Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Thousand Words . . . Or More

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!

For us!

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.


Backs strong.

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.


  1. Joe,

    A hair-splitting documentary of which I am having trouble comprehending it, perhaps a denial. Gives me goosy.

    A mining that I know of has necessary tools or heavy equipments. What you have depicted is a hard labor camp of which their day salary is not enough to buy a light bulb.

    You are right, these are the forgoten people, victim of social injusctice. The government needs to tweak the minimum wage so that they could live decently.

    Its Jack

    1. Yes, the bigger mines can clear a mountain with the equipment they have. But the Philippines remains a very laboring place, from the construction pits to the rice fields.

  2. From: Island jim-e (aka: The cricket)

    You hit the nail right square on the
    head! Wonderful profile and description
    of the real "state of the union"! Now
    What to do? How to capitalize, explore
    and use the "one picture" worth a 1000
    words concept as a spring-board to
    accelerate the PH islands out of the
    1900s into the 21st century?

    Okay, here is my take/view/comment-
    Perhaps someone like National Geo
    could devote a whole "coffee/tea-table"
    book photo-jounalistic series besides
    a whole one month showcase issue release
    (or some other company capable of doing
    a good job of publication and distribution).

    The first chapter would be tourist orriented
    the second chapter would be the history
    and culture, a chapter on slums-living
    conditions of the lower, middle, upper-
    ruling class, a chapter on the wars and
    conflicts, one on religion, one on rituals,
    fests and the last chapter would concern
    the grass huts to the vertical cities...
    and a special pictorial outline of how
    the government is staged...all done in color with body copy kept to a sentence structure.

    Key to success is repetition and reinforce-
    ment with a strong pre-and-post production
    set of promotions--to include teasers and
    trailers on all visual media sites.

    I believe that this concept could even
    be pre-sold, done in volumns, done even
    in comic book format as a spin off,
    supported with promotional t-shirts, cloth
    carry-all bags, etc....! If customer
    contact information is kept to include
    e-mail...a release of up-dated picture info
    could be done as monthly suppliments and
    then a request for: New business start-ups,
    donations, tourism promotions, etc. could
    become a real asset for future island
    conservation and growth!

    Quesiton: Do you suppose someone like
    "The Donald" would be a possible
    resource to pre-fund a breeder-incubator- merchandise- pre-stocking "angel"?


    1. "The Donald" hates the Philippines, considering it corrupt. That's why he just split with his Japanese partner who wants to build a Manila casino.

      Bill Gates is more involved in the international community and could well appreciate a project like you suggest.

  3. I love this article of yours, Joe. No further comment.

    1. None needed. You said a lot. Thanks.

    2. Count me in. You can actually immortalize this incredible piece of writing into a poem, a song or a video. Bravo, Joe. (Listening to Noel Cabangon's CD as I write this, and images form, and it's not easy to be unemotional about it.) Thanks, man.

    3. Good to see you checking in, andrew. It took me several years to realize what is really going on here. Glad you appreciated it.

    4. Joe and @andrew lim,

      Riding on to andrew's idea, I can also envision a collection of art works... an art show on the theme "The Forgotten Filipino".

      Just tossed the idea to a cousin who happens to be an established artist in Manila ( Joe's article attached). Let's see what he thinks.

      If he's not biting, will pitch it to another friend who curates art on similar themes. Incidentally, there's one on at the moment at the CCP called Recollections 1081 on the theme 40 years of martial law. You guys may want to check it out, if you happen to be in Manila.


    5. Coorrection, 40 years since the declaration of martial law. (not of)


  4. Beautifully written, Joe.

    There is the trademark wit and candor. And then there's a sense of elegance and harmony of thought.

    Yet it also makes for a great study in contrasts. It soothes while it agitates, pushes while it pulls, and uplifts while it rests on solid ground.


    1. You wend a pretty word yourself, you know. I'll be back to my brusque and overbearing self tomorrow. Don't know what got into me, emoting all over the place like that. ;>

    2. Magical Tuba? Whatever it is, just keep on taking it. :)

    3. More likely Fudgie Bars and Siete Baracas fine Philippine coffee.

  5. That's triple whammy Joe : Spain, America, Japan.

    And then, when we finally got to be on our own, another triple whammy : Marcos, Estrada, Arroyo.

    Maybe there's some redeeming value in these purgatorial Filipino narrative?

    1. Very good, jaylo. The double triple whammy, imported and domestic versions! Time now to go for good guys and honorable work, eh?

  6. Hi Mr.Joe, I notice you seem to focus only on hard working Filipino. Coming from the warp it's far worst in other country even in the USA. Did you ever thought of the Wall of China, the Pyramid, the 300 Spartan? I could innumerate more...the Incas if you consider them hard labor, barefooted & all...the ground zero, the Hazmats dying from enhaling asbestos? Philippines has more safer environment when it comes to labor, no element of nuclear, tropical & friendly climate except typhoon & flood but who would works during that season? they rather huddle in the huts & eat kamote & kangos...& make babies.

    1. Well, yes, there are a lot of dysfunctional and lazy people about, especially in the U.S. Congress. But you make a good point. Why am I so sympathetic of laborers? I suppose, if I think deeply about it, it is because my mother was one. Up at 4:30 to milk the cow and feed the chickens. To the kitchen to ready breakfast for her husband and four kids, and get them packed off for the day. Off to work at the post office or porcelain plant where she dedicated herself in true Germanic fashion to breaking production records, home again to clean the house and tend the garden - her flowers were stupendous - out to the vegetable garden to weed or pick produce for eating or canning and freezing, back to the kitchen for dinner, and sometime along the way, finding time to sew new shirts or dresses for the kids. She was not lavish with expressions of affection. She did it through her dedication and labors. What am I supposed to think and feel if I am the son of a laboring Filipino? That my papa, who arrives home every evening, dog tired and dirty, is a schmuck? The schmucks are the oligarchs and politicians who set the pattern for society, not the ordinary people who just live it. Sometimes live it the hard way.

      As for the people who built the pyramids and Stonehenge and Great Wall and even the railroads in the U.S., I'd say they are a better quality of human than the financial people who have a good life but still find it necessary to cheat and steal and ride on the backs of other people.

  7. From: Island jim-e (aka: the cricket)

    As you all must realize by now I am more concerned
    with finding marketable and producive "solutions" that
    would motivate and elevate the "PH rainbow islands"
    towards successful outcomes. If we can but improve
    the living standards and average family income I feel like we can contributea measure of success!

    Therefor I make another suggestion and observation:
    If someone (or group) would take it upon themselves to
    launch a internet picture campaign that just features
    faces and living conditions (on a daily basis) I am
    certain that within one year of this "saturation" that
    we would start to see upward progressive movement
    towards our goals! These graphic pictures would
    be the "fuse" for postive island change.

    How do I know you a ask? Historical fact that once
    the "Edison" photographic inventions combined with
    dedicated photographers started documenting the slums
    and bad living conditions...showcased them daily in
    group, church, special events and the new fangled
    movie houses...the world sat up and took notice with
    a great many benfits to society, cultural, family
    and community improvement. Witness: what photographic
    evidence did to terminate the USA police-action, the
    daily citizen contribution-internatonal cellphone
    picture transmission,etc..

    This is a proven method that works...with enough
    "contibuting" photo-documentary "freelance" street-
    walkers inputing/uploading" daily contributions for
    the betterment of the islands...! Who knows! With
    enough "eyes" on the steets we may even catch a few
    criminals,motivate more non-profits and
    "angels" to get involved!

    Note: Besides the daily disasters that are of concern to
    me personally, I find that the issue of bio-chemical-
    disease issues are the most "stressful". The vectors
    (insects, people, fleas, ticks, birds, etc.) and airborn
    transmission (from sad personal experiences )trouble
    me! The addition of increased population, a bad health
    care/healh department, poor to worse disaster response
    mobilization, etc., can spell doom for the islands unless
    addressed by a improved attitude for civic responsibility
    by the church, educators, politicians and rich folks!


    1. Done well and persistently, indeed the visualization of the Philippines could be an eye-opener. Perhaps this is something those who started the Noynoying fad could get their hands on, or maybe an investigative photo-journalistic an offshoot on Rappler. It is the notion that "Big Brother" is with the citizenry, and the eye is on the crimes of the empowered. It's too much for me, but I give the concept 10 "likes".

  8. Hi Mr. Joe, here is a thousand words & more for you! you must be very proud of your mother, she showed how special and important her family was, growing up with kindness, persistence and struggle in worst days. Mother is the foundation which our character was built.

    BTW the US railroad was almost built by Chinese labor. They did helped a lot in cutting years to finish (you must knew it I believe) lot of them perished in harsh winter & environment.

    1. There is a place in Los Angeles (in the city of San Marino, actually) called "Huntington Museum". It is open to the public for free and has amazing gardens and a museum of early California. Mr. Huntington made his money with the railroads, and the brutal overseeing of Chinese laborers. It's a very interesting place to visit. The gardens are spectacular, and even have the giant timber bamboo like those in my back yard here. They are rare in the U.S.


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