Making Your Bed Among the Dead in Manila
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your pity is worthless here.
Isang kahig, isang tuka. One scratch, one peck.
In metro Manila, the meaning of this well-worn phrase is everywhere. In the densely cloistered megalopolis, a day at a time is the way for one generation after another.
None more so than for the 200-some-odd families living in Pasay City Public Cemetery, or PCPC, making their homes in and around the graveyard’s tombs and mausoleums. Building their shanties out of found materials — tarps, sheets of corrugated tin or iron, election placards, scraps of plywood, whatever they can get their hands on — the residents cobble together lives from the things the rest of the city throws away. Residual odors of flaming refuse, boiling rice and bodily wastes waft through the cemetery air.
Maryanne Pelaez, 38, has been in the cemetery since 2009, when she separated from her husband. Pelaez, a mother of five, has a number of side hustles going: selling beauty products, helping her mother run a sari sari shop, even lending out money for a time as a “five-six,” as in clients borrow five pesos and pay six back.
One of Maryanne’s daughters is soon to become the family’s first college graduate — no easy feat when going to school often means being bullied once the other students, or even the teachers, find out where you live. It was enough to drive her neighbor, Norilyn Agustin, 20, out of school in the fifth grade.
“Some of my classmates came here to play,” Norilyn recalls, “and they found out I live here. I wanted to keep it a secret. I felt ashamed.”
“I wasn’t able to sleep in my first days here … I was afraid. I thought I could hear voices whispering to me.”
Maryanne’s home, built around the structure of a family tomb, is one of the few that has a second floor. It took two years for her to save up enough to build the basic but well-kept single-room addition. As in all places, success can breed jealousy.
“I hear them talking behind my back,” says Maryanne of her neighbors. Still, little can dampen her pride when Maryanne speaks of her daughter’s impending convocation.
“She promised me that when she graduates and has a good job, she’ll buy us a house outside the cemetery.”
Many here earn their living as caretakers, keeping the mausoleums clean for their owners, making sure nothing gets stolen. In return, the owners pay them a pittance, maybe a hundred pesos a month, 20 for taking care of the smaller “apartment” tombs. Perhaps more important, the owners give the informal settlers permission to stay, though they could easily have them cleared out at any time. The money comes in once a year on November 1, All Saints’ Day — a day when the families return to visit the deceased and the caretakers have to remove their belongings, if only temporarily.
Yoly Marcelino, 61, a mother of 12 and grandmother to about 30, came in 1974 from Laguna to be with her husband, Nicomedes.
“I wasn’t able to sleep in my first days here,” she says, though she now rests better, sharing a mausoleum with Nicomedes, 10 children and grandchildren, and the remains of seven bodies. When she first arrived, things were different.
“I was afraid. I thought I could hear voices whispering to me.”
Nicomedes, 66, has been in the cemetery since age 10. Electrical fires caused by thin, shoddy “spaghetti” wiring took everything he and his family had twice, once in 2012 and again last year.
“Everything was lost,” Nicomedes says. “We could only save the clothes on our backs.”
During our visit we often find Nicomedes, who suffers from tuberculosis, wandering the cemetery’s overgrown, garbage- and rubble-strewn footpaths, listening to the Beatles. Without money to buy food, he and his family have to resort to other means of getting something to eat.
“Sometimes family members put atang for the tombs,” he says, offerings of food for the deceased. “We can take it. Medicine for the hungry,” he adds, laughing.
These small graves are so named because many of the inhabitants of the rows dubbed Duterte 1 and 2 were killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s months-long war on drug users and pushers.
The people of the PCPC do what they can to make their lives as normal as possible. They throw birthday parties for each other, mark those little milestones with what fanfare they can muster. Janice Pilapil’s 37th birthday is early in July, on a Friday this year. She celebrates with a few cups of gin and orange juice with some friends and her partner, Rolly — the man she came to the cemetery to be with three years ago when he gave her an ultimatum: Be with me in the graveyard, or don’t be with me at all. Janice came. Her three kids stayed in Cavite with her unemployed ex. Now she’s two months pregnant with her fourth. Still, the drinks are flowing.
When Janice’s baby comes along, he or she will have plenty of company. Young motherhood is common among the women here. There’s a newborn on the other side of the graveyard, less than a week old, sleeping under a mosquito net to keep the dengue-ridden bugs at bay. This one’s mother, Margie Sarmiento, is just 15, onlookers say.
Margie looks utterly spent, tending to her child in the merciless heat. It’s hard to breastfeed when you’re not getting enough nourishment yourself. Formula is expensive, the other mothers say. The cheap stuff — the best they can afford — has been known to make their babies vomit. Over near the center of the burial ground, Norilyn Agustin has a 6-month-old. In all likelihood, her child, Janice’s and Margie’s will all be playmates one day.
Monday through Saturday is for working in the cemetery — building, repairing or cleaning the grave sites, scavenging in the winding streets beyond the walled-off grounds.
Sunday is for two things — God and cock fighting. On a sweltering Sunday in July, the air thick with rot-fouled humidity, diesel smog and the acrid smoke of burning plastic, an outsider comes to the cemetery with a cockerel, looking for a match. It’s a nice, out-of-the-way place to have one, though there is a police station just around the corner.
Cemetery resident Rex “Bibi” Guial, 33, has a day off from his job building what the workers call “Duterte 3,” a row of boxlike apartment tombs stacked five high near the rear wall. These small graves are so named because many of the inhabitants of the rows dubbed Duterte 1 and 2 were killed in President Rodrigo Duterte’s months-long war on drug users and pushers. It’s expected that “3” will be much the same.
Rex has a bird he thinks would be a good match for the challenger. The fight is made. The local bookie, or kristo, takes the bets. The roosters’ hind legs are fitted with a tari, a razor-sharp blade sheathed in cloth until the last minute. The ring is formed by spectators crowded around to watch, children as young as 3 taking in the grim proceedings of a death sport with equal parts awed silence and howling blood lust, imitating their elders.
When the fight finally gets going, it’s but a few flurries of wings as the birds come savagely together with the thrusting of bladed quarters. After less than a minute, one of the birds keels onto its back, shivers spasmodically, then quickly goes still.
The assembled masses of the PCPC cheer. The hometown fighter lives to slash and claw another day, and death, once again, is visited on the people who live with it daily as something not to be feared.
To Rex goes the money and the fallen loser to cook up for a Sunday meal. Rex and everyone here in the cemetery have reason to be happy — not just today but in general, they say. Even though life and work here are hard, harsh beyond the measure of most, if Rex had to leave one day, he would come back.
“If there’s a relocation, I’m OK with it,” says the father of three young daughters. In other cemeteries, like the more publicized Manila North, home to about 11,000 informal settlers, residents led by Tita Villarosa, who in 2005 traveled to New York to give an address to then Secretary General of the U.N. Kofi Annan, are pushing for a government-assisted move to nearby suburbs that never seems to come.
Other grounds, like Polo Catholic Cemetery and Karuhatan Public Cemetery in Valenzuela, are for various reasons down to their last, lone residents.
“I’d still come back here to work,” Rex goes on, echoing a sentiment shared by his neighbors. Even if they were to move, the only jobs many of them have ever known would still be in the cemetery. Then there’s the sense of community. More than one resident says they’re like a big family. Rex agrees.
“We’re united. If I see someone’s kid doing something bad, I stop them. We look out for each other.”
Nicomedes, meanwhile, makes it clear the people of Pasay City Public Cemetery are not to be pitied. Assistance would be nice. Government help comes sparingly, and only during election years. Conditional cash transfer programs like 4Ps are difficult to qualify for; Maryanne Pelaez is the only successful applicant to be found. Most direct aid comes from foreign nongovernmental organizations, they say. But while helping hands are welcomed, Nicomedes says, feeling sorry for them is not.
“Others are poorer than us. We are lucky.”