Two for the long, rough road

Teody and Edwin are but two gutsy informal settler-leaders who have strengthened their own communities

SURVIVOR. Teody Gacer is a woman who has survived numerous challenges in life. Photo by Andrea Zara Dayao

MANILA, Philippines – Had they lived in postwar Manila when slums began their long and slow proliferation in ruins and empty lots, Teodosia ‘Teody’ Barquio-Gacer, 56, and Edwin Nakpil, 49, would have been nameless squatters.

Half a century later, priests, engineers, and thesis-writing students flock to learn from them. Teody and Edwin’s unique public service in a Quezon City community organization sheds light on why development agencies have now come to replace the name “squatter” with “informal settler.” 

Teody, the youngest of a farmer and midwife’s 15 children, was high school valedictorian and track-and-field athlete from Southern Leyte. She worked as a maid to finish high school, and dreamed of college while she joined her mother and sisters in a squatter’s warren in Paco after their father died. She was a big help — taking in laundry, cleaning house for a day’s wage, and selling street-corner snacks for family survival. 

When their mother fell ill, she pined for work as a security guard to help pay for her treatment. After all, she had been 1st Lieutenant in Citizen’s Army Training in high school, and knew how to handle an Armalite. At 4’11, she looked a mere 12 at age 19, however. Gutsiness would have to do the rest.

NORTH TRIANGLE. In the North Triangle area, informal settlers constantly face the possibility of eviction. Photo by Andrea Zara Dayao

Country girl

“Are you brave enough to kill?” the security agency interviewer asked her in Filipino. “Yes, so long as you keep me out of jail and take care of my family,” she shot back. Startled, they tried her out, first guarding a guitar store, then keeping an eye for pilferage in a construction site. There, the foreman razzed tiny Teody, pointing to a beer garden across the street: “Why don’t you work there instead?”

“You’re a foreman. You should know how to respect others. I’m a country girl — not a bad girl,” she said, not missing a beat.

Slowly, Teody gained the respect of those around her, but her elder sister prodded her to quit and apply for security guard training. Again, her size stood in the way.

Ignored for days in an interviewees’ waiting line, she burst into the manager’s office, complaining, “Your agency called me. I’ve been borrowing fare to come here all week. Why are you ignoring me?”

The manager laughed, scolded his assistant, and gave her back-to-back assignments in a pencil factory from morning to noon, and then in a watch factory from sunset to dawn.

The dream

But she never forgot her dream. With regular hours in a new job as security guard in the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), she enrolled in night school at the University of the East College of Education for a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition degree. But taking on all the overtime slots at work for tuition and her mother’s medical treatment often had her dozing in class.

Her guidance counselor asked why, but Teody was too embarrassed to admit her killer schedule. Prodded to confess in Motivation class, her teacher chided, “Why are you ashamed to admit you’re a working student? You’re helping your family!”

Life wasn’t all work and study, however. At 27, Teody met a handsome fellow-security guard, Nardito Gacer, 23. He was caring and kind, but only a high school graduate. She consented to a secret marriage, not daring to tell her family, until her sister discovered her pregnant in the BPI barracks.

HAPPINESS. They may have less but find contentment in the simplest of things. Photo by Andrea Zara Dayao

Teody’s mother had looked forward to her first college graduate and didn’t like Nardito much. She had them marry in church but let them live in their own apartment with the baby and a helper.

They went back to school until a moment of truth hit — it came with their second baby and sick helper. Teody dropped out of school a year before graduation and, like many a young woman before her, “went home to mother.”  

Her mother and sisters now lived in pushcarts under a makeshift roof in Sitio San Roque, a little corner of public land in Quezon City’s North Triangle. Slowly, she and Nardito bought logs and tin for the hard-scrabble house where their third child was born.

Bouncing back

Nardito was promoted to Bureau driver and supervisor, but soon fell ill with cancer of the lymph nodes. Seeking a folk cure as a last desperate measure, he went home to Bicol with his young family, but died anyway. Teody returned to San Roque, shell-shocked.

But giving up was no option with two tots and a 4-month old baby, so she took another security guard job, this time on 24-hour shift at the PGH Cancer Institute. One night, swooning from fatigue, she smashed her face, and woke in a pool of her own blood.

She quit, took out an SSS loan, bought a pushcart and hawked goods on West Avenue. Then she opened a neighborhood sari-sari store, where her former employer found her prostrate, robbed of a cash box. She offered Teody a new job, which she took, only to quit again, this time injured in another robbery.

But nothing could keep the “small but terrible” Leyteña from bouncing back. Next, she took in paying borders and found her best-paying guard job yet. Now she could send her 2 older children to school in a spell of stability that proved all too brief – her mother died, followed, unspeakably, by her cholera-stricken 4-year-old in the summer of ’91.

The widowhood that threw her into the arms of her women neighbors led to the organization of a day-care center. Losing both her mother and baby drove Teody to frenzy.

Advised by her neighbor Edwin, she went deeper and deeper into community organizing. Soon she founded one of San Roque’s first community organizations – Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Kababaihan, Sama Na Ka. A new life had begun for Teody.

LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES. Sama Na Ka has helped build a community. Photo by Andrea Zara Dayao

Insatiable learner

Teody and Edwin had many things in common, though their origins differed; he calls himself “a squatter from birth,” but not, he says, “the dirty kind throwing garbage everywhere. We always had plants where we lived.”

Raised by his grandfather, a campus security guard and janitor at UP, in a squatter community at the edge of the campus, he faced early trauma when the university demolished his home, clearing the area. Grandpa and grandson, with nowhere to go, simply squatted in another end of the campus, with Edwin more determined than ever to rise from his station in life. 

Like Teody, he was determined to get an education; from the time his grandfather taught him to read, he had become insatiable, “reading everything” he could lay his hands on. He took up Accounting at PUP then moved to the University of the Philippines (UP) when he was offered an athletic scholarship. Like Teody, he wed before completing his degree. Sadly, a technical violation of its terms caused him to lose the scholarship a hair’s breadth away from graduation.

Both Edwin and Teody were working students, who, having been forced to leave their studies, still remained relatively well employed. In Edwin’s case, after leaving school, he gained skills that ultimately enabled him to become a contractor.

Shy but well-spoken, “making many friends in different circles,” Edwin was elected to the UP Student Council chaired by Left-leaning nationalist leader Lean Alejandro. He reveled in the political ferment that surrounded the charismatic leader, but never actually signed up for the National Democratic “revolution,” choosing instead to concentrate on his studies.

PLAYTIME. Teeners of the community find time for play amidst challenging conditions. Photo by Andrea Zara Dayao


Now married with a baby and needing “a place of his own,” he and his family joined the informal settlers streaming into Sitio San Roque after the EDSA Revolt in 1986. Like the neighboring Gacers, their first shelter was made of cartons and plastic, gradually working up to tin, wood and cement on dirt floors. Families in the San Roque of Teody and Edwin often lived without electricity and fetched water from 200 meters away for years.

Life was hard but steady, until a familiar specter loomed in 1989-1990 – the demolition of neighboring Agham Street squatter shanties. Grief had opened his friend Teody’s eyes to the larger world; the threat of demolition brought Edwin’s leadership to the fore. Eyeing their chances of staying in North Triangle, he proposed that their Homeowners and Neighborhood Association (HONA) apply for power supply from Meralco. As it happened, their efforts at forming the electrical co-op turned out to be a unifying breakthrough for HONA.

As Teody organized mutual assistance among the women, Edwin was busy with the co-op electrification plan; both have since gone on to community council leadership. Those were heady days. “The spirit of cooperativism was born as we gathered wires and wood for our electrical system. As more people joined, we lit up the whole neighborhood – streets, chapels and schools,” Edwin recalls. A decade later, Sama Na Ka was building walking paths and canals with running water HONA managed to get pumped in.

With Edwin’s contacts, the neighborhood association became the locus of training in community organizing, paralegal work, negotiation, letter-writing campaigns and computer literacy — all aimed at staying. –

Lila R. Shahani is currently Assistant Secretary in the Office of the President and heads communications for the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster. A member of the faculty at the Asian Institute of Management, she has published widely, both in academic journals and in the media. She has also worked for the University of the Philippines, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Oxford University Press, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Development Programme and the National Anti-Poverty Commission of the Philippines. Sylvia L. Mayuga has been a published essayist, regular columnist, sometime-poet and occasional documentary filmmaker since the early ’60s.

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