Paulo po, he said – Paulo Parungao was his name. I was doing some last minute shopping at Baguio’s vegetable market in-between a late lunch at Rosebowl and the 3 p.m. Victory Liner bound for Cubao. A platoon of kids of varying sizes and ages blocked my path, selling plastic bags and offering to carry my purchases.
Paulo, 14 years old, was the biggest of the bag-boys. I chose him so I would not have to feel guilty being trailed by a small malnourished child carrying my baggage. An 8-year-old girl with big bright eyes was actually the first to ask me, not for a moment doubting her strength. I will just buy one of your bags, I consoled her, you’re too young to be a cargador.
Why aren’t you in school, I asked, forgetting that schools had closed for the long vacation. Paulo said he had just finished second year high school at Baguio City High and would be a junior when school reopens.
It’s quite late for the watercress, he warned me, but I know where we can get some. As he glided expertly through the sayotes and cauliflower, the asparagus spears and kutchay tips, and the perennial carrots and chicharos – I began my unintended interview.
His father was from Bicol, he said. He is dead now; he was a policeman. He himself – Paulo – was born in Nueva Ecija. They moved to Baguio because his mother had a sister here.
His mother re-married, but the relationship did not last very long. She decided to go to Singapore to work as a maid. She has been there 2 years, but has stopped writing and sending money. She probably thought her 3 kids, all boys, were now old enough to fend for themselves.
We did find the last bundles of watercress in a remote corner, and along the way we picked up the obligatory mushrooms and some usually rare blueberries and mulberries. There’s more space in your bag, Paulo reminded me, probably worrying how much tip a bag without the bulky cauliflower and carrots would merit. That’s all I need, I said, and asked him to lead the way to the bus station.
The hike on Session Road exhausted me, and for the first time I realized what a great service it was to be brought to the door of your bus by Baguio’s bag-boys. We paused and sat on a bench near the station, and I asked him more questions. Paulo is the youngest of the boys. The eldest is 18 – he has gone to Manila and has not been heard from ever since. The middle boy is 17 and has taken a wife. And Paulo is on his own.
He has left his aunt’s home where his mother had deposited them when she went to Singapore. She was cruel to us, Paulo said. Now he lives with a family that had offered him a place to sleep. But he still has to work in order to eat and send himself to school.
He sells newspapers every morning from 7 to 9, from which he earns 50 pesos a day. Then he waits at the vegetable market to carry bags. At 1 p.m. he goes to school. He wants to finish high school, he said, and proceed to college so he could become a civil engineer. He is saving all his money for that.
Do you get good grades, I inquired. He is just an average student, he replied – an 80 student. But he will be an engineer some day, he assured me. Try to get into UP, I told him, so you don’t have to spend so much. I gave him a generous tip and my calling card, and advised him to write me when he finishes high school.
Watching this boy go through life without a family but with a sheltering dream, I suddenly thought of the young confessed killers of Philippine Science High School scholar Oliver Ang. Perhaps they too – Cesar Rivera and Teddy Bernardo — are alienated from their families. There is no mention of any parent or relative coming up to claim them. No one has offered to provide them a lawyer.
The whole nation must have seen them shamelessly crying on television – these wretched teenage thugs who mercilessly killed a young boy for the 2500 pesos he had just withdrawn from his ATM account. They said they had just drunk alcohol before mugging Oliver, but they were more likely high on glue or something.
We could picture them completely shaven, with their arms tied behind their backs, as they are led to a platform at the Quezon Memorial Circle, in the first public execution to be held since the Spanish period. Those who could not come to the scene of the execution would be watching the TV coverage at home. As the executioner approaches them with the lethal injection, and their black hoods are raised so they could take one last look at the community they betrayed, we, the viewers, would, I hope, also pause to reflect on the deed — not the crime, but the execution.
“How is it,” asked Nietzsche, “that every execution offends us more than a murder? It is the coldness of the judges, the painful preparations, the understanding that a man is here being used as a means to deter others. For guilt is not being punished, even if there were guilt; guilt lies in the educators, the parents, the environment, in us, not in the murderer – I am talking about the motivating circumstances.”
In another time and place, Paulo Parungao could have been one more teenage killer, rather than the diligent bag-boy dreaming to be a civil engineer. A family happened to show him kindness at the precise moment when someone in his circumstances might have been inclined to wage war on the world. As a result, he remains distinctly the opposite of the Filipino youngsters who knifed Oliver Ang.
They are our children too even when they seem to have become the incarnation of evil itself. But how hard it must be to keep this thought in mind these days, as we rage over the senseless deaths of other children like Manuel Luis Ongpin and Oliver Ang.
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