The hidden injuries of the poor

On a trip to New Delhi in the late ‘70s, the cab I am riding stops at an intersection.  As the driver impatiently waits for the traffic lights to change, a woman with an infant approaches the car.  She is dressed in rags.  Half of her face is ulcerated; bits of flesh and skin hang from her cheek like melted wax.  I cannot forget her eyes, they are wells of despair.  She extends her palm in my direction.

Momentarily I freeze.  I reach for some coins in my pocket, but before I can give her anything, the taxi driver waves her away without looking at her.  In an instant, her eyes turn fierce; she retracts her hand and lifts it to her face.  She scrapes the pus from her gangrenous face and with it stamps her pain and humiliation upon the car’s windshield.  That image has never left me.  To this day I continue to wonder what she told the driver.

In our part of the world, these are the most common “injuries of class,” to borrow a term from the sociologist Richard Sennett.  To be poor is not only to be deprived of material necessities.  More than this, it is to be stripped of self-esteem.  It is to suffer persistent degradation in one’s own eyes.  Sennett originally used this concept to refer to the emotional wounds that the working class in affluent societies carry when, surrounded by a whole culture of success, they seem nevertheless unable to do anything right to improve their lives. In such a world, says Sennett, “social difference can now appear as a question of character, of moral resolve, will and competence,” rather than of structural injustice.

But in societies like ours the more basic injury is the humiliation that the poor suffer when, by the insensitive actions of others, the last shred of personal worth is taken away from them. This happens, for example, when they are unjustly accused of stealing food or money, or when people to whom they have given their unconditional loyalty ignore their desperate appeals for emergency assistance or for mercy.  The result is a lingering sense of worthlessness and failure that can fuel explosions of rage, of self-pity and even of violence.

The appeasement of this feeling of being trapped in a situation from which there seems no exit has been the historic function of religion. But in recent years, it is the mass media that have played a more important role in providing a language in which these injuries of class could be harmlessly articulated and resolved.  TV sitcoms and telenovelas have exploited the theme of the oppressed finding success in another country and coming home to redeem all past injuries.  What is played out here is the same old narrative of suffering, death, resurrection, and forgiveness.  But the actual possibilities offered by the chance to live and work abroad, and, in the process, re-invent one’s self, lend to this ancient script a plausibility that lifts it from the realm of fiction.

Going abroad is now within the reach of every Filipino, and perhaps more than any other recent development in our history, it is what has changed the future of the poor in our country.  There is a parallel development in our politics however that is worth noting.  The poor are also slowly finding their own voice and their own icons.  The election to the presidency of Joseph Estrada in 1998 is the clearest expression of this newfound voice.  Although by no means poor, Erap is perceived as one of them in all other ways – in the way he talks and carries himself, in the vices he keeps, in his simple faith, and in his rebellion against pretense in a society controlled by the idle rich.

That he could become president in a country traditionally run by the elite is pure cinema.  It is the balikbayan worker coming home to buy the factory of his former employer.  It is the peasant’s son coming home to buy the land from the cash-strapped amo.  It is the daughter of the housemaid coming home to buy the mansion in which her mother had worked as a slave.  Erap as president was the symbol not only of self-esteem restored but also of the catharsis of role reversal.

This is the stuff of tele-novelas, but in Erap’s case, success was fleeting and the downfall came quickly.  Success spoiled him; he forgot his basic mission.  He was not familiar with the rules of the game and he was not careful.  His friends took advantage of him, and his enemies could not wait to haul him to jail.

In the eyes of the poor, Erap’s failure dramatizes the ultimate social exclusion of every Filipino who has ever managed to transcend his class origins only to find the gates of high society closed.  His treatment as an accused felon without rights, a role Erap acted out so adroitly during his arrest, stands for all the injustice and humiliation that the powerless go through daily in our society.  If the elite could do this to someone who had been president, they could do it to anyone who was not to their class born.

EDSA 3 was the baring of all these accumulated injuries of class. Politicians exacerbated these injuries by harping on the theme of social exclusion, but they did not invent them.  They were there all the time, sensitive and festering like the ulcers on the face of that woman in India.  All it takes for them to explode is a moment of recognition. They saw what was being done to Erap, and they recognized their own suffering.  We might change the script in which their pain assumes meaning, but we can never ignore it.

This is not about Erap being restored to the presidency.  This is about the Filipino poor being restored to their humanity.


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