I was running late for a meeting in Payatas. I’m always late. Maybe I savor morning cigarettes too much, or I get too easily distracted by anything remotely entertaining to clear my head. In any case, the two colleagues waiting for me at the Litex market weren’t upset when I arrived at 10:30 a.m.

We took a tricycle to Dona Nicasia, Payatas. Nine pesos (NT$5) – fair. I had been to Payatas in the past; the most recent was for a visit to my friend’s home at the end of the road. From there, we had a decent view of the garbage mountain the landfill area offered as a centerpiece.

Although Dona Nicosia, otherwise known as Plastikan, was closer to the terminal than to the mountain, the increasingly pungent smell kept me palpably aware of where I was. I was here for a meeting with community activists, but I learned more about the location itself and its inhabitants.


Credit: Mayeth Sapigao

The garbage mounds of Dona Nicosia, also known as Plastikan.

Ever since my 2013 escapade in Tacloban shortly after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit, my brain has had a difficult time distinguishing between the stark smells of trash and corpses. I was part of one of the first volunteer groups from Manila that activists had organized to aid in relief. My time was memorable. I’m ashamed to say that its sights and sounds were more to my amusement than they should have been.

In the end, many insisted I undertake some sort of debriefing as a result of the trauma that surrounded me. I always declined. Later on, I would come to realize what stuck with me was an inability to sensibly distinguish cadavers from waste. It sounds insensitive, but, in truth, walking through the streets of Tacloban, the destruction had brought the two together. Their mutual festering masked their individually distinctive scents.

Ever since my 2013 escapade in Tacloban shortly after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit, my brain has had a difficult time distinguishing between the stark smells of trash and corpses.

After a decade of political work, nothing has left me as fascinated as a most common occurrence in the city: the stark mass of poverty, and the conscious effort to not only ignore it, but to stifle its message and meaning.

And we all play along.

The endless rhetoric from schools, government, churches, media and other institutions that lend a helping hand almost exclusively rely on the assumption that the poor are wrong, have made bad decisions and, most irritatingly, are “less fortunate.” As if probability has anything to do with the status quo.

What has left me even more enamored, however, is that despite all the negation the poor receive from various fronts, not a fraction of their resilience is eroded. They overcome against all odds, financial or economic odds, along with the mountain of stigma they receive at the mercy of public opinion – the mercy of those same helping hands.

The poor are judged and caricatured all throughout, and yet I can think of no other assemblage of people that can band together like they can when their homes, land and livelihoods are in danger. The nation should take a look and learn. What intrigues me are the odds they deal with, and the fact they are beating them.

To me, this represents a sort of new frontier for social movements. They are Manila’s sleeping giant: a majority not silent but silenced.


Credit: Mayeth Sapigao

A woman sorts through waste in Plastikan, Quezon City.

And so the visual that came to me before I got off the tricycle that morning was a montage of corpses that I can now rationally put aside somewhere in my head – the memories of post-Yolanda Tacloban flushing into my first impressions of Plastikan, an area which persevered through its own horrendous tragedy when, in 2000, a landslide killed 232 people. The recollection didn’t unsettle me. On the contrary, I think it made me more perceptive.

I had been told this was a reclamation area, where gravel, soil, cement and other materials are poured on the land to make it sturdier and, in effect, create a greater land mass. From the looks of it, they haven’t done a very good job.

Just as the name suggests, Plastikan is wrapped in plastic. The ground, the walls of houses, even the air seemed to have bits of it.


Credit: Kadamay

A man stands outside a typical Plastikan dwelling.

But the olfactory sensations of the area took a backseat: I was in for a barefaced visual. TV documentaries on poverty and Payatas in particular don’t do it justice. They focus on tight shots and close-ups to amplify expressions of hardship. My experience was a multi-angled wide shot that put me dead center in the frame. It was slightly embarrassing to admit to myself that, after more than a decade of involvement in various struggles of marginalized sectors, I had never really seen Payatas, at least not like this.

The ground moved with each step, realigning itself at the slightest shift in weight. It was gray soil mixed with fine rocks and brightly colored plastic bags caught between sediments. There were indentations below your feet as if to fool you into thinking you were sinking. As your foot left the ground to take another step, the collapsing ground would return to its original shape almost like a plastic gelatinous excuse for the earth.


Credit: Mayeth Sapigao

Wooden poles support a Plastikan dwelling.

It was hard to imagine how tall stacks of makeshift houses on poles could stand on this ground. Atop the homes were heaps and large cubes, about four feet in length and width, of various plastic materials merged and wrapped together. Children were playing with them, being creative and taking out chunks of plastic material to parachute themselves as they jumped of their roofs.

Before the meeting started, one of the organizers in the area had us wait since he was occupied with a reporter from Reuters who was doing a story on pagpag. Pagpag is a delicacy of sorts known only to the poorest section of the metro. It’s “food” scavenged from dumpsters and garbage trucks that residents regularly gamble their health on.

The reporter was a Filipino who had grown up in the U.S. and had the familiar look of bemusement with the shanties. We were waiting on a bench when Aling Maria, a tall, dark woman in her mid-30s and the subject of the report, asked a leader of the local association if she had any leftover leftovers/pagpag to show the reporter. Aling Maria was sweating. It looked like she’d had enough of the day already to go out scavenging for a human interest piece.

Since Aling Maria had no pagpag, the reporter eventually left and said he would come back the following day. However, the gravity of her situation was not lost on him. He sincerely handed her some money to spend on her three children.


Credit: Iya Espiritu

Children playing atop plastic mounds in Plastikan.

He seemed nice, yet my conflicting views on mainstream media reportage in this area couldn’t help but resurface. I have yet to see his piece, though I hoped it would not be another one to milk the case of the penniless for a spike in ratings. Such accounts often do more to cheapen the impoverished than to shed light on their condition and uplift them. Journalistic impartiality tends to totally erase the main subject from the equation and runs the risk of converting an ordinary person’s extraordinary struggles into a means to a Pulitzer.

We crossed a path on the way to the house that would host our meeting. Only after a good hour did I notice that we were seemingly on the highest platform in the entire area. The ladder was quite long, escorting us atop a pile assembled upon the structures below.

There was an excellent view. It was a picture of communal plastic work, almost as if lined up on a conveyor belt. There were man-made ponds placed around the community; some residents were rinsing all sorts of plastics aside them. Others were segregating the white plastics from the colored. They were then loaded into a wooden box about three feet high and formed into cubes. A young boy held this job, standing atop the box mashing the plastic with his feet like he was making wine from grapes. Straw ropes attached prior would be tied, and out came the cubes of compacted plastic.


Credit: Mayeth Sapigao

Plastikan residents standing in a canal sort through garbage.

I had never seen anything like this. I was in awe. Resourcefulness, community effort, and everyday occurrence ignored and shunned by the greater city area. Exactly how you would treat a mountain of trash. If this type of thing happened in the swankiest regions of Metro Manila, everybody would be crapping their pants wanting to join in.


Credit: Iya Espiritu

Plastikan residents sorting through waste in a canal.

As the meeting went on, I learned how private claimants to the land backed by the city government were constantly pestering residents to leave. However, the case had been going well for the locals. They had been there for decades and can legally claim it as their own land. A solid organized force had added muscle to that despite the lack of a big shot attorney. Fake plastic claimants, I thought, to some fake plastic land, like the Radiohead song.

The Quezon City Development Plan, like most urban city planning projects throughout the country, has pushed to corporatize the space. It’s ironic how a development plan leaves out the development of people’s lives. In Quezon City, one of the main facets of corporatization is the “Zero Informal Settler Family” policy, which is as it sounds. It leaves no room for urban poor Filipinos on the map – a policy endorsed through the National Housing and Urban Development Framework as well as the Urban Development and Housing Act.

Even a quick read through the policy language reveals the rabid and discriminatory stance many local government units (LGUs) have against poor residents. When looking at the cited hindrances to planned projects of infrastructure and corporatization, a common phrase is “presence of informal settlers.”

I left at around 6:00 p.m. The street lights had cast eerie shadows over the stacked houses. Again, this could be politically incorrect and even ideologically backward, but a part of me reveled in what I saw. In these situations, though, I take my solidarities and sympathies as a given.


Credit: Mayeth Sapigao

Two men stand among bags of garbage in Plastikan.

This was a new, challenging, remarkable experience. I had seen a brewing mix of anguish, hardship, optimism and, of course, plastic. It all left a distinct and tangible clot of smells in my nose – a mixture that wouldn’t disappear until the next day. I was comforted, however, by the thought that the work of the people of Plastikan would carry on for a long time.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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