The plebeian mind

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - September 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Sometime in the late 1950s, the American scholar, John Provinse, made me an unusual offer. He had read my articles on agrarian reform and my short stories. He offered me a fellowship to live in Tondo for a year, after which I would then write about my experiences there. He gave me a copy of the book, “The Children of Sanchez” by Oscar Lewis, about the author’s life in a Mexican slum. It was at the time the most insightful exposition on poverty.

Today, poverty is a global phenomenon afflicting millions, including many Filipinos who eat only once a day. Our foremost sociologists, Mary Racelis, F. Landa Jocano, and Aprodicio Laquian, have studied this condition assiduously, analyzing its causes and why it persists.

Many Philippine scholars with PhDs from foreign universities are almost always middle class. They bring with them their social bias in their analysis of lower-class conditions. Most of the time, however, they are correct in their assessments of Filipino poverty, how it is often bred culturally.

Those who were born or grew up in the slums have firsthand knowledge of poverty. How do the very poor think about themselves? What is their world view? What is the plebeian mind? To paraphrase Marx, the scholars have defined poverty, the problem is how to banish it.

I was unable to accept Provinse’s offer. I had to leave Manila to work with the Colombo Plan in Sri Lanka. But when I returned two years later, I was able to go to Tondo and I got to know the people in Barrio Magsaysay.

I started Sakap, an NGO, whose major purpose was to help Manila’s out-of-school youth. It was composed of Fr. Angel Senden, Justice Jose Feria, Dr. Angelita Guanson, Jose Apostol, Tony Enchausti, and myself.

I selected Barrio Magsaysay primarily because I had been introduced to the place earlier by Walter Turner, a Peace Corps volunteer. Barrio Magsaysay is part of the foreshore land that was reclaimed for port development after the war. That never happened. Almost immediately, refugees from impoverished rural areas flocked to it. 

The place was dismal and foul-smelling, without sewage or running water. The barong barongs were made of construction debris and cheap flammable materials. It was in one of these sorry constructions that I set up a book binding shop. I obtained obsolescent binding equipment from printer friends like the late Alberto Benipayo, UNESCO sent an Italian book binding expert, and I persuaded librarians in Manila to patronize Sakap. At its time, Sakap was able to train 20 Tondo youths and give them jobs.

I really paid attention to the project. I often took the young binders to see the world outside Barrio Magsaysay and Manila. One time, I brought them to a Makati supermarket. They were very surprised that the goods there were much cheaper than those sold in Tondo sari sari stores. I also told them I was born very poor, that I worked my way through college.

After a year or so with Sakap, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the Solidaridad complex that I had set up, and was also writing less. I decided to withdraw from the shop and turned it over to the workers to manage. This was when its deterioration started. In a couple of years, it was closed.

Inefficiency, nepotism, corruption, and ethnicity destroyed it. I asked the experts why it collapsed. Their answer – the workers had no stake in it. But was it really necessary? Didn’t they know that it was the source of their livelihood?

Years afterwards, I asked the youths who had worked in the shop what happened. I knew they knew. They said they felt no sense of belonging, of community. A couple of them had thought I was going to run for public office, for councilor perhaps, and the reason I was good to them.

But my Barrio Magsaysay experience was not totally wasted. Much of “Mass,” the last of the five novels in my Rosales Saga, is set in the Barrio.

I had slowly realized that the people of Barrio Magsaysay were no different from the residents of Barrio Cabugawan, the Ilokano farming village where I was born and where I grew up. In both and, in fact, all over the country, the very poor are not concerned with high and ghostly matters. Their most important priority is the search for food. Their values are conditioned by this primal need. Pragmatism, pakikisama, ingratiation dictate their actions, condition their thinking. Religion is a mix of piety and superstition. Freedom as most of us know it means little to them.

Shortly after Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I visited Barrio Magsaysay. They were all very happy. The gangsters who preyed on them were gone. They had peace and security to pursue their old miserable lives. 

Corruption in high places – they knew it was there but the candidates were popular and some had even done them personal favors. In any case, their poverty was not permanent because God always provides. Bahala na – so they get in debt to celebrate lavishly on baptisms and weddings.

Slum dwellers vary. For many the slum is just a way station. The greener grass abroad attracts, so they leave. When they become politicians, they take pride in their plebeian past. Do they ever blame anyone for their poverty? Some do although it is difficult for them to condemn the rich whom they elevated to power with their votes.

There is no real consciousness of class among them. Only those who have left the slums intellectually can do that. And those who do also know that the greater injustice in this unhappy country is not theirs. Our greatest problem is not the physical poverty of the poor but the poverty of the spirit among the very rich who, in the end, by their greed and callousness, are the real perpetrators of poverty itself.

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