Food and the Filipino
Feast and Famine

At the kitchen of divine mercy

Everyday, hundreds of hungry and homeless queue for rice porridge at the Quiapo church. [photos by Jose Enrique Soriano]

TO MAKE lugaw or rice porridge for 200, Diding, the volunteer cook at the feeding center of the Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, in the noisy, throbbing heart of the old Manila, begins by heating water in two giant, iron pots, each about three feet deep. When the water is in a roiling boil, she pours in the juice made from one kilo of ginger (the ginger is first peeled, then grated, before being wrapped in cheesecloth and squeezed of its liquid). After that, a handful of salt is thrown in. Only then is the main ingredient added: three-and-a-half kilos each of plain milled rice and malagkit (sticky rice).

For nearly three hours, Diding and her two male assistants hover around the hot stoves, stirring the porridge so that the rice is evenly cooked and doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pots. When the grains are soft, several handfuls of kasubha (dried safflower petals, the poor man’s version of saffron) are thrown into the pots, followed by a few hundred grams of powdered chicken flavoring. The rice is kept at a boil until it is fluffy. More water is then poured in, the stirring continues, and after a while, the grains are floating enticingly in the thick, yellow soup garnished with saffron threads.

Three times a day, a few minutes before 6 a.m, 12 noon, and 6 p.m., the pots are loaded onto a cart and brought just outside the tall, iron gates that seal off the Plaza Miranda entrance of the church. Promptly at the stroke of the hour, as the pealing of the bells of the grand Quiapo basilica rises above the din of the city’s traffic, Diding and her assistants start ladling out the porridge into plastic cups. By then a queue of hungry and homeless people are already lined up. More than 200 people are fed each time, although the numbers can swell to 400 at night. Some wait at the plaza for over an hour. For many, Diding’s lugaw will be their first — and last — meal of the day.

The first sip of the porridge, taken on an empty stomach, scalds the tongue, with the warmth slithering down the throat before settling in the belly. The rice grains are fat and tender; cooked for hours in a mix of flavors, they are tasty as well. The chicken flavoring probably has more MSG than real chicken in it, but its saltiness tickles the taste buds. Many queue for a second round, and if there is enough left in the pot, even for a third.

For Christian Alvarez, aged five, who lives on the plaza, near the Mercury drug store, with his parents and two other siblings, the lugaw is a staple. Friendly and frisky, with a mop of peroxided hair, Christian is at the feeding center with his entire family three times a day. Today, after the noon feeding, he will share with his parents and siblings, as well as Mark Anthony Gañedo, a nine-year-old runaway from Bulacan who considers the Alvarezes his adopted family, their only real meal of the day: three cups of rice bought for P5 each and a vegetable dish sold for P10 at the Quiapo market.

Today is a bad day, says Rowena Alvarez, Christian’s mother, one of the many herb and potion sellers for which Quiapo is famous. Not many people buy her wares during the Christmas holidays. Her husband Lawrence, who peddles cigarettes and candies, isn’t doing brisk business either. So tonight, as in previous nights, Rowena and Lawrence and their three boys will go without supper. They will sleep on milk cartons laid out on the plaza, saved from gnawing hunger by Diding’s lugaw.

Lawrence will think of his favorite food — tinola and fried chicken — and try as he might, he will not remember when he tasted them last. Rowena will remember her other children — two who are staying with relatives elsewhere in the city, one who was adopted by a friend, another who was sent to an orphanage, and the girl, then aged two, who suddenly disappeared on the plaza one night six years ago when Lawrence left her for just five minutes to fetch water from Jollibee. She will wonder whether they have eaten tonight and what they will have for breakfast tomorrow.

EVEN BEFORE day breaks, Plaza Miranda is already astir. The herb sellers are setting up their stalls, displaying assorted elixirs, love potions, charms to ward off evil and beguile lovers, and an abortion-inducing concoction euphemistically called pamparegla or period inducer. The candle peddlers are unpacking long, thin candlesticks of different colors, for the Quiapo devotees’ every possible need: white for birthdays, red for good health, green for money, peach for studies, orange for career, pink for love, blue for peace of mind.

By 5:45, as the first light of day shines on the plaza and all the poor souls who sleep there, a plump middle-aged City Hall employee carrying a stick starts waking everyone up and shooing them away. The street sweepers are soon unleashed. A new day is beginning and the night-time residents for whom Plaza Miranda is a place to sleep must give way to those who have other uses for it during the day.

Evelyn Tedranes has been at the plaza since 5 a.m. With her husband and nine-month-old son Jonas, she sleeps beneath the eaves of a building fronting the San Sebastian Cathedral, about two kilometers away. By 4 a.m., the guards there drive all the homeless people out of the pavements, in preparation for the daytime commerce that takes place on the street, so Evelyn, with Jonas in one arm and a bag containing all her family’s possessions in the other, walks to Quiapo church to wait for the feeding center to open at 6. Her husband follows behind, dragging with him a big plastic bag of recyclable — and saleable — stuff.

The couple has been living on the streets for years, Evelyn, for more than two decades since running away from home in Concepcion, Tarlac at the age of 12. They collect used cans and bottles and sell these to scrap dealers in Divisoria for P30 a kilo. They also act as middlemen, buying the refuse collected by the other homeless people in the area, a business they started with P100 given by someone they had met on the streets. Today they roll over P150 as capital to buy the scrap and then resell these to other merchants. They make about P50 daily, which they use to buy food, coffee, soap (for bathing in public toilets), some clothes, and for Jonas, disposable diapers, as it is difficult to wash and dry nappies if you live on the streets.

When she can afford it, Evelyn buys a sachet of instant coffee for P2, to help her and her husband start the day. They have only one real meal daily — sometimes tinned sardines, tuyo or Dipsy pork crackling — eaten with rice. To stave off hunger, they line up for lugaw at the church three times a day. The day before, all they had apart from lugaw was a cup of rice bought for P5; a plate of pancit (noodles), also costing P5; and soup from dinuguan, which came gratis from the food vendor. The week before, some do-gooders driven by the Christmas spirit had given the homeless families on Evelyn’s street a kilo of rice and some eggs each. So supper for them that week was rice and hard-boiled eggs cooked in a can on the sidewalk, with scrap wood collected from a construction site nearby. “Hindi ka matitinga (That’s not even enough food to choke on),” Evelyn says, wryly.

For Evelyn, everyday is like camping as she forages for food and scrap in the concrete warren of Quiapo. She shrugs it all off, even the regular anti-vagrancy drives, usually when there is a major event and the city gets itself ready for a public preening. The last time this happened was National Heroes’ Day on November 30, when she and other homeless people were forcibly hauled off the streets by the police and kept a couple of days in a building near City Hall. They were fed what looked — and tasted — like pig slops and then released.

Once, Evelyn joined a rally because she was promised payment by the rent-a-crowd entrepreneurs who regularly come to Quiapo to recruit. “I was pregnant then,” she recalls “But they gave me P50 and free food. When we were near UN Avenue, I got hit in the ass by a policeman.”

She can laugh about it now. “I didn’t even know what the rally was about.”

The streets harden you, she says, and after a while, you can laugh at anything, including the time she was walking around the city dazed. Her first husband had left her, taking all their children with him. She searched everywhere but could not find them. She says she must have had a nervous breakdown, because after that she found herself at the mental hospital, in a roomful of really crazy people. She spent three months there before she convinced them she was sane and they finally released her.

It is really not so bad on the streets, she says. On December 21, the Quiapo church held a Christmas party, giving away to each of the homeless persons there one kilo of rice, two packets of Lucky Me noodles, and two tins of sardines. They were also fed adobo and pancit. On the 26th, there was another party, this time at the Paco church and they were given soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste and fed chop suey, fried chicken, and more pancit.

There is always the seasonal kindness of strangers who, the rest of the year pay little heed to people like her. “Yagit” is how Evelyn refers to her kind — society’s refuse, scrap, unwanted litter.

“Ikaw ma’am,” she asks, “anong pamasko mo sa akin (And you, ma’am, what is your Christmas present for me)?”

FREDDIE FRILLARTE, the kindly, soft-spoken volunteer who runs the feeding center at the church, knows that the soup kitchen may breed dependency and mendicancy among those it seeks to help. But he has seen real changes, especially among the children, who he says are now livelier, cleaner, and more respectful. Many, he says, are off rugby, as they no longer need to sniff the glue to take their minds off hunger. They are also more energetic, no longer sleeping on the plaza all the time.

Millions of Filipinos are going hungry, like Evelyn Tedranes and son Jonas who live on the streets of Manila.

Freddie is a retired balikbayan who lived in the U.S. for many years and a devotee of the Divine Mercy, started by Sister Faustina Kowalska, now an ordained saint, who claimed Jesus Christ appeared to her in Krakow, Poland in 1931. The spiritual director of the Divine Mercy Apostolate in the Philippines is Monsignor Josefino Ramirez, the parish priest of Quiapo, and it was his idea to set up the feeding program here, after a similarly successful program he ran when he still headed the Binondo parish.

When Freddie opened the soup kitchen at the Quiapo church on June 17 last year, the Divine Mercy Apostolate had enough money to last only three days. “We didn’t know where the money for the fourth day would come from,” he says. “But one of our members from Alabang pitched in. Then there were more donations. We sent solicitation letters to balikabayan from Las Vegas and they raised more than $1,000. Many come here to help. Some students from La Salle or Ateneo come and say, here’s P2,000 or P3,000, I’m giving it to you instead of holding a birthday party. One Chinese guy saw the feeding and he came back with a truckload of rice. One guy comes here every week to give P100. Others give eggs or pan de sal.”

Tonight, in fact, each cup of porridge will have half an egg, courtesy of an anonymous donor. At noon, there was bottled water for everyone. Freddie sees it all as a sign not just of human compassion but of God’s grace.

“Usually the people who come here are victims of injustice of all kinds — those abandoned by spouses or beaten up by family members, some lost homes in a fire, others were fired from their jobs, there are beggars, those gypped by recruiters and have no money for the fare back home. Some come here and would disappear for months because they had been recruited to work in the salt farms in Bulacan, the farms in Nueva Ecija, or to clean the ships in Batangas. They accept any work. There are lots of gay men here, too. Sometimes, they’re here the whole week, and then they disappear, and come back again. One bakla was here, he said his father was in the army and drove him out of the house, so he came here to eat.” But Freddie admits there are snatchers and petty thieves among those who eat here, too, as well as addicts and conmen. The plaza, he says, abounds with all sorts of criminal types who take advantage of the clueless and the homeless.

It is close to twilight now, and the clients of the Divine Mercy soup kitchen are gathering at the plaza. There is Jennifer, 23, who ran away from an abusive husband in Quezon City, with her one-year-old son Joshua. Until today, she had lived in a kariton (wooden cart) near the St. Luke’s Hospital, collecting and selling garbage. She doesn’t know where she will go now, but at least she and her son will have something to eat in Quiapo.

Then there’s Jun-Jun Alcantara, 30. He wears lipstick and it looks like his hair has been blow-dried. He left home in Quezon because his mother remarried when he was 10 and he felt unwanted. He has lived off the streets since then. He eventually found work doing manicures at a beauty parlor, but when the salon closed, he was back on the streets, giving manicures to peddlers and passersby for P20 each. One day, he fell asleep on the plaza and someone stole his manicure set, so now he collects recyclable cans and bottles instead.

Jun-Jun is a regular at the Quiapo feeding center, but he hangs out mainly at Rizal Park, where he also sleeps. Tonight, after the lugaw here, he will walk with the other gay yagit to the Sikh Temple on UN Avenue, where the priests also give free food — usually spicy beans and yellow rice. Sundays, Jun-Jun and his friends are at the Paco church, where they serve rice and “tunay na ulam” (real food). Thursdays, there are feedings at the Ho Tiek Buddhist temple in Binondo. The food there is vegetarian, but Jun-Jun goes there, too, as well as to Plaza Lawton where, on Friday nights, some charismatics serve noodle soup.

“You have to be patient, map out your own route,” says Jun-Jun. “Mine is Quiapo, Binondo, Luneta, Sta. Cruz. Sometimes I buy my own food, like pinakbet (vegetable stew) or monggo (mung bean soup). I can afford a real meal only on Saturdays and Sundays. I buy adobo (pork stew) for P25 or P30. I eat just a little each time so it will last till evening.”

Those who come to Quiapo seek refuge from hunger and other woes.

There are plenty more here at the plaza, waiting to be fed. Nearly all of them carry bags that contain all they own in the world. Some ask for help or money, but all are eager to tell their story to anyone who will listen. There’s Mary Ann del Rosario, 34, who works everyday from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., calling passengers to waiting jeepneys. She makes P2 for every jeepney that’s filled up. There’s the talkative Mac-mac, who is only 12, but who comes to the church regularly to eat, so that his mother and three younger siblings can have more of the meager food the family can afford to buy. And then there’s Reynaldo Arriola, 37, who left Isabela after a quarrel with his siblings and has been in Manila for two years, scraping a living selling cigarettes, until a thief ran away with the wooden box containing his wares and all his money.

Quiapo has always been a lost-and-found place. Not too long ago, says Freddie, a four-year old girl was abandoned at the plaza, apparently left to fend for herself with only a bag containing her clothes and toys. One of the sidewalk peddlers found her and took her in his care. Freddie himself came here in search of something he had lost, perhaps his own vision of Divine Mercy. Somewhere, among all these lost and abandoned souls, he has found, if not that, at least something bigger than himself.

It is 6:45. Darkness has set in. The hundreds of hungry have been fed, and they start walking away from the church, disappearing into the shadows with their stories and their secrets. The lugaw cart, its the pots now empty, is rolled back inside the gates. Tomorrow, another day — and another round of feeding — begins.