hirap is Filipino for either “poor” or “difficulty,” so if you say that someone or something is mahirap, you mean that someone is poor or that something is difficult.
Last Wednesday my colleagues and I were required to answer Pope Francis’s call to “go to the peripheries,” which, in our case, meant the Payatas community in Quezon City, around 2 to 3 hours north of my school.
I’ll be honest; I was scared. I have heard and read stories about how Payatas was just full of trash, and rightfully so, as it was one of the country’s landfills. There was a huge mountain of trash there, and people living near it either scavenged through the trash or had to live with the stench when the wind blew unfavorably.
Many of us were scared, but we gamely answered that call. The service interaction was part of our annual spiritual growth activity. We’ve been on service interactions before, but it was our students who interacted with the less fortunate; we teachers merely supervised. This time, though, we were the ones who were required to interact. Needless to say, I found myself in my students’ shoes, full of apprehension and worry.
Soon, I realized I needn’t have worried because Payatas is AMAZING. Yes, it is not the cleanest place in the world, but the residents there do their best given the mountain of trash, which, honestly WAS NOWHERE VISIBLE FROM WHERE WE WERE. It was a good thirty minutes away from where our bus dropped us off.
We broke off into groups upon arriving, and we played some games to break the ice. Then we were partnered off–one teacher with one Payatas mom. My partner, Ate* Vangie, and I took a ten minute tricycle ride to get to her house then had to walk for five more minutes through narrow streets and unpaved alleys. When we got to her house, I saw that there was a small tindahan* or sari-sari* store in front manned by her mom. Inside were two of her six children, Jed and Jenella, the latter a four year old who kept looking at me but wouldn’t talk to me.
The tiny house was cramped but clean. There was no untoward smell inside nor outside the house. There was food on the table. Ate Vangie had gotten up at 3am that day (like she does every day) to prepare the meals for her family and the lumpiang toge (Filipino version of spring rolls; filling is of mung bean sprouts) that she sells. She gave me the last two pieces in the store. I tried paying for it, but she wouldn’t let me. She was horrified. I felt ashamed.
Anyway, her lumpiang toge was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. She mixed her own vinegar dipping sauce to go with it and the combo was just absolutely delicious. I was one of the lucky ones whose partner was able to serve food. The partners of my other colleagues didn’t have food at home and therefore were not able to serve food.
The food serving wasn’t our idea. In fact, we planned to be the ones to bring the food to them, but when they heard that we were to go to their houses to interact after the games, they insisted that they prepare for us. They wouldn’t hear of not being able to serve their guests even a simple meal. It just so happened that others had had a bad night with their husbands and therefore were not able to prepare anything.
The hospitality of our Payatas partners is legendary. Here were people who had next to nothing, who lived day to day worrying about what to serve their children or how to send their children to school, yet these people openly welcomed strangers into their homes without batting an eyelash. What they wanted? For people to listen to them and not judge them because they lived next to a dumpsite.
And you know what I realized?
I realized that these people were mahirap not because of a LACK or because they were poor. Our partners were mahirap because they were having difficulty in achieving their goals. As my colleague astutely pointed out, WE were the ones who seemed to LACK because we were always looking for MORE. We were never content. Our partners’ common wish was for their children to finish their studies. It put OUR own wishes to shame for we wanted to travel the world or finish our own studies. Our partners thought nothing of themselves. They were always thinking of other people. My own partner did not complain about her status in life. All she kept saying was that she was proud of her children because they were doing well in school, and her eldest was a year from graduating college.
I’m crying now just thinking of my partner again.
I was wholly disturbed by the experience.
Filipinos are racist and discriminatory jerks, and the Payatas residents experience that regularly. We found out at the end of our interaction that whenever they try to apply for jobs, employers turn them away as soon as they find out that they are from Payatas. It is unfair because they want nothing more than an opportunity not even for themselves but an opportunity to help their families.
We all went back to work the next day crying during our debriefing/reflection and resolute in our desire to reach out to and help those in the peripheries.
This is not just a Catholic thing. Helping out is expected of any decent human being WHATEVER their belief.
We were disturbed. We were shaken. We will help.
*ate (pronounced ah-teh) is an honorific that means “older sister.” also used as a sign of respect towards a slightly older female
*Tindahan means store.
*sari-sari means “many different things” or “variety”. Sari-sari store is a small home-based store that sells a variety of goods that you might need at home such as a sachet of shampoo (if you’ve run out already and it’s not yet grocery day) or a pack of crackers or a loaf of bread or a bottle of soda, etc