In 2010, Carmelita, 56, and her husband, Reynaldo Mendoza, 66, were relocated to Barangay San Jose in Antipolo City, east of Manila. But a few months later, they returned to what passed for their house under a bridge along Congressional Avenue in Quezon City.
“We will die in that relocation area. We were 1,200 families uprooted from various squatter [sites]. We simply could not survive there. All of us will die of hunger,” Carmelita, cuddling one of her grandchildren, told The Manila Times right under the Culiat 2 Bridge in Bahay Toro.
The Mendoza couple has eight children, six of them already married. They too raise their respective families under the bridge. The couple has 20 grandchildren, many of them were running along a bank of the river flowing through the bridge during this interview with the couple.
Carmelita is not ashamed of admitting that they are scavengers. But since they have been doing this job for decades, they have gained sources for their trade. Her husband collects daily scrap plastic from a factory located in a nearby barangay (village). He brings the plastic scraps to their house under the bridge, cleans them up and sells them to a junk shop. He earns P300. Carmelita gathers cardboard boxes from Mercury Drugstore branches in the area. She earns P150.
“Put together, we have enough to buy rice and viands. We share the food with our grandchildren,” Carmelita, who only reached second year high school, said.
Maybe because of the environment, most of her grandchildren are afflicted with fever, cold, and other respiratory illnesses.
The Culiat Bridge 2 is a community of 13 houses, with adults there all eligible and registered voters.
Carmelita, however, has the distinction of having met two Presidents of the Philippines.
“I met then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who awarded us the certificate for our Antipolo house,” she said.
“I also met President Benigno Aquino 3rd last year when I was honored as a model for [those who wanted to be relocated],” Carmelita, who hails from Tuguegarao City, Cagayan, added.
Reynaldo, a native of Bulacan, said they are not ashamed to live under a bridge. In fact, they receive regular mail right in their home address. “We take care of the river. We clean this daily. We are sort of keepers of the river,” he said.
Reynaldo said even during the rainy season, they do not relocate since the water only reaches up to the riverbanks.
“Our permanent homes are up there in the bridge’s ceiling,” he added.
The Mendozas pay “somebody” so that they would have constant supply of water and electricity. “We are charged P100 for every [light]bulb or appliance we use.”
For Pasong Tamo Bridge 3 couple Rose Anne, 25, and Michael de Leon, 27, they decided to live under the bridge after a huge fire razed a squatters’ colony in Sitio Militar in Project 8, Quezon City, sometime last year.
“We don’t have money to rent a house or a room. So, we decided to live here,” Rose Anne said. Her parents and four sisters also relocated under the bridge. A total of six shanties are attached to the ceiling of Bridge 3. Michael is a parking attendant in a supermarket. He earns P300 daily, enough to buy food. Rose Anne’s father sells boiled corn. He earns P350 daily, enough also to feed her other sisters. They do not have electricity. “We just have candles at night,” she said. They use water coming from a drainage for bath and laundry.
Another bridge couple, Juanita dela Cruz, 54, and Salvador Montuerto, 51, said their life is a lot better. She maintains a carinderia (side street restaurant) on top of the bridge. She also sells buko (young coconut).
“We have five children and 12 grandchildren. My kids have their own families, and they have their own businesses. Two of them have their buko stalls, also along the bridge,” she said.
Juanita said their house is safe. They only experienced flooding during the onslaught of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009.
For young couple Rhea, 23, and Jayson Añasco, 25, they could not simply leave their Culiat Bridge 4 abode.
Jayson earns enough making folding beds. His mother, Cynthia, 50, who hails from Bayambang, Pangasinan, is renting a stall on top of the bridge where they display the folding beds.
The bridge has eight houses. Here the odor is unbearable that during the day, the Anascos stay in the store of their parents.
According to the bridge dwellers interviewed by The Times, they are not afraid of cascading floodwater. “We simply evacuate.”
“You just have to get used to it. At first you hit the solid concrete ceiling and get bruises,” they said.
They, however, do not welcome just anybody to join them. “We keep our community within our family members.”
As to the filthy waters, they could not do anything about it. “The river is our septic tank,” they said.
Since the area is unhealthy, children, as observed by The Times, suffer skin lesions from contact with the unsanitary water. Some of them are afflicted with dysentery and tuberculosis.
Local governments may offer relocation, citing flood control and beautification, but for bridge dwellers, daily hand-to-mouth living is an assurance of their existence, of their children’s and grandchildren’s.
“Amid wooden shacks, dumped garbage, filthy excretions and sometimes dead bodies, we love our house under the bridge because we are safe [there],” they said.