What the Pope did not see inside the ‘gates of hell’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2015 - 12:00am

When the novel “Inferno” written by Dan Brown hit bookstores in the Philippines in May, 2013, it stirred a tempest over the description of Manila as the “gates of hell.” Brown came under fire for depicting the seamy side of the country’s capital city through which one of the characters of the novel went through.

The controversial novel narrated how a fiction character Sienna came to Manila and found the hard-up lives of the poor among the 13 million Filipinos living in the city. An excerpt from the book goes: “When the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila – the most densely populated city on earth – Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.”

Brown then narrated what Sienna saw: hungry kids gazing at her “with desolate eyes,” “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.”

Through the eyes of Sienna, she saw the surroundings of Manila as “a kind of shantytown – a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together” with “wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement” in the air. Sienna caps her narrative in the novel, saying she has “run through the gates of hell.”

Such realistic description by the novel about Manila did not sit well though with many Filipinos, especially Metro Manila Development Authority chairman Francis Tolentino. The MMDA chief took umbrage in the fiction story and even wrote a strongly worded letter to Brown to protest the unfair portrayal of the country’s premier city.

It was only Tolentino from the Philippine government who kicked up dust against Brown’s novel. Not a word was heard from President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III who was then already halfway through his six-year term at the time. The novel later became an international bestseller.

Perhaps, this is why street children and their families were brought to an expensive resort in Batangas during the visit of Pope Francis in Manila last week. After initially denying such round-up of street urchins days before the papal visit, Department of Social Welfare and Development Secretary Dinky Soliman last Friday admitted this is a regular undertaking of her agency’s “family camping workshop” under the Aquino administration’s modified cash transfer program (MCTP).

Former President Joseph Estrada, who was then preparing to take over as mayor of Manila, could only agree with Brown’s true picture of Manila. He was still mayor-elect at that time after he won by a handsome margin against re-electionist Mayor Alfredo Lim.

Estrada concurred there is some truth to Brown’s fiction novel describing Manila as a city plagued by extreme poverty, overpopulation, street crimes, and hellish traffic jams.

“Manila is really going to hell. That’s true,” Estrada agreed. “That is the very reason why I ran for mayor because I was born in Tondo, Manila,” Estrada said. Anchored on “Erap para sa mahirap” – his campaign slogan since he entered politics, Estrada swept votes in Tondo.

Tondo, the biggest district in the city, was once notoriously known for high incidence of crimes and for the infamous “Smokey Mountain,” the erstwhile dumpsite which has since then been turned into a low-cost housing site for poor residents there.

In conceding the “Inferno” depiction of Manila, Estrada cited a study done by the University of the Philippines (UP) that showed the city has the highest level of poverty incidence and has the most number of jobless people.

The city of Manila, he added, is overpopulated and in fact, its population density is second only to Bangladesh. “Maybe somewhat totoo yung sinasabi niya (Dan Brown) because yung sinubmit sa akin ng UP, yung study nila sa Manila,” Estrada said.

In the same breath, Estrada bewailed Manila’s peace and order situation before he took over City Hall was worsening. Investors and businessmen would certainly not come in that kind of environment, he pointed out. He also criticized the unpaid debts of his predecessor that left the city government short of funds to meet basic public services.

So when he finally took over the city government, Estrada vowed his first priority was to raise funds by checking on the city’s existing properties and taxation system, crack down against corruption at City Hall, beef up the housing program for informal settlers, improve traffic, among other things, that could bring back Manila to its glory days.

Fast forward.

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court junked the disqualification petition filed against him with a majority vote of 11-3. With Lim as intervenor in this petition, the SC ruled that the executive clemency granted by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo restored all the civil and political rights to Estrada, including the right to vote and be voted upon.

The disqualification petition against him was like a sword of Damocles hanging over his head the past year and a half since he assumed mayorship of Manila. With only a year and a half left of his term, Estrada vowed to work double time to deliver his promises to the people of Manila.

Estrada could only thank God for the SC ruling that ended his “sleepless” nights. Estrada admitted he prayed hard for this favorable SC ruling when Pope Francis visited the Philippines last week. He did not have the chance to kiss the pope’s ring in the reception at Malacañang Palace.

The next papal event he came close to going near the pope was at the Quirino grandstand in Luneta last Sunday. As mayor of Manila, he was seated beside Senate president Franklin Drilon in the front row of mono bloc seats for the VIPs set up across the grandstand.

They were among the millions of Filipinos drenched in the rain that poured throughout the papal mass. Dripping wet, Estrada said he felt the rains as a “blessing” he received from Pope Francis.

With his mandate settled, Mayor Estrada vowed to strive harder to ease extreme poverty afflicting mostly the street children, some of whom Pope Francis did not get to see while inside “the gates of hell” called Manila.


  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with