His Name is Juan

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

I watched "Aswang" last night. A very touching film. Our experience of EJKs in Payatas clearly came back. As fresh as it happened around December 2016.

"Juan", that was how his friends called him, was a father to six children; his wife was pregnant with their seventh child, and he worked as a waste-picker at the garbage dump in Quezon City. He was told that his name was on the drug hit list. One night, a group of policemen came into his house, destroyed the walls to force themselves in, but he was not there. They captured his pregnant wife instead. When she was interrogated at the police station, they asked for the whereabouts of her husband. If she can tell them where he was, she will be freed. She did not. For this, she was incarcerated for a year and eight months without charges; and delivered her seventh child in prison.

In the meantime, "Juan" who was working in Manila to escape the police pursuit. But he could not take it anymore that his children were left to the care of his 85 year-old mother. He knew he was placing his own life in danger but he decided to go home even if just to see his children for some few moments. He went home at night to avoid the surveillance cameras stationed all over the place.

He was with his children that night and cooked spaghetti for breakfast. It was the birthday of one of his daughters. Spaghetti is a real feast for a family in the garbage dump. They were very happy that morning. He missed his children and they missed him. He first fed them and prepared them for school.

But when it was his time to eat, five armed men barged into the house and let him raise his hands in surrender. They dragged the children out of the door and shot him. He was still able to beg for his life. “Please don’t kill me,” he knelt pleading. “Imprison me if you want but please do not kill me. I have seven children and my wife is still in prison. No one is going to take care of them.” The armed men did not listen; instead they landed four more bullets in different parts of his body. One of his daughters saw what happened. Before the shooting, she hugged her father and he told her: “Do not leave your younger sisters and brothers.” When he was lying there dead, they put a small gun on his right and illegal drugs on his left. They took a photo of the crime scene and sent it to the TV network. They next day the news says: “Nanlaban” (He fought back). Juan is just one among the many thousands with parallel narratives.

On the one hand, the government storyline is that Juan is both a drug user and small-time drug dealer. For this, he deserved his death. Since he fought back, he needs to be “neutralized” (a police jargon for killing) in the name of self-defense. Beyond that, for the government, Juan was a pest to society. Drugs have destroyed his human capacities beyond repair, or so the official narrative goes. All addicts like him are hopeless to rehabilitate. With this dominant story popularized on the airwaves and social media, his neighbors, mostly supporters of Duterte, believe the storyline. They did not come to the wake. They did not condole with the family. People were either afraid that the police might come back; or they might also have thought that the government is right.

On the other hand, from the eyes of his family, he was a caring and responsible father. They were only happy that he came back. “They were happy that morning,” grandmother Remy recalled. “He was always a loving father to them.” Knowing that his name is on the list and he was being hunted, to come back to the area is a big risk to one’s life. But he did not mind. He was worried about the children. And then the inevitable came. After Juan, there were many more. Even when we are in the COVID-19 lockdown!

Ditsi Carolino, one of the great documentary filmmakers in the Philippines who is also a very good friend, came with me to Payatas one Sunday. It was the funeral of "Juan". Let her tell the story again. So that we will not forget. So that we will not forget. Someday someone will answer for this!

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM
St Vincent SchoolofTheology
Adamson University