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Creative Nonfiction

Choosing to Stay Home

?Diri lang ta,? Nanay Salbing says, as she leads us through the maze that is Barangay Pasil.

An hour ago, I was sitting in a cubicle in our office on the sixth floor of a building inside IT Park. The office only seems to have two colors: blue and white. In the office, there are cubicles as far as the eye can see. And once you sit down on your designated spot, the only sight you are permitted is your computer unit, which you would be staring at for the rest of the day. If you stayed glued to your work, other people aren?t visible unless you look over the spines on top or to the side, which requires movement. Everything inside there is identical and easy to commit to memory.

Every step in Pasil is dynamic.

Much like my own barangay, it is small, cramped, and full of life. The hustle and bustle of the barangay is perhaps intensified in the wake of a fire that ravaged the place a week before we arrived. Most of the houses were destroyed by the fire, leaving the inhabitants with little more than their lives and the clothes on their backs.

As we weave our way through the rubble and destruction, this becomes more and more evident.

There?s a different texture to this place as compared to the rest of the city. A sort of sensory overload happens when you step in. Before coming here, I was in an environment that was, at least for our team, quiet and predictable. Throughout the day, you would hear the clickity clack of keyboards, coworkers talking to one other and attempted hushed laughter at workplace antics, and occasionally, the sound of booming voices that cut through the silence of the place.

Pasil, in contrast, is a cacophony of sounds and events.

As we walk through the pathways, we have to dodge water as children take baths outside, using water from a broken pipe?s endless supply, guffawing as they do. The puso weavers sit in groups, coconut leaves between their hands, gossiping as their hands work in rapid succession. There?s flames licking at huge pots, bringing the water inside to a boil, and piles of puso being pulled out of other pots once done, being hung on rods to dry.

The houses here are skeletons of what they used to be: caved-in frames, charred and black structures, and piles of rubble. There is one building that looks cleanly sliced in half, hanging on one side and leaning its upper half on the structure next to it. Whether this happened before or after the fire is anyone?s guess.

In one hollowed-out belly of a home, someone on a makeshift podium tries to calm down an unruly crowd forming, trying to get them to wait patiently for their turns to have a shot of getting donations from some religious organization. In another, there is room only for one coffin and two mourners, hands clasped tightly in front of them as they talk to each other, facing away from the coffin.

We are led through a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of narrow passages. With every step, my direction-challenged self worries about how to exit from this place. I think about how hard it must have been for the locals to get out when the fire started, but Nay Salbing is sure-footed and fast.

She navigates on memory alone, and my clumsy feet struggle to follow.

***

Salvador Hequillo, better known as Nay Salbing, is a community organizer from Pasil and a member of the urban poor group Panaghugpong Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (Kadamay) sa Sugbo. She is shorter than most of us and is dressed simply in leggings and a T-shirt. She beckons us into the barangay with a smile.

When we arrive, our first meeting with her seems like an afterthought. Though one of our companions texted ahead to inform her of our arrival, she seems caught by surprise when our companion approaches her when she spots her and introduces her to us. Nevertheless, she is hospitable and friendly and courteous. She talks up a storm as we?re walking, pointing out different things and answering all our questions in a sort of roundabout way, taking time to talk about different things related to whatever it is we ask.

She takes us to her house first, and we are greeted by a three-walled structure, one wall obviously caved in and the other wall made of tarpaulin, as is what makes up the roof. Cartons are on the ground in lieu of a floor.

?Maygani naa pay nabilin sa Lakbayan,? Nay Salbing says, referring to the event where Lumad from Mindanao came to Cebu to helpfully educate people about the militarization and the land grabbing that was (and still is) happening in their homes. The Lumad had stayed inside Fuente Circle, sleeping on cardboard and mats.

Someone, one of Nay Salbing?s daughters, sits near a pot of inun-unan and cheerfully calls out, ?Mangaon ta,? paired with a warm smile. Someone holding up a dripping-wet baby enters the space and wraps the baby up in a worn towel before setting him down on one of the cardboards on the floor.

Nay Salbing tells us to sit down so we can talk, and we do. The campus journalists, the ones with a real purpose, and I, a tagalong with no reason other than wanting to be here, sit down and listen as she tells the event of the fire.

It was a blur, she recounts. She wasn?t even aware of the fire until it was only a couple of houses away, leaving her with virtually no time to save anything. She says that when the firemen arrived, they didn?t put out the fire right away. Yes, Pasil is a tight, congested space, but there are several ways around it if you really wanted to save the houses. She says one of the residents allegedly heard a fireman say, ?Pasunogon ra man daw ni.?

As a result, she now has to deal with the loss of most of her worldly possessions and the lost time she has to spend rebuilding. The most devastating loss for her, though, were her lost documents, which were for Kadamay. She studied them every night. Salvador was trying to save people and houses from destruction, the reason for studying and getting proficient and well acquainted with the law. She?d be hard-pressed to find those same documents now.

She mourns more for knowledge than anything else.

***

It is hard to be an activist when you?re stuck in an office job. As a corporate slave, I work eight hours every day, with two breaks in between, for five (sometimes six) days a week. We?re not allowed phones in the office or access to sites other than those that can help us with work (mostly only dictionaries and style manuals).

This has been my frustration since I left school. I bemoan the fact that I don?t have any time to devote to more fulfilling activities?that I can?t attend educational discussions because they happen when I have work, that I can?t go to basic masses integrations because I need two weeks? notice before filing leaves, that I can?t go to protests even on holidays because our company only follows American (imperialist) holidays.

So when my girlfriend (the editor in chief of the school publication) told me that some of the members of the publication would be covering the fire in Pasil that would also double as a BMI (basic masses integration), I jumped at the chance.

I think, I wish I hadn?t left school. I could do this more. I could have learned more about the struggle. And yet here is Nay Salbing who, amid the hardship that comes with being part of the urban poor, is more intelligent and well read and well versed in history and revolutionary concepts than I am. She speaks, and I am in awe.

***

Nay Salbing takes us to walk around the barangay some more, introducing us to fellow community organizers and other victims of the fire. This is so the journalists can get more testimonies for reportage.

?Unsa man imong na-salbar?? we ask the residents in their homes.

They answer, ?Wala.?

The next house is one step over, so we take one step to another house and ask its owner the same question, which is answered with the same: nothing. Another step. Nothing. Step. Nothing. Step.

Nothing.

***

The inhabitants of the barangay are mostly kargadors, trisikad drivers, and puso weavers. People whose livelihoods thrive on being near Carbon.

Now, aside from the fire destroying their wares that means a temporary forced break from work for some people, a threat to the barangay looms over the part of it that separates houses and water.

LGUs and Mega Cebu want to build the Cebu-Cordova Link Expressway (CCLEx), which is, as the name suggests, a bridge connecting Cebu and Cordova. It is an 8.5-kilometer expressway that costs an estimated amount of 26 billion pesos to 29 billion pesos. The bridge would cut travel time from Mactan Island to mainland Cebu by half as it links the two islands through the municipality of Cordova. Supposedly, it will be completed by 2021, at which point the president of the infrastructure firm that will build it estimates a total of 40,000 vehicles will use the bridge daily.

The proposal boasts betterment, development, and displacement.

For the bridge to be properly constructed, locals in Pasil have to give way, as they need to construct it near the area. The relocation site has been named: Quiot, Pardo, which is, as Nay Salbing describes it, bakilid. One misstep could end in death, especially concerning for the children in the barangay.

In addition, this would mean that locals would have to travel a farther distance for their jobs. Kargadors only earn 200 pesos after a hard day?s work of lugging around heavy objects, and puso weavers only earn 60 pesos for every 100 puso that they can make. Having to spend even a small portion of their earnings for transportation to and from their new places of residence would take a serious overhaul of their daily budgets to feed themselves and their families.

Asked about whether or not they were okay with this, the locals answered with a resounding NO. And with good reason. With this change, workers will have to travel farther, waste much-needed money on transport, and face possible death.

Nay Salbing, whose great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother have all lived in Pasil, says, ?Mu-laban jud mi, day. Maghiusa jud mi batok ana.?

***

It?s no wonder why people want to stay.

Nay Salbing tells us of how the barangay came to be. It started out as houses on stilts, she says, to avoid the inconvenience of the waist-deep water below. Then the residents started to reclaim it themselves?they dug up land from what is now Don Bosco and dumped it on the water until it became the Pasil of today.

She goes on about the history of the place and all the things it went through the years?the people?s fight for right to land, the money they spent to keep living there, the bills passed to give them ownership. The place certainly has a long history with its people. A long history that fills the place with memories and emotions, highs and lows, and most importantly, struggle.

Renato Constantino said, ?Struggle is therefore the essence of life, whether of an individual or a society. An individual has no history apart from society, and society is the historical product of people in struggle.?

People have ended up in Pasil because of struggle. Nay Salbing tells us of people who come from farmlands and who have traveled far distances to settle down here. They?ve built lives around this place, and they?ve learned to navigate through the hardships of the city. There are people we?ve met who?ve lived here their entire lives, and there are people who?ve only been there for years. And all of them are reluctant to move away.

It seems, a burned-out home is still a home. And don?t we owe to our homes to stay and try to make it better?

***

At the end of the day, as the sun dips far beyond the horizon, we go back to Nay Salbing?s house, where she asks us one question: What did you learn?

I didn?t expect to be asked this question. I didn?t expect a discussion at all. This attests to how few BMIs I have actually gone to.

In truth I learned so much on the trip that it is hard to process everything. At one point, we were taken to the house that first burned down, and we talked to the owners there. I learned how the fire started?two little boys playing with matches and who accidentally set a mattress on fire. I also learned how the owner of the house next door wasn?t aware of the fire until it had reached the second floor of his house. He tried to save the money he had saved in a container, but the fire was too strong. So he left with almost nothing.

When our journey took us near the suba, the locals pointed out two impressive structures that hovered over the whole place. They seemed menacing in the face of the unimposing and small houses. One was Ludo, a coal-fired power plant that most of the residents opposed because of its impact on health and the environment. The other was VECO. I learned that when the fire started, these two buildings turned on their heavy-duty fans to make sure the fire wouldn?t reach them, circulating the fire in the barangay and concentrating the worst of it between themselves.

In a gym that was made a temporary relocation site for those who lost their homes, we talked to a woman who was wheelchair-bound. I learned that she didn?t need the wheelchair before. During the fire, she had run upstairs to get something, and when she went down, she slipped, fell down, and hurt herself, losing consciousness from the pain. She only got back up when she heard the panicked voices of her neighbors urging her to get up. Painfully and with the help of some people, she managed to get out alive and with some boxes she saved.

I learned that had Nay Salbing known about the fire earlier, she would have gathered the boys in the barangay to get water and try to put out the fire before it could get bigger, as they were wont to do when a fire occurred.

Mostly, I learned that although most of the barangay was facing demolition demanded by an entity bigger than themselves, they still wouldn?t go down without a fight.

Presently, Pasil isn?t allowed to rebuild itself, but the background noise for our conversation with Nay Salbing is the sound of a hammer on metal. A neighbor is putting up a new zin, defying the explicit rules set by the mayor to not start any rebuilding efforts for now.

There is resistance here. It is evident in the puso weavers who pile bamboo leaves on wooden benches outside houses, in the family that?s splayed on the dingy floor playing with cards, in the makeshift sari-sari stores with wares displayed outside hollowed windows. Here are people still sweeping ashes away, fresh from an incident that leaves no space for agency, yet still holding fast to home, to choice, no matter its condition. Though only smoke remains, the fire in the locals? eyes still blaze.

By Astrid Ilano

Astrid Ilano has a psychology degree and currently works as a copy editor. Ze was a writing fellow of the 31st Cornelio Faigao Annual Writers? Workshop (poetry), of the 2nd Tagik Landasan Creative Writing Workshop (short story), of the 1st Pundok Katitikan workshop (creative nonfic), and of the 2nd Cebu Young Writer's Studio (creative nonfic). Ze is a member of Hablon, a creative writing group in Cebu.

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