Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Mendiolas: My First Host Family in Navotas

Our immersion experience in Navotas was intended to be as much about poverty as it was to be about life in a simple Filipino family. I myself was raised, as many of you know, in a Filipino household, albeit in the United States. But the values, culture, and faith in which I was raised from childhood were those of my Filipino parents who emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1962. To this extent, I did not anticipate experiencing anything particularly new or different in living with Filipino host families. Despite the abject poverty in which my two host families lived, I found myself experiencing much the same care, warmth, and affection with which I was raised – hallmarks, I daresay, of Filipino family life, whether in the slums of Navotas or in the privileged suburbs of Cleveland.

My first host family was the Mendiola family. France, the wife and mother, received me at the PPF welcome session for us Jesuit tertians. She led me through the streets of Navotas, wading sometimes through knee-high water (thanks to three days of typhoon rains) to her family’s humble home in a barangay (subdivision) of Navotas called Bagong Silang. France, a stocky woman with a big voice and a hearty laugh, explained to me that their neighborhood used to be much worse, infested with crime, drugs, prostitution, and disease. In 1988, the Pag-Aalay ng Puso Foundation made inroads into improving the quality of life in this subdivision, including the first toilets to be installed in private homes in all of Navotas. Over the past 15 years, life did improve significantly for the residents of Bagong Silang, true to its name, which translates literally as “new birth.” Having said that, the dwellings in Bagong Silang are tightly packed together, the alleyways only 3-4 feet across. Most of the houses are concrete hollow block construction, finished with scrap pieces of metal and wood. Hanging laundry everywhere obscures the view. Food vendors squawk out prices. Foot traffic outside the Mendiola house seemed constant, with neighbors frequently peeking their heads into the window or door to chat with France or her husband, Joel (~45 years old, shipyard worker), or one of the four children: JoFrance (~20 years old, engineering student), Karen (~20 years old, nursing student), Giselle (~18 years old, nursing stuent), and Kristan (14 years old, high school student). France and her family welcomed me into their low-ceilinged three-story house, the first floor of which measures about 18’ X 18’ and serves as kitchen, dining room (table sits 3 at max, with a picture of the Last Supper hanging just above), and sitting room,, appointed with old plastic patio chairs. Two sewing machines against the walls betray France’s livelihood as a seamstress. Off the kitchen iss a closet, no more than 7’ X 7’ with only a 5’ head clearance, nicely tiled and fitted with seat-less toilet and a large plastic water barrel. This is the only bathroom in the household, and serves the Mendiolas not only for the family's bathing and toileting, but also for doing the family laundry. The second floor, accessed by a narrow and rather steep ladder/staircase is the bedroom space for the four children. The two boys (JoFrance and Kristan) sleep on a thin mattress on one side of the room, while the two girls (Karen and Giselle) sleep on a separate thin mattress on the other side. My guest cot (i.e., another thin mattress) was located under the staircase going up to the third floor, which was where the parents (France and Joel) slept. Their full size mattress takes up most of the floor space on the third level, save for the airy “balcony” that looked out onto a profusion of neighboring rooftops (see top photo in the previous blog installment).

While France is given to loud outbursts of laughter and spirited conversation, Joel is a gentle soul with a ready smile and a quiet demeanor. Joel used to work in construction, but after a bad accident at one site, he shifted his work to the shipyards on Manila Bay, not far from Navotas. There, he works from 7am to 5pm, mainly repairing tankers and other vessels docked at the busy port. His skill at construction shows in the simple but careful ways he has finished the family’s house interior. France, as mentioned earlier, works as a seamstress from 8am to noon each day, and ironically enough, her salary equals that of her husband’s whose workday is more than twice as long as hers! France creates and repairs uniforms for a school in England through a Protestant foundation that has had a presence in Navotas for some ten years. While France works for this foundation, she felt it important to assure me that she will ever be a life-long Catholic!

Both she and Joel, married for over 20 years, strongly feel that the only thing they can give their children is the means to good education. “We have nothing else, Father,” France explained to me one night in broken English. “Nothing else. Everything we earn goes to our children for their educations. We are very proud of them.” Indeed, they work very hard to support their children, and in turn, their children work very hard at their schooling. The oldest, JoFrance, is an engineering student at University of the East, and is away from the house from 7am until 8pm. His younger sisters leave the house around 10am for their classes in nursing school outside Navotas, returning between 8pm and 10pm, depending on their floor rotation schedules. France and Joel have taught their children to be self-sufficient, laundering and pressing their own uniforms, cooking their own meals (which are taken at irregular times due to their irregular schedules), and cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen. As they would come and go each day, I got a chance to chat with each of these young people. Jo-France wanted to know what it was like being from “the city of LeBron James.” Karen and Giselle giggled a lot when I asked them about boyfriends and crushes. But of all the kids, I got to know the youngest, Kristan, the best. Slightly gawky and tall for his age, Kristan has his mother’s smile and his father’s soft-spoken nature. We had several lengthy one-on-one conversations about his interests in history (he knows a lot about the Ottoman Empire), literature (he has read a lot of American transcendentalist lit), religion (he knows a lot about scripture and the lives of the saints). Kristan has dreams of being an architect, and somehow I don’t doubt that he’ll realize that dream. When I asked him if he planned on ever leaving Navotas, he looked off into the distance, across the rooftops from the third floor balcony where we chatted. “Yes, maybe. I don’t know,” he answered.

France was always apologizing for her family’s busy-ness during my four-day stay with them: “We hope you understand, Father. We cannot entertain you all the time. We are busy with work and school. We hope you understand.” And with each plea for my understanding, I reassured her of my admiration for a family whose busy lives held out hope for bright futures. “We are one of the lucky families, Father,” France would sigh. And to prove it, France once took me to the nearby barangay where hundreds of people lived on the polluted shores of Manila Bay. Here, in what once was not long ago a dump site for Navotas and what still serves as a graveyard for the dead, dozens of families live in lean-to’s and in flimsy shacks, many of them perched some 20 feet above the bay on bamboo stilts to avoid flooding at high tide. The poorest of the poor of Navotas live here, amidst garbage and sewage heaved upon the bay shore. It is here, on the dirty sand littered with abandoned fishing nets and a constant haze of flies that Navotas fisherman launch and land their boats Standing on the putrid seashore, looking out at all this, France says again, “See, Father? We’re one of the lucky families.” Sa awa ng Dyos, as the Filipino would say, or commonly translated into English, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

My last five days in Navotas was with the Ingeniero family. More about them in my next installment. Thanks for reading!


kbeams said...

Your experience in the Philippines bring back nostalgia of the years I spent in the Philippines eons ago. Nothing however can even come close to what you are experiencing now, being so close to the realities of life and the plights of the poor in that land as you have described so beautifully in your postings. I will continue to follow your journey and pray for you and especially for all the people around you. EdK

bkelley said...

Hi Ray,

Such vivid descriptions of both the places and the people. I can see the teacher in you coming out in your conversations with the youngest child of the family! I look forward to reading more entries!

Saludos, amigo.