Saturday, March 18, 2017

Into the light

THE “SATURDAY Special” was dinner fare my sister and I, growing up, memorized. The night before Sunday marketing, our household always ran out of food.

The quick and cheap solution to Saturday dinner was scrambled eggs and chorizo. The latter—ground meat stuffed into small balls tied from a coil of pork intestine—mesmerized and repelled.

Frying split the skin, releasing an oozing trail of pink-colored fat. When I saw my first salvaged victim, dumped outside a factory on the way to school, Saturday Special immediately came to mind.

It was hard to see the body, hogtied and bloated in decomposition, had been a person.

A similar problem afflicts the characters in F. H. Batacan’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. First released as a novella, the 2015 novel is set in 1997, when the bodies of young boys are found in Payatas.

As invisible as the alluded tautology—dumped in the mother of all dumps—is the possibility of a pattern behind the killings.

To prove or disprove this would require gathering and studying the evidence. This involves not just resources but the will to prioritize the investigation.

In Batacan’s corrupt and cynical Manila, the problem is: everyone sees but no one cares when the poorest of the poor die.

As metaphors, dumpsites have few rivals. Until a landslide of trash in Payatas killed more than 200 scavengers and left 300 missing in 2010, few Filipinos pondered how trash dumped heedlessly grew into a mountain.

Today, Payatas, Smokey Mountain in Tondo, and Inayawan in Cebu City not just overshadow the barangays where they are located. They have become “poverty porn symbols,” beloved of filmmakers and politicians.

The expression, “payat sa taas,” means the top soil is not fertile for planting crops. The new tillers of these forsaken places, scavengers know that only digging deep will bring to light the trash that can be sold for the day’s meal.

“To dig” is the key to salvation in “Smaller and Smaller Circles”. Reject blindness, expressed by a police official’s denial: “there are no serial killers in the Philippines… We’re too Catholic, too God-fearing, too fearful of scandal”.

To dig is also to peel away the pretensions of power. After a cleric defends the confidentiality surrounding Church investigations of priests accused of sexual abuse, a law enforcement official counters, “Is… (the) credibility (of the Church) built on what people don’t know, rather than what they do know?”

Just before gazing at another body found in Payatas, a priest prays: “Please, God, let the face remind me this used to be a human being.”

If we heed the disquiet, these times call for us to dig.

( 09173226131)

*First published in the March 19, 2017 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column of Sun.Star Cebu, “Matamata”

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