Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler
The barangay dispenses the most basic and mundane of government services, from free medicines to Zumba classes, sorting out neighborhood disputes to breaking up brawls.
If you want to get to know a city, go to its barangay centers and you'll get a pretty good glimpse of its social and political life.
Pasig City, where this writer grew up and lived most of his life, is rife with stories from the barangays, as surely all other cities and municipalities in the country are.
The recent toppling of the Eusebio dynasty from Pasig City Hall by the young new mayor, Vico Sotto, has drawn the country’s attention to this riverside nook whose namesake river has long been associated with the metropolis’ putrefaction.
For nearly 3 decades, the letter “E” was painted, pasted, sculpted, welded, embossed, emblazoned upon every public fixture all over the city and – you bet – in the barangays.
It started to seem as though all the sprouting Es were weighing Pasig down. As its neighboring cities grew more cosmopolitan, for years, Pasig seemed rather stagnant.
Pasigueños bemoaned how their city’s border lay just meters away from SM Megamall and Shangri-la Plaza Mall in Mandaluyong, Robinsons Galleria in Quezon City, and lately, Bonifacio Global City or BGC in Taguig.
Then, quite interestingly, just as Metro Manila denizens began to notice signs of new life flowing into the Pasig River after years of sporadic efforts to revive it, Pasig, the city, now seems to be catching on.
The renewed vigor has a lot to do with Sotto, undoubtedly, whose electoral victory alone surprised the populace long used to more letter Es springing up.
The next tales are slices of life in Pasig, as told to this writer by homemakers who have had to run to the barangay center at one time or another for an ailment cure or for a way to make ends meet.
Seniors’ Christmas party
It was an arid December afternoon in 2018 and all the senior citizens in Pasig City who cared to claim their yearly P3,000 cash gift from the local government rode, walked, or were wheeled to their respective barangay centers to wait for the mayor, who was to deliver a speech before they could take their pamasko or Christmas presents.
But no one knew in which order the Mayor would visit the barangays, and whether he would indeed go to all 30 in Pasig. All they knew was they had to be in place by 1 pm.
In this one barangay that’s among the farthest from City Hall, the senior citizens gathered in a schoolyard where a canopy was to shield them from the sun, which, that day, seemed as excited as they were.
Problem is, there were hundreds of them. The older ones brought a relative or helper to assist them, so the crowd swelled and not everyone could fit under the canopy. Kind souls gave up their spot to the poor lolos and lolas, to spare them from the heat.
Since nobody could tell at what time the mayor was arriving, someone from the barangay decided to serve the food early. It was supposed to be a Christmas party.
The barangay officials did not foresee that the senior citizens would bring along relatives and helpers, so they did not have enough food for everyone. Realizing this, one enterprising barangay employee quickly took one of the giveaway knick-knacks, a plastic "tupperware," and filled it with some pancit for safekeeping.
Besides the cash, each of the senior citizens was supposed to receive a half-sack of rice. But since there were more senior citizens than half-sacks of rice, the barangay officials decided on a raffle. They did this while waiting for the Mayor, who still had not arrived after 3 hours.
People got bored, started looking around, and caught some folks near the half-sacks of rice sneaking them out through the service gate. Those who saw this – it was not very discreet – did not want to upset the crowd of seniors who already were getting impatient, so they let it be.
Just before sunset, the Mayor arrived with members of the City Council and they took turns to deliver their speeches of goodwill, well wishes, and happy holiday greetings to the senior citizens. After they left, the senior citizens finally received their P3,000.
The quick-witted barangay employee who saved some pancit for herself was recently put in charge of an official “excursion” – a recreational trip – of the barangay’s employees.
Enterprising as always, she managed to reserve seats on the bus for her relatives who lived in another barangay, still in Pasig, even though they were not local government employees. She had worked at the barangay for many years, and she knew how to do what she wanted to do.
At another time, she "borrowed" the barangay’s official mobile, a van, to transport an old washing machine discarded from one of the nearby neighborhoods to her relatives’ house in another part of Pasig. Thankfully, no emergency happened while the van was away, or at least, none was reported.
Boiling point: 20 minutes
In another barangay in Pasig City lives Marie, who moved there in 1994 after living in yet another barangay of Pasig since 1976, the year she started working at one of the factories along the river.
She did not want to give her surname or her age, only that she’s a senior citizen. She wore black-rimmed eyeglasses, her hair was dyed dark brown, and she was in a white T-shirt with sleeves neatly folded. It bore the logo of her longtime employer, a food company, across the chest.
One day two years ago, Marie dropped by their barangay center on her way home from the local health clinic. She had heard from her friend Neny that she could get free diabetes medicines there.
The woman in charge of dispensing the medicines was also a senior citizen. She saw Marie walk in. Marie went up to her and asked for the medicines.
Marie seethed as she recalled the encounter.
“Binigay ko sa kanya ‘yung reseta, naupo ako, upo din siya. May isang papel siya ‘dun sa harapan niya. Sulat, sulat. Tinitingnan ko kung ano’ng sinusulat niya. Tapos tuwing may papasok na tao sa pinto, tinitingnan niya,” Marie recalled.
(I gave her the prescription, I sat down and so did she. There was a sheet of paper in front of her. She scribbled, scribbled. I was looking at what she was writing. Then every time someone came in, she’d look at them.)
Marie just sat there observing the medicine woman for 10 minutes. "Pinakiramdaman ko siya. (I was reading her.)”
Another 10 minutes went by. Nothing. Marie stood up and walked up to the woman.
“‘Ma’am, bibigyan ‘nyo po ba ako ng gamot?’ Sabi ko sa kanya. ‘Kasi kung ayaw ‘nyo, aalis ako,’ sabi kong ganu’n sa kanya.” (“Ma’am, are you going to give me medicines?” I told her. “Because if you don’t want to, I’ll leave,” I told her like that.)
The woman tried to mumble an explanation. Marie would have none of it.
“Ay Ma’am, kanina pa ako dito. Gutom na ho ako kasi kaninang umaga pa ako galing sa doktor, diretso na nga ako dito kasi malapit rin naman, para isang lakad ko na lang,” Marie told the woman.
(Ma’am, I’ve been here for ages. I’m hungry because I was at the doctor’s since this morning, in fact I came here straight away because it was pretty near, so I could do it in one go.)
Her pride hurt, Marie left without getting any medicines. “Hindi na ho, inyo na lang ho ‘yan (Never mind, you can have it),” Marie told the woman.
All Marie wanted was to be treated with esteem and courtesy.
“‘O Ma’am, ano bang ano natin? Maipaglilingkod ko sa inyo?’ Ganoon sana, ‘di ba?” (“Hi Ma’am, what brings you here? What can I do for you?” Should be that way, right?)
Marie told her friend Neny about what happened. Neny tried to ask for medicines from the same woman, too, and got the same treatment. Neither of them ever went back to that barangay hall for medicines.
“Neny now gets hers from Ugong,” Marie said. Apparently the service is better in Ugong, another barangay in Pasig City.
As for Marie, she just bought her own medicines from then on. She said she still bumps into the medicine woman every now and then. Marie never formally complained about her because she didn't want the woman to get fired. She’s a senior citizen, too, after all, and she must really need a job to still be working at her age.
Marching orders: service with a smile
One of Mayor Vico Sotto’s first instructions to Pasig City government workers was to always be warm, welcoming, and accommodating even when the clients are difficult, and “kahit minsan po ay wala tayo sa mood (even if sometimes we’re not in the mood).”
Under pain of suspension, dismissal, or even prosecution, the Mayor added.
He said Pasigueños can complain there about anything that has to do with the local government's duties and services, especially the little inefficiencies and petty corruption they're so used to ignoring.
Sotto is aware of the tired old ways of the city’s civil service – he had been a councilor for 3 years – and how many of the poor, weary folk who come for their cedula, birth certificate, permits for this and that, curl up when the clerk behind the glass panel scowls or snaps at them.
Even worse when the bureaucrat makes it difficult and tries to squeeze bribes.
The Mayor wants the people to understand which side of the glass he’s on, even if he, too, might get scowls from the bureaucrats behind his back.
In an interview with reporters, Sotto said in a mix of English and Filipino: "Perhaps it’s normal that there’s resistance, especially from those who benefited from the old ways, which we know are not right. But to my pleasant surprise, the resistance was much less than I expected. I think even the people inside City Hall, especially the rank-and-file, and mid-level employees, really want change, too."
Marie, who was lining up for a document at City Hall the day Sotto inaugurated the revamped complaints unit, was a little cautious.
The Mayor is new, so let’s wait and see, she said. She’s lived in Pasig long before the Eusebios came to power, and she knows better than to take these mayors at their word.
She said in Filipino, "I wish he’d go around all of Pasig, to get to know the people’s problems, especially those dingy places where people are mired in problems. Then he will know."
Compared to another new mayor in Metro Manila, Sotto tends to shun media attention, choosing to focus on his work. He doesn’t round up reporters and TV news crews before doing his stuff. He just posts them on social media after they’re done, and the newspeople just play catch-up.
However, it seems people like Marie equate good service with performance, in every sense of the word.
She said in Filipino, "Look, not that I am comparing him with Mayor Isko. But Isko, Mayor Isko, as you can see, even on his first day, he already made the rounds. Didn’t he visit all those places?"
Otherwise, Marie finds out what goes on from hearsay, the talk in the barangay, such as there being diabetes medicines at the center – which, to this day, she isn’t sure was true. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.