Some photographs are more than a thousand words. They express the entire depth of our emotions about a scene, a circumstance, a situation. Sometimes they shock. Sometimes they create great mirth or sadness or disgust. That's because they reach beyond the object in the picture and get to us, inside. Indeed, when we view them, they become ABOUT US, our feelings, our relationships, our history. They are symbols of our hopes and our dreams, or our fears and disillusionments.
I stumbled across such a picture the other day and I thought I'd share with you why it means so much to me. I was doing a story on mining, the typical JoeAm top-of-mind nonsense. As I usually do, I scraped Google for a picture or two.
This one came in. I went back to find the source to give due credit but it has migrated to some unknown sector of the internet universe. I can't find it.
It looks like the men are hauling bags of rocks, moving them out of some steel mining cars after they were dug from the mine. Their back are bent, muscles straining; their shirts are off, their shorts are of varying styles and colors and lengths. They are wearing boots, presumably to protect their feet from jagged rocks. They are four guys working hard.
That is much of the Philippines on any given day. People working at labor, working physical. Pedaling a tricycle, jamming rice into the mud, digging foundations, hauling cement . . . hauling rocks from the mine. Or digging inside it, deep within the damp, dark humid Philippine soil.
The going wage rate for laborers in my area is P170 per day. That is US $4.05 per day. Not hour. Day.
I paid P200 or P225 to some of the laborers who worked on building my house. They were pleased. The neighbors didn’t think too much of the idea. They might have to pay high rates, too.
A few of the laborers dug and hauled and hammered and mixed for 16 months, giving me a piece of their lives. Mud, rain, heat, sweat.
They were quiet, most days. Occasionally bursting out into a joke of some kind. Chatting at lunch before a snooze. Always happy to be going home at the end of the day.
To me, they represent the Philippines. Quietly neglected by the rest of the world. Ordered about for several centuries by Spain, the big boss man from Europe, who left behind the Catholic Church. Ordered about, guilt attached, by the Catholic Church. Ordered about by America, the big boss man from the New World with racist insults dripping from the lip. Briefly ordered about by Japan, a master with a club and a bayonet. Ordered about by Presidents and a Dictator and Governors and Mayors and Barangay Captains. Ordered about by doctors and hospitals. By the NBI and the police, by soldiers and even COMELEC. By Social Security and every other government agency that might intrude into their laboring lives. Lorded over by every self-serving oligarch since Aguinaldo, an important man who, among other deeds, established the right of the favored to help themselves.
All the while, the workers lifted the rocks. Doing what has to be done.
There's not a lot of glory in this tough work, 8 to 10 hours per day. No wonder Pacquiao is a hero. Every fist he throws is from the laborers, striking out for all the endless demands on their bodies and time. For the grind, the sweat, the unrewarding hard work. Building things for other people. People of means. Living on the edge themselves. Wham! Bam! Pound him Manny!
Home is often a shack by American standards. It is "simple" by Philippine standards. Simple enough not to have plumbing that requires upkeep, or sewerage. Maybe not a floor except the dirt that God gifted them. Water is piped in via a leaky plastic hose from several kilometers away; the water is haphazardly there, the piping hacked apart by angry neighbors or wayward kids, trampled by karabao, popping lose if there is a sudden spike in pressure, or losing its source, somewhere on the side of a mountain in some unknown place where the ground leaks most of the time. Sanitation? There is no Tagalog word for that. Electricity is in most places, but it is too expensive for much more than a light bulb and small television that gets two channels in grainy static. The stove is a grill over wood scrounged from the hills. A refrigerator is a rare luxury. You are heading for middle class if you have one.
But it's home, you know? The table is a weatherworn busted piece of wood with a slap of plywood on it. It works fine. Matching chairs? Ahahahahahaha! The food is rice and whatever can be scraped together to put on it. It works. The Friday evening tuba is an unaffordable necessity. "Give me tuba or give me death!" It is all there is, unless a guy is lucky enough to have a wife he enjoys snuggling with. Then he has the four essential joys of Filipino life: Wife, tuba, kids and a Pacquiao win.
Occasionally there is a treat. A visit with friends. A pick-up basketball game. A pack of chips from the Sari Sari store. A cigarette or 20. That's the fifth joy, a diversion from the work. A fleet diversion that is here then gone, far too quickly.
That's why I like the picture.
It's my neighbors.
Heads down, not looking for trouble.
Quick with a smile.
Very serious about the loads they carry.
Doing what has to be done.
Holding a nation up with strong, calloused hands.