By Shara Cayetano
Amidst Monday’s crowd in Luneta, Junesa Monton, 28, had her attention divided between her children, Shane and Keanna, and the sweets for sale beside her.
Her children buzzed in the foreground, barely noticing the sea of white that extended far behind them. Junesa called them back and they sat by the bench, hoping a park visitor would buy some of their sweets.
It was National Heroes’ Day. Junesa’s children could have stayed at home to enjoy the holiday – but not that day. Their family took advantage of the mammoth crowd to earn a little extra.
It was one of the rare times when the Montons could freely peddle yema (egg yolk sweets) in Luneta. Every day, park officials regulate the number of vendors allowed, but their family had no choice but to take the risk. If Junesa were caught, she would have to leave and lose a big chunk of the day’s income.
“Mahigpit dito (The security is tight here),” Junesa said with a slight smile. There are more years reflected in her eyes than what she has actually lived. But she did not fear. She knew the thousands of people in Luneta that day would distract park security away from her and the other “illegal” vendors who seized the day’s big opportunity.
Exactly two days later, Janet Lim-Napoles, the alleged operator of the P10-billion pork barrel scam, surrendered to the President – but not before being fetched by presidential spokespersons Edwin Lacierda and Abigail Valte, in a car provided by Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.
Napoles’ reason for surrendering was simple: she feared for her life. By surrendering to the President, she was eliminating the risks surrounding her. The government was only too willing to assist.
The risk that Junesa’s family took that day would have only earned them a maximum of 1,000 pesos. This would be spent on food, rent and schooling for Junesa’s 5 children. If they didn’t take the risk, the consequences were simple: the family would starve in the night.
By contrast, the pork barrel scam has taken 10 billion pesos away from the Filipino citizens – an amount that was enough to feed the Montons for more than a million nights.
That amount would have ensured that Keanna, 7, would never have to stop her schooling and catch up after two years, ending up in the same grade with her 5-year-old sibling. It would ensure that Shane, the bunso, would have milk every night, and that his father would never have to work 13 hours a day just to make ends meet.
Ten billion pesos allocated properly could be a promise that Junesa’s family would never have to take risks again just to survive, peddling in Luneta, taking up contractual jobs, or living on porridge just to live through the day.
After the Million People March, Junesa and her children would have gone home to Pier 10, an area populated by informal settlers. They would eat dinner, Junesa’s husband would cook tomorrow’s yema supply, and the family would sleep for another night.
Never mind the upcoming demolition of the area and Junesa’s hesitance to leave. She says the relocation areas in Laguna and Bulacan being offered had no water supply and jobs available. Rent would be too high for them to shoulder. They could be selling all the sweets they could, but these would not suffice.
It’s only been days since the march. Napoles surrendered – but that did not do anything for Junesa, her children, and for the millions of Filipinos who have been living in poverty for years. Pier 10’s demolition remained looming at their heads, with the constant fear that they could be shooed away at any moment.
Junesa would continue taking risks in peddling yema in Luneta whenever a crowd formed for her to hide in and sell. Her husband would continue working long hours to support his family.
In Junesa’s reality, Napoles’ surrender has not changed anything.
One march and 100,000 people did get Junesa and her family through for one night, but they would wake still penniless the next day.
Pork barrel allocations are still included in the 2014 budget proposal – in fact, it will be bigger. The calls to rechannel pork barrel funds into social services like housing, healthcare and education remain unanswered.
Filipinos have started their own efforts in the Million People March. No more than a week has passed and Napoles has come forward – but until what the crowd has called for turns real, they should know that it is not time to stop.
People are heroes of themselves, Junesa believes so. She knows that she could only rely on herself to survive.
As long as Junesa is her own hero, the Filipinos can be their own, fighting for the change that they truly want. Sariling sikap, she says, was the only way to get around and survive in this country.