BAGO CITY – “We used to fish there, right on that spot.”
He smiles as he says this, smiling as he points out a vague area a few meters away from where we are seated. The smile does not reach his eyes, though.
He looks just like any other fisherfolk; in fact he looks like he just came straight out of a Gauguin painting, had Gauguin known how to paint pain or used darker colors for his subjects. His hair is sinuous ribbons of ebony and his arms, held now in repose before him, have the color of a rain-soaked earth. He has no full use of his right leg now after having contracted polio when he was just five years old.
He introduced himself as Alex delos Santos, 50, one of the fisherfolk of Sitio Punta Playa, Barangay Poblacion, a small coastal barrio deep within the bowels of this city. He and his family had been living a quiet life in the coastal village when one day, “they” came.
“They took away our tangaban (fish cages) – our sole means of livelihood,” he reveals.
“They” were men from government, possibly sent by Mayor Ramon Torres. Some of them, policemen, were bearing arms as they destroyed what had been the only means of putting food on the tables for some families of Punta Playa. Alex could not forget that day – how could he? The day marked a sharp turn, a sudden change in their lives.
Before they came, he says, his family of six could at least eat three times a day. Alex and wife Salvacion, 52, live with their four children – Jomar, Josephine, Jeslyn and Jessa.
Alex says before “they” came and destroyed the fish cages, he and eldest son Jomar, 18, had been joining hands to ensure that the entire family would not go hungry.
“We can earn as much as P200 a day,” he says, calmly sipping coffee which his friend and fellow displaced fisherman Sandy Serillo brought in, along with a few sticks of cigarettes.
Sandy and Alex has brought us to a small open cottage at the heart of Punta Playa, a short way from the main village itself. Along the way, we were greeted rather politely by fisherfolk and heckled by children who want to have their pictures taken while they cannonballed and dived from trees and otherwise free-fell into the murky, green waters of the fish pond.
“Shoot us, Mister…”
“Come on, Mister! Just one last shot!”
“…will we appear on TV…?”
“Shoot us, Mister…!”
We crossed a narrow bridge and few slippery footwalks that serve as embankments for the fishponds. On both sides, wooden houses the size of pigsties are standing, apparently built on stilts. Once in every while, a curious face would peek from behind windows or doors – and then go back to his or her own business.
When we finally reached the open cottage, Sandy offered to get us some coffee. He disappeared for a while, entered a sparse building where a few men and women were playing cards, and came back with coffee and cigarettes for everybody.
Then, the conversation started.
We are all seated now, sipping coffee and talking about the “then” and “now”. And this is when Alex reminisced about those times when he and eldest son Jomar, 18, had a combined income of as much P200 a day – a lot less than the minimum wage, but “just enough for our daily needs”.
Before “they” came, Jomar had been helping his father in what the tumandoks refer to as “palagbong” – a tried-and-tested strategy involving hitting the surface of the water to scare the fish and lure them into the nets.
“We enrolled him in a night class, so that he can help his father during daytime. Whatever he earns on the side, he can use that for transportation,” Salvacion has revealed earlier as we dropped by their home earlier that day.
Jomar was about to graduate from high school. “We were hoping that once he graduates from college, he will get himself a job and maybe his younger siblings finish schooling,” Salvacion has said, adding that with their sole means of livelihood gone, Jomar would most likely stay at home while the rest of his classmates are going back for one more year of high school.
“Home” for them is a hovel made from bamboo and cement – but mostly bamboo. The structure has no visible means of support, has very sparse furnishings – a bench here, a wobby table there – and has but a dirt floor. Inside, rows of freshly-laundered clothes are hanging, limp as bats. Outside, Salvacion has grown for herself and her family a small garden: okra, string beans, chilli peppers. With their sole means of livelihood gone, the family of six would have to make do with whatever is grown in the garden.
Alex maintains that at least they get to eat the vegetables that his wife grows in the garden; at other times, they get to eat nothing but rice which generous neighbours had doled out, flavoured with a little store-bought glutamate.
“Sometimes, when the weather is fine, I get to catch a few fish, just enough to fetch P50,” he says. Not enough, though, to support a family of six.
Which was why he was ruing the fact that Jomar would have to stop schooling, which is a “a pity since he had only one year to go and he’d have gone to a college.”
Sandy, chairman of the Punta Playa Tangaban Association, recalls the promises of local government to provide livelihood for him, Alex and the 25 other families whose tangabans had been destroyed.
“We had prepared the documents like they told us to,” Sandy tells us. Unfortunately, the mayor seems to have other priorities in mind, and so, it appears, does the barangay captain.
Sandy remembers attending a session with the Sangguniang Panlungsod, where they were asked what they wanted.
All that we wanted, and still want, is a means to get back our means of livelihood which was taken from us.
The fisherfolk are still at a loss as to why their tangabans were destroyed. One of the explanations offered, Alex says, was that their operations were “illegal”. This, he says, he finds strange, because these same kind of operations had been going for decades.
“Our grandfathers before us had been doing the same kind of livelihood… but it is only now that they declared that what we had been doing all along is illegal,” Alex says.
They are slowly starving us, he says, depriving us of food on our tables.
But they are not giving up, they say. They have formed an association so that their demands – which they believe to be just – would finally be met.