I first met Mang Pandoy in 1989. He grew all kinds of vegetables then on a strip of cogon land inside the UP campus, and I was one of his regular customers. I distinctly remember how this city farmer jauntily watered his plants, balancing a pole on his shoulders with two sprinklers on both ends.
In a Public Forum episode on how the average Pinoy coped with rising prices, I invited him to share his experience. He was marvelous on that show. It was possible, he said, for an urban poor family to stretch the forever shrinking peso. Without the slightest hint of self-pity or irony, he described in full detail his family’s humble but imaginative menu from Monday to Sunday. His uncomplaining disposition and exuberance impressed countless TV viewers so much that for the next few weeks, people would stop by his farm along Commonwealth Avenue just to shake his hand.
Then one day Mang Pandoy just disappeared. Weeds had begun to crowd his unwatered plants. I searched for him in a squatter community outside La Mesa dam where he was supposed to live, and found his wife and children instead. His daughter took me to a crowded ward in a public hospital where her father had been confined. I could hardly recognize him. His face, hands and legs were swollen and covered with sores. He was coughing convulsively. A doctor told me that his sores indicated severe pesticide poisoning. He also had TB.
For almost a year, his daughter came to my house for the medicines that the hospital could not give him, as well as for money to help tide the family over. Mang Pandoy recovered from his skin ailment but he continued to cough. He became pessimistic, and constantly worried for his children. I didn’t see him again after he left the hospital. I learned later that he and his wife had gone back to the province, leaving the children behind in Manila.
It was 1992 when I saw him again. He came for lunch with his four children on New Year’s Day. He said he tried to earn a living buying and selling vegetables. But the will to live had deserted him: he asked me to find families that could adopt his children.
In April of that year, I was hosting the final Sunday debate of the presidential contenders for Channel 5 and Comelec. I thought of telling Mang Pandoy’s story as a case study in poverty to which the candidates could react. Here was a totally beaten man, absurdly offering to be shot by any wealthy trigger happy person who would pay him a fee of one hundred thousand pesos.
The evident pain of his ordinary life completely overshadowed the eloquent rhetoric of the politicians who attempted to account for his situation. Overnight he became the sensational icon of the marginalized Filipino. His life, told on video, was at once a searing indictment of an uncaring State, of a socially unaccountable ruling class, and of the country’s flawed development policies.
A schoolteacher of some modest means who saw that program put up a small fund to take care of the schooling of his kids. She offered capital so that Mang Pandoy could start a backyard piggery and a sari-sari store. Every week for almost a year, this anonymous patron sent the family a bag of groceries.
It didn’t take very long however before this symbol of the Filipino Everyman would be politically hijacked. A week after his appearance on the presidential debate, Mang Pandoy was recruited as a regular companion for FVR, the candidate. Every morning he would be picked up by a car and brought to wherever FVR was campaigning. That’s how he got to know the future president.
On his inauguration, President Ramos remembered him. Cabinet members sought him out and gave him their calling cards. The mayor of Quezon City assigned a team to help him prepare feasibility studies for some livelihood projects. Electricity came to his neighborhood, and a deep well was installed near his house.
PTV4, the government station, named a talk-show after him and made him its co-host. Unfortunately, the show’s format did not give him a chance to play an active role. The regime seemed content to have him as its mute mascot. His stint on TV made him a celebrity but hardly made a dent on his poverty. The program was eventually axed. He also had difficulty starting and sustaining the livelihood projects that came his way. Before long, the economics of charity came to an end. The bureaucrats felt they had helped him enough, and maybe somebody thought he was not a suitable emblem for Philippines 2000.
Thus when media found him again this year on the third anniversary of the Ramos presidency, he could not hide his bitterness. Philippines 2000, he declared, was only for the rich. That pronouncement reverberated in the halls of the Batasan and reached the ears of another presidentiable. That is how Mang Pandoy got drafted as a consultant at P6000 a month in the Speaker’s war against poverty.
As he came into the limelight, Mang Pandoy became increasingly cynical. Money from charity did not seem to carry for him the same value as the money he earned by his sweat. As he allowed himself to be used by politicians, he also learned to rely on political patronage. Today, a disillusioned public cautions him against opportunism. It is clear that the nation has lost another icon.
His life is a parable for our times. The lesson it seems to draw is that a life of virtue — for an individual as well as for a society — must be founded, against all odds, on solid hard work and the will to self-reliance. It is a demanding standard, one that many of us would sometimes hesitate to apply in measuring lives that have been as difficult as that of Mang Pandoy’s.
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