Grapes-of-Wrath kind.

Which brings me to the Pandora’s Box Villar has opened by his insistence on waging a campaign based on his claims of knowing the poor. Because even if you grant that he was so, then all he did was to escape the poverty of want by embracing the poverty of need. The need to accumulate more and more lands and titles and money than you can possibly use in a hundred lifetimes.

In my time, many of the brilliant poor, who were scholars in various universities, saw where they came from and decided they would devote themselves not just to rescuing themselves from that plight but to rescuing others from that plight. The teeming others stuck like flies in a flytrap to untold misery. They became activists.

Today, that is seen in the heroism of someone like Efren Peñaflorida who came from poor but decided not to become rich in ways Villar will understand but to give back to the poor and become rich in ways Villar won’t. There he is, opening the minds of the poor in narrow alleyways and spacious cemeteries with his kareton classroom.

All Villar did was, well, the same thing Lucio Tan did, and Lucio Tan has a far more valid claim to having once been poor, having true bote-dyaryo origins. You do not become a billionaire by sympathizing with the poor, you become a billionaire by screwing the poor. By selling cigarettes as a cancerous crony, by resorting to diversions, extensions and outright dispossession of others long before you become a senator. Weren’t the activists who are now with him charging him not too long ago with land-grabbing?

Villar wasn’t just mahirap once, he remains mahirap today. So in ways that go beyond the pedestrian meaning of poor.

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.