Of Food, Drugs and Sampaguita

By Daniel Franklin Pilario

I sometimes go with our seminarians to distribute food every night to street people around our area – bridge dwellers, night garbage scavengers, sampaguita vendors, those who sleep in sidewalks and others until where our little food supply lasts. We have been doing this each night for more than a year now.

When we arrive the places where they rest for the night, so many children and adults flock around our car. And our supply for the night – two cups of rice, a viand and hot soup for each person – are gone in a few minutes. But in recent weeks, there is no one on the streets to grab the food. We have to call some of them under the bridge where they hide for fear of the cops. They have gone home early. Some children were “rescued” (‘sinagip’ is the Tagalog word used) by the police and DSWD several nights before. Lyza (not her real name) made it to the headlines. She too was no longer there when we passed by.Let me share their stories as their mothers told them.
MichelleMichelle (not her real name) is a mother of four children aged thirteen, eleven, nine and four – all studying during the day and selling sampaguita at night on rainy or fair weather. Her husband was just released on bail of P36,000 pesos that she borrowed from everywhere just to set her husband free. For which crime? He was a victim of Oplan Galugad – a police operation when they just barge into small alleys and catch suspicious people – those on the drug list or not and bring them all to jail. In prison, they are asked to own up to three cases – using and selling drugs, carrying firearms and resisting arrest (nanlaban) – all of which are fabricated. This is what they call “amin-laya”. Ang aamin ay lalaya!  (Those who admit the charges can go). But he did not own up to the charges, so he needs to pay the bail to get out.

To make both ends meet, to pay the borrowed bail money and to continuously attend the ongoing hearing of his case, he and Michelle and their four children roam the streets at night to sell sampaguita. They go home earning four hundred pesos at the most in good nights. In recent weeks, however, the police harass them, warns them and tells them to leave the streets early – consequently cutting their earnings into half, even less.

RochelleI saw Rochelle – around 20 years old – pregnant months ago. When I came back, she was carrying her month-old baby on the streets. She was already back selling sampaguita. I asked her why does she need to come back to the streets that soon. She answered: “I have nothing to feed my baby. So I need to work.”

Her husband is in prison, charged with the same three crimes. He was supposed to go out of jail last week. They found no case against him. But the judge delayed the signing of the release orders. So she is forced to be on the streets again a month after delivering her baby. But she also needs to go home too when the police comes. And she is worried how to feed her baby.

MaylaMayla has five children – aged seventeen, fifteen, twelve, nine and seven – very lovely and smart kids. Her husband has no permanent job. So, all of them need to earn a living by selling sampaguita at night. On good days months ago, they will earn 1000 pesos. The other night, they only earned 300 pesos. And she said in a sad voice: “kaya noodles na lang ulam namin” (we just ate noodles).

The police came the other night. They always do in order to drive street vendors home. I will try to reconstruct their conversation as she told me:

Police: “Dapat pinag-aaral ninyo mga anak ninyo; hindi pinagtatrabaho. Labag sa batas yan. Child abuse yan”. (You should be sending your children to school and not let them work. What you are doing is child-abuse.)

Mayla: “Child abuse, Sir, kung pinipilit. Pero buong pamilya kami nandito, Sir. At saka nag-aaral silang lahat sa araw. Kaya nga po sila tumutulong sa amin para may baon sila kinabukasan.” (It’s child abuse if we force them. But we are one whole family working here trying to make a living. All of them are going to school during the day; they are helping us earn for their school allowance.)

Mayla added: “At saka Sir, kung meron lang ba kaming ibang trabaho bakit ba namin pahihirapan ang mga anak namin. Siempre, anak namin yan. Gusto rin namin magpahinga ang mga ‘yan pagkagaling sa esskwela. Pero dahil talagang wala kaming mapagkunan, tumulong na rin sila sa amin.” (Sir, if we only have jobs ourselves, we don’t like our kids to be here. They are our children and we also want them to rest after school. But we have nothing, so they are helping us get by.”

Police: “Sasagot ka pa! Ikaw ang ikukulong ko. Uwi na. Pag-ikot namin uli at nandiyan pa kayo, dalhin na namin kayo sa presinto.” (Don’t answer back! Or else, it is you that I will put in jail. Go home now. When you are still here when I come back, I will detain you.)

Of course, no one wants to be inside police precincts and be detained. Stories of torture abound.
Mayla and the other parents shared their reflections with me later:

“Ayaw nila ng tambay. Kung kailang naghahanap-buhay ka na, at saka ka huhulihin. Ano ba talaga, Duterte? Ano ba namang klaseng tao ka?” (We do not understand. They do not like people who just loiter on the streets. Here we are trying to make a living, and they still want to imprison us. I don't understand what kind of person this Duterte is.)

I recently read this from a post of a friend on Facebook: “In Thailand, they rescue children from inside the caves. In the Philippines, they ‘rescue’ them and place them in caves.”

While I was talking with Mayla, her eight-year old son, Aldrin (not his real name), arrived from school still with his backpack on. He seemed tired and hungry. They handed him his share of food that night. But I noticed that he did not eat it alone. “Puntahan ko muna si Alex,” (I will go to Alex, not his real name) he picked up his food pack and asked permission to leave. Alexander is his friend on the other corner of the street. He went and shared his food with him. He thought Alexander was now hungry because he has been selling sampaguita since early afternoon. And he usually sells sampaguita alone. His parents could not be with him.

A few minutes after, they need to go home. The police are coming soon.

I kept silent as we were driving home.

Aldrin kept me thinking from that night till now: Ironically, it is the victims whom society wants to “kill” who could not afford that others would die.