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On being a poor Filipino

MANILA, Philippines - Social Weather Stations (SWS) published in newspapers their August 2012 survey showing that 47 percent of 1,200 Filipinos nationwide (equivalent to some 9.5 million families) considered themselves “poor” regardless of the increasing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product) of the country. The statistics about Filipinos being poor can be easily verified. Simply watch the news and TV documentaries; or better yet, go to the slum areas in the cities of Metro Manila, Cebu and Mindanao; or just ask some random people in the streets. In fact, like corruption, poverty is so prevalent that we Filipinos have come to accept it as part of our lives. We have succumbed to its demoralizing power to the point that we think about nothing but money, care for no one but ourselves. Indeed, poverty inflicts apathy that blinds us from seeing the real problems in this country.

We have conveniently allowed ourselves to wallow in our own ignorance; even worse, we justify our inaction in solving poverty with the pathetic excuse that an ordinary person cannot make a difference. But F. Sionil Jose showed me the bigger picture of poverty in the Philippines, one that changed not only how I think and also the way I live my life as a Filipino.

The book of F. Sionil Jose caught my eye. I instantly bought Why Are We Poor without a second thought, which is so unusual for someone stingy like me, especially when it comes to books. Probably my penchant for essays began to take effect on that day or maybe the book’s degree of verisimilitude sparked a painful familiarity I once felt or perhaps the title Why We Are Poor exhumed my hankering to find answers to the long-forgotten question deep inside me.

“Why we are poor?” I have asked myself this question several times in different moments of my life. First when I was a child, when I couldn’t buy the “Game and Watch” and G.I. Joe action figures. Also in high school when I was embarrassed that I didn’t have new uniform, clothes, shoes or a family computer; and I couldn’t pay my monthly tuition fee on time while my classmates had these things in the blink of an eye. Moreover, when I didn’t get the engineering course I wanted in a prestigious university due to the paucity of funds. And lastly, when my parents couldn’t support the daily basic needs of my brother and I to study in state university in Manila although our tuition fee was more or less only P500 per semester.

I had firsthand experience of poverty. Both of my parents were undergraduates when they got married. As a result, my siblings and I (two brothers and a sister) were raised on their meager income — my father as barangay captain and my mother as barangay health worker. Funds were low, expenses were high. Life was so hard then. Even harder when my brother and I started attending the same state university in Manila the same year. To minimize expenses, first, we were obliged to stay with our relatives in a little house where my mother grew up in Sampaloc. Second, I took the accounting course (a course totally unknown to me) in exchange for my dream of becoming an engineer, just to avail of the complimentary books of my aunt who was a professor of accounting in the university. Still, our monthly allowance was not sufficient to cover our monthly expenditure in Manila.

As we entered second year, it became more challenging; my two siblings in Batangas started their studies resulting in the reduction of our allowance per month. At that time, we became aware of poverty. So aware that my brother started going to rallies in the streets, blaming the government for our pitiful situation; then he decided not to continue his studies anymore. Being the eldest, I had to keep my composure to be a role model for my siblings, but the travail was too much for me to handle; it enervated my passion, my conviction, even my obdurate devotion to God. Depression got the best of me at that time. If not for the support, financially and emotionally, of my three aunts (Tita Poyang, Tita Edith and Tita Fe) and my grandmother (Lola Saling) I wouldn’t have been able to finish my college degree.

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Truly, there is nothing honorable about poverty. I have seen what poverty does to some people. It sucks up the very last hope they’ve got; until they’ve been reduced to the modern living dead, people without determination, without aspiration and without destination. That’s why I strived so hard to free from poverty’s asphyxiating grasp.

For so long I strongly believed the day I conquered my hardship was also be the day I would do the country a favor because I lessened the number of poor by one. And if every poor Filipino did what I did to elevate themselves from poverty, definitely the percentage of poor would be drastically decreased. Or so I thought.

But when F. Sionil Jose elaborated in his book why poverty still thrives in the Philippines, I was so ashamed when I found out that poverty emanated from the exact deportment I possessed. I had or still have the characteristics that made a Filipino poor. One of them is laziness. When I passed the board exam, finding a job should be my first priority, but I focused on and mastered the art of imbibing alcohol instead; and thanks to procrastination, it took me almost a year to land a decent job. Another characteristic is being a show off, for many years I spent my salary on branded things from accessories to clothing; gimmicks every night; I went to fancy coffee shops and restaurants just to flaunt that I could afford it. I never saved for the future; I totally forgot the past.

And I began to realize, I didn’t even help my parents by paying for the education of my siblings. In short, I became a part of the problem that I was trying to solve.

F. Sionil Jose writes, “But we have real and insidious enemy we must vanquish and this enemy is worse than the intransigence of any foreign power. We are our own enemy. And we must now have the courage, the will to change ourselves.” It took me years to understand that I don’t need to become a powerful politician or a millionaire tycoon or a dead hero to establish my significance; because even reading a book like Why We Are Poor can have a huge effect on you and possibly on the country, too.  

This week’s winner

 Jonnel Cesar A. Lat, 35, of Muntinlupa City is “an ordinary government employee, an anime enthusiast, coffee addict, a former mountaineer, a dreamer, a father to his beautiful daughter Sophia Portia, a husband to his loving wife Ella” and recently a wannabe writer.

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