IF CARMEN Castro Deunida could have her way, there would be a protest rally every day and she’d be right smack at the frontlines. Never mind that her right toes still ache after almost being run over by a fleeing buko cart during the dispersal of the last demonstration, or that her doctor has warned her about her enlarged heart, and her children have repeatedly pleaded for her to just stay home.
Listen to the interview with Nanay Mameng
Deunida, all of 77, is a grandmother 30 times over and the shy darling of today’s rally circles. Known more popularly as Nanay Mameng, she came into the public eye during Edsa Dos, drawing in rallyist and cop alike into the vortex of her fiery, earthy sallies against the Estrada government as if she were to the soapbox born.
A veteran as well of Edsa 1, it is the Arroyo presidency whose political legitimacy is under question that is now the target of her spiels. “If she will not resign,” says Nanay Mameng, referring to the present occupant of Malacañang Palace, “I myself will drag her out of there. She has done nothing but bring more hardship to the poor.”
“Take EVAT,” she says in rapid-fire Filipino, pointing to the latest government tax measure that ended exemptions on a wide range of goods and services and gave the president the discretion to expand the tax rate to 12 percent by Jan. 6, 2006. “GMA wanted this imposed even if prices are so steep and so many are out of jobs. Everything is going up. Oil, water, electricity. Where will the people get the money to pay for these? Does she ever think of the poor? They are grabbing food out of the mouths of people.”
Barely 4’9, this pint-size, reed-thin, gray-haired firebrand stands steaming tall in her conviction and passion for all the things that never were and yet could be. “I grew up in poverty. This is what taught me to stand up and fight for a better life,” says this daughter of a poor government clerk and street vendor. “I don’t mean everyone should be rich. I simply want to see the lives of the poor improve. We cannot have a situation like this where people hardly have anything to eat the whole day because of crushing poverty.”
In her youth, Nanay Mameng dreamt of becoming a lawyer to defend the poor, or a doctor so she could treat the sick for free. She only managed to finish second year high school when World War II drove her family into destitution. But she does not need a lesson in taxation to know the “oppressive and confiscatory” effects of government policies.
In 1978, at 50 years old, she became the oldest member of the youth group Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyonalismo (KADENA). It was in this activist organization that she says she found the answers to questions that had crowded her mind since childhood: Why is there poverty? What makes people poor? She participated in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship under KADENA’s banner. In 1983, she became a founding member of the women’s group Samahan ng Maralitang Kababaihang Nagkakaisa (SAMAKANA). The group later elected her as chairperson, a post she held for 11 years and which gave her the chance to meet downtrodden women from various cities nationwide. In 1998, she became the first head of the urban poor organization Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY), and is now also the vice president of the militant party-list group Anakpawis.
NANAY MAMENG has been through two Edsas, and has witnessed and experienced it all — the teargas, the truncheons, the water cannons, and even the gunfire. She remembers the turbulent yet heady days of February 1986 when she was at Edsa nearly every day. On the day Marcos fell, her group had marched from the University of Sto. Tomas to Mendiola to greet the end of the dictatorship and the beginning of new possibilities.
Yet, except for her militant involvement, life for Nanay Mameng has been more of the same despite the cataclysm of two people power uprisings. “I can’t speak of any good thing that has changed my life for the better,” she says, shaking her gray head. “And it’s not only me, but the whole people.”
Home to her remains a clapboard shack in the depths of Leveriza slum community, a mere 10-minute walk from Manila’s main tourist district. She has lived here since the mid-1940s, even before she got married and raised nine children, two of whom had died in childhood, one from measles and another from mistakenly drinking a glass of Zonrox bleach. The only running water in the house comes from a tattered pipe at her doorstep. When she still has the time and her knobby arthritic hands allow her, this long-time labandera takes in laundry to support her family.
Fourteen family members live with her, including six grandchildren. A tiny “second floor” serves as sleeping quarters. In a narrow overhang beside the shack stays her former husband from whom she had “emancipated” herself a long time ago, not only physically but his surname included, when she could no longer stand his womanizing, drinking, and beatings.
Until now, Nanay Mameng holds no legal title over this 45-sq. m. patch of land that she calls home. In the late 1950s to the early 60s, she led a fight to keep out demolition teams from ejecting Leveriza residents. Barricades were set up. The community action ended in victory, with the help of some supportive local officials. The national housing authority consented to divide and distribute the Leveriza lots to its existing inhabitants at a cost.
This was her first taste of collective struggle. She paid P4 a month in amortization, but has to settle problems with a neighbor before she can get a legal title to the property. Yet, she cannot understand why some other neighbors have paid in full, with the help of the church-based organization Alay Kapwa even, but still have no legal titles to their homes.
Peruvian economist and Arroyo special economic adviser Hernando de Soto says some 57 percent of city dwellers in the Philippines live on property to which they have no legal titles. He also says it would take 168 steps for an illegally occupied property to become legal, and this could take between 13 and 25 years. That means that at the earliest, Nanay Mameng would be 90 before she finally gets a land title.
TODAY’S URBAN poor number some 20 million or nearly a fourth of the country’s total population, says KADAMAY. Republic Act 7279, or the Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, officially defines the urban poor as those who reside in urban and “urbanizable” areas who have no houses and who live on the poverty threshold. Additionally, NGOs see the absence of security of housing tenure as a defining characteristic of the urban poor.
Around Manila alone, about 3.4 million people live in slums, says the Asian Development Bank. The number is higher in all of Metro Manila as wave upon wave of rural folk flee the travails of rural poverty as well as armed conflicts. With no government intervention to check this exodus, migrants set up house wherever and whenever they can — in already congested shantytowns, beneath bridges and flyovers, along railroad tracks and riversides, and on dumpsites, where they make a life scavenging through mountains of trash.
“It didn’t use to be like this,” recalls Nanay Mameng. “The poor like us, somehow we were able to survive with the little we had. You could still ask for a cup of vinegar, a clump of matchsticks, or some pieces of ginger. But now, a piece of ginger costs P5 to P10, beyond the everyday reach of ordinary people.”
“I had hoped that once Marcos left, the changes I sought would happen, finally. But nothing has happened,” she rues. “Leaders have been replaced but the system has not changed. They give a different name to every administration, but it’s still the same old rotten, corrupt system. They make laws that only serve their own interests. The poor have no place of real importance.”
“When I saw the policies of Cory, I regretted being part of Edsa 1,” she says. “She’s a woman who could have set things right and followed her heart to serve the people well. But she just followed foreign dictates, and let the old corrupt system prevail.” Nanay Mameng cites the case of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita, which she says should have been given immediately to the tillers of the land but was kept intact for the benefit of former President Aquino’s clan.
She knows her current street militancy has put her life in danger. Last year, two KADAMAY leaders and 13 Anakpawis organizers were slain. Since 2001, more than 200 activists identified with left-leaning groups have died. Activists blame the killings on the military’s practice of labeling advocates for justice and the poor as subversives.
Nanay Mameng herself recounts how a man claiming to be a reporter once accosted her while she was waiting for a colleague in a snack bar. The man wanted to take her away for an “interview.” But he couldn’t produce any identification so she scurried away. She later saw him enter a car that had other burly men in it.
“The way activists are being killed today reminds me of the days under martial law, or even during the Second World War when, as a young girl, I saw how people suffered and were violated with impunity,” she notes. But she refuses to go around with a companion for protection, arguing, “What if something happens to my companion just because of me?”
For now, what’s most important to Nanay Mameng is the next rally and to oust a president whom she believes cheated her way into office and betrayed the people with unfulfilled promises. “If it’s possible,” she says, “I want another Edsa to take place now. And all must join in. This is what I tell everyone who asks why Gloria still has not resigned. How can you make her step down when many turn their backs on protests and only a few are fighting back?”
She bristles at the idea that people have become weary of protesting, that maybe it’s time to stop. “I don’t know about the others,” she says.”But me, I’m not tired of fighting. I’ll keep on going until I see concrete changes and progress in the life of our people.” With all the verve that her emaciated body can muster, she exclaims, “So long as I’m still alive, so long as there’s blood running in my veins, so long as I can still walk, to stand up, I won’t give up. I will only stop if I’m already inside a box.”
The words are full of dramatic flourish. But coming from a street-protest veteran in her sunset years, they ring with desperate hope for a world that she may never see. — Fides Lim