A birthday, polvoron and the women of Payatas

A week ago, I watched Christiane Amanpour of CNN interview Tom Colicchio, a celebrity chef in New York, about his advocacy on hunger alleviation in the US.  Though it was not a surprise for Tom to know that there are hungry people in the US, their growing numbers have unsettled him and his Food Policy Action organization. While I was listening to the interview, I compared how the issue of hunger is treated differently in the Philippines. Hunger is so prevalent in our developing country that the populace has become immune to its existence and eventually take it for granted. That, I am ashamed to admit, included me until I received a call from a good friend five years ago.

Woman Payatas She asked me if I will be interested to spend my birthday  in a very unique way. Her friend Jane  has a personal advocacy. She invites people to celebrate their birthdays with the  underprivileged by sharing one’s talent or skill with them.

Intrigued, I contacted Jane immediately. She said that my birthday party should be informal, free wheeling and, yes,  I can bring food but nothing lavish.  The participants will be women from Payatas, the poor community in Quezon City infamously known for its open dumpsite. What is important, she stressed, is that I should be able to impart a simple talent or skill that they can either appreciate or learn to earn additional income. I was stumped. Unfortunately, I did not have any skill to share but Jane told me that I can bring a friend to help me out.

I invited my high school friend Weng who is known for her tasty polvoron ( powdered milk candy) to demo on how to pan fry the all- purpose flour, powdered full cream milk and margarine and then  wrap it in multi-colored paper ( locally known as papel de japon). The polvoron is a popular and inexpensive local dessert or snack. Weng was willing to do a good deed and, just like me, she was very curious  about Payatas.

Payatas was and still is a glaring symbol of poverty in the country. It has  managed to land in the news several times when garbage landslides occurred burying the scavengers. The scavengers make a living by picking up from the mountains of  trash items they can sell to the junkyard. It is not unusual  for them to look for frozen food disposed by restaurants to recycle as the day’s meal for their families. Their  emaciated faces have been featured in the foreign media by countless photographers, horrified and fascinated, at the same time, by their pitiful condition.

polvoronMy friend and I were not sure if the women will receive  us well.  Jane assured us that she knows one of the community leaders who enthusiastically gathered the women in her own home. Around twenty married women were already there as we arrived. Weng did not waste any time as she immediately demonstrated how to measure the ingredients and pan fry it over low fire. She then showed them how to make the polvoron into oval shapes using a molder. Weng also taught them how to do the costing properly and where to source the ingredients.

During the demo, I noticed that the women were interested but reserved. It was understandable. We were considered outsiders coming from the other side of the socio-economic fence. While we were  having our birthday snacks, I wanted to break that invisible barrier on the spot. I decided to loosen them up by narrating about my life. I emphasized from the start that we were not rich. I said my parents struggled to put me and my brothers through college. I also met my husband quite late in life because I was busy earning a living to send my youngest brother to school.  Lastly, I decided to end our impromptu talk by sharing  how I met my husband, our whirlwind romance, his unique marriage proposal and our memorable wedding. Kinilig sila ( They were tickled pink.) and brought smiles on their faces.

In an instant, their shyness banished and to my surprise some of them shared their own life stories. All of them were at their wit’s end trying to raise a family with  very little income. Some run a sari sari ( variety) store  and they hoped selling the polvoron will mean an earning of a few extra pesos. They talked among themselves about some neighbors who had no choice but to pick up frozen food at the dumpsite just to survive. Life was hard  for these women but throughout our encounter they were cheerful, even gossipy, and very appreciative of our polvoron demo. For many of them, that afternoon was the best excuse to leave their responsibilities at  home for a while and just be themselves.

Afterwards, Jane drove us near the dumpsite. I had seen it several times on TV but nothing prepared me for it. It was smelly, smoky, and surreal. I was quiet on the way home. I have never had a birthday celebration as thought-provoking as the one in Payatas. Up to this day, my admiration for those women has never waned. They are poor yet brave in the face of insurmountable economic obstacles. In my eyes, that makes them so beautiful.