‘Miss Congeniality’ Starts a Filipino Revolution

A suspicious government looks on as a nation’s people feed each other

By: Criselda Yabes

Maginhawa Street is familiar terrain to Manila’s university people, a long artery in a residential neighborhood adjacent to the University of the Philippines. It was the hangout for the millennials, the foodies, the radicals, and the woke – which has gone deserted since the start of the 14-month quarantine in the Philippine capital.

One day in mid-April, a woman named Ana Patricia Non (above), in her 20s, a fine arts graduate, someone her friends described as ‘Miss Congeniality,’ decided to put a flimsy bamboo cart by the roadside with food that people could take for their needs. She also turned it into an outpost where people could leave their donations. Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan, kumuha batay sa pangangailangan. Give what you can, take what you need. The line grew longer, the sight of which could either make your heart swell or make you cry.

It was called a ‘Community Pantry,’ an idea so simple in its spirit of volunteerism – to help tide over hunger, to ease the burden of those who have lost their jobs, to feed the needy with healthy fruits and vegetables instead of tinned sardines that government had distributed – that the girl who had the heart to serve her neighbors, didn’t think it would snowball into a national issue. It has.

A week into it, the police came, inquiring what this was all about, checking out the assembled lines with their sleek M-4 carbines. Before she knew it, Non became the object of red-tagging, branded a communist on the police website. By then she was in the news and announced that she had to stop for safety reasons. Too late: her gesture caught fire, and before the country knew it, community pantries were set up anywhere and everywhere, from obscure neighborhoods to village halls, not only in the city but also in other provinces.

The phenomenon, unembellished as it was, spread with biblical allusions to the miracle of multiplying fish and loaves. The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict wasn’t happy about that, with its spokesman comparing Non to Satan who tempted Eve, meaning that the evil of communism was secretly behind her do-good action. “You know, that’s just one person, Ana Patricia isn’t it? Satan gave an apple to Eve, that’s how it started,” said Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, Jr.

A three-star general, no less, had raised such a nonsensical idea that underscored, however, the government’s threat against a growing informal movement; or, it may be the government itself that reacted to a threat of a new social order yet undefined. Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade. Jr. had just lost winning over people’s hearts and minds, so much so that even soldiers in uniform were seen dropping off sacks of food at the Maginhawa community pantry and police stations elsewhere, one in the province of Nueva Ecija, abundant in rice fields, set up similar pantries.

From the plain symbol of a bamboo cart, a dual picture emerged in the current Covid-19 pandemic: it rekindled the old Filipino tradition called bayanihan, helping each other in nation-building, but the flipside of it revealed defiance on how the government has inadequately managed the health crisis going out of control.

The Philippines now has had nearly a million Covid-19 infections, the second-highest total in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. Overnight, there were 9,227 new cases. There are 16,264 dead across the country.

“This is the question that explains why they’re so afraid of community pantries: If a community can do so much with so little, how can our government do so little with so much?” Filipino anthropologist Gideon Lasco tweeted.

Some senators threatened to withdraw funds from the National Task Force’s PHP19 billion budget, supposedly meant for infrastructure projects in former communist-influenced areas, saying money should go to people’s welfare instead, enough of this foolishness. Many local mayors in the metropolis’s 16 satellite cities that includes Quezon City, the former capital where Maginhawa Street is located, have given the pantries a go-signal without permits.

Aghast at the trend of Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr.’s discourse, Senator Ralph Recto quipped: “The only thing red in the community pantries are the ripe tomatoes. Those who see red in the bayanihan projects should have their hearts examined. Community pantries need more food bags, not red tags, nor red tape.”

The bigger question coming out of this is, how could government put down the very essence of kindness? How much further will it go in quarantines and lockdowns?

American historian Joseph Scalice, who studied President Rodrigo Duterte’s earlier alliance with the Philippine Communist Party before it soured, traced red-tagging to “anyone in oppositional perspective,” one that doesn’t conform to the current order of the so-called discipline imposed by the heavy-handedness of the president. Therefore, anyone against Duterte’s brand of thinking – punishment, extrajudicial killings, threats of impunity – would be called a communist, regardless of the danger that Non herself had feared.

Virtually imprisoned in their homes since March last year, Filipinos have endured what has been called the world’s strictest lockdown. Late last month, cases surged and hospitals filled to capacity, forcing the government to put the capital and outlying provinces in the most severe level of a lockdown once again. In all this time there was hardly any contact tracing or mass testing. Vaccination, which began in March, is slow. Conditions that were forcing people to follow orders based on police or military control were undermining the value of health experts.

This could be where people resisted a strong order in order to cope, to find means to survive because the government, as Lasco the anthropologist pointed out, did so little. Japanese ethnographer Wataru Kusaka said Filipinos eventually “created their own social order for everyday necessities because the state does not guarantee even the subsistence of the people.”

Some say the community pantries were a crash course in anarchism. Kusaka attributed this to some kind of a “vernacular order” which, like the pantries, was an exercise in disobedience to show government where it has failed but that such display of support “nurtures people’s dignity and autonomy.”

Kusaka had spent time living among informal settlers in a colony just off Maginhawa Street and it was there he saw how streets became a “public space” in a deeper sense, not merely for their function, and more than just having the accessibility of parks. The street, in short, was where life thrived for those who need to make a living.

I lived in Maginhawa Street during my university years in the 1980s, the neighborhood so deserted it became, some years later, a noisy racetrack among pedicab drivers. It was intended to be a housing village for professors who taught in the university, my grandfather was one of them. In the past decade, traffic and parking were a nuisance when food parks sprouted here and there, livening up the street of restaurants, cafes, hole-in-the-wall eateries. There were second-hand bookstores, a cinema showing rare and independent films, some exhibits of social art. It was getting trendy and popular for the young crowd.

At the start of the lockdown, I saw it return to its emptiness, everything shut down and quiet. There were vendors selling fruits and vegetables cheaper and fresher than those found at supermarkets, pushing their wooden carts up and down the street. It probably was not that unusual that Non had thought of the community pantry idea, but her effort shattered because of the fact that she went to the same University of the Philippines that early this year was labeled a breeding ground for communists by the defense department.

The spontaneity of her goodwill and how it sparked hope in others across the country had been missing for quite some time, a country that has been growing apart under President Duterte. Allegorically Non lit a candle in the murky darkness and wherever this will take the nation, I could say it started in a street whose name in Tagalog means relief, the easing into comfort. She had said it herself, that she owed no explanation: People were starving, they needed food.

Photo Credit: Rappler

Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning journalist and author and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.

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