By Diana G. Mendoza

“Squatter.” Mayla only had this one word as an answer when asked where she lives – in an informal dwellers’ area around the premises of a TV network in Quezon City. She emerged pushing her cart of fishballs and other fried snacks towards her business post outside a neighborhood supermarket.

It was mid-morning, and as she pushed her cart with a female relative, she said this day was her “anniversary.” It was this same month last year when she was able to shift from begging to having her own business. Her customers are mostly hungry food delivery riders who buy and eat the deep fried snacks while on a break or waiting for their customers’ orders from the restaurants and other food establishments.

Mayla gets help from a friend

Ngayon lang ako nakakabangon. May konting ayuda noong lockdown pero walang-wala talaga ako. Namalimos na ako pagkatapos (I’m just getting back on my feet. After I received aid during the lockdown, I was left with nothing so I had to beg),” she said.  “Buti na lang mabait ang mga tao; nagbibigay sila ng kahit magkano. Alam nilang maraming naghirap sa lockdown kagaya ko. (Good that people were generous; they shared whatever they had. They knew that the lockdown sidelined many people like me).”

From begging to her pushcart of deep fried fish balls, squid balls, and kikiam (bean curd and pork rolls), Mayla, through a profit arrangement of “porsyentuhan” with the business owner of the snack carts, now earns a few hundred pesos for every P1,000 (around US$20) worth of snacks sold in a day. The 28-year-old solo parent of two children says she is now able to buy food, though her daily earnings are still inadequate. Some days, she doesn’t even reach the quota. When this happens, she asks help from relatives who are also struggling.

For more than a year since she entered into the street food business and when the government eased the lockdown after June 2020, she said she’s slowly saving money, even if she can only set aside a little amount in a week. Ironically, spending for food is her greatest difficulty. Almost daily, she says her family’s dinner consists of rice and her extra unsold fishballs. “Natatawa na lang kami mukha na kaming fishballs, pero masaya pa rin dahil wala kaming COVID, awa ng Diyos. (We cheer each other on, saying we look like the fishballs we eat daily but we’re happy because we are all COVID-free, thank God).”

But Mayla’s financial state changes every time the government adjusts quarantine levels. When lockdowns revert to the highest restrictions, she’s out of business, with no money. She hopes that the gradual lifting of restrictions will continue, and the situation will not go back to the strict lockdown. “Sana, dasal ko kakayanin ko. (I hope and pray that I can do this).”

Mayla considers herself very poor and marginalized – “isang kahig, isang tuka” — and she said women like her received the hardest economic blow brought by the COVID-19 pandemic; and for more than a year, they became poorer, more vulnerable, and fragile with the absence of safety nets and protection that can help reduce their sufferings.

Noemi Cabayan takes a rest from selling

Selling ampaw (pop rice), biscocho (sweetened toast) and other bread and cookies, Noemi Cabayan, 45, is a familiar face outside condominiums, 7-11 stores, supermarkets and other places where there is foot traffic. From Cubao, Quezon City where she lives to areas as far as her feet can take her, Noemi carries two big tote bags containing the goods she sells as she walks from her place and stops at every area where there’s an opportunity to sell.

 “Binebentahan ko kahit mga taong nakakasalubong ko. Hindi na ako nahihiyang magsabing kailangan ko ng tulong, kaya sana bumili sila. (I sell even to people I meet on the street. I don’t hold back to say I need help when I ask them to buy from me),” she says.

She starts walking and selling at 7 a.m. and goes home at 11 p.m., alternating walking with some short jeepney rides. She has become friends with a few cops and barangay tanods (village protection officers) in the areas where she passes through as they take pity on her and don’t arrest her for violating curfew.

We cheer each other on, saying we look like the fishballs we eat daily but we’re happy because we’re COVID-free.

When last year’s strict lockdown prevented her from selling rice cakes, she thought of other means to keep her family alive. In July 2020, she started selling the snacks she bought from a direct seller, even if she had to walk on an empty stomach. “Natuto akong maglakad kahit gutom. Pag di ko na kaya, kakain ako sa carinderia na mura lang. Marami sa may Panay Avenue (I learned how to walk despite being hungry, but if I can’t hold on, I eat in the stalls with cheap food along Panay Avenue).”

Noemi, who says she’s anemic, was a saleslady in a retailer at the Baclaran market with her husband prior to the pandemic. Her husband was unable to go back to Metro Manila when the lockdown was imposed after he went home to Butuan City where his family owns a little piece of rice land.

She did not receive any aid in cash or in kind because she does not have any identification cards. I asked (people who buy from me) to teach me how to acquire IDs.

Only a few of their eight children aged eight to 19, all studying in public schools, are able to participate in online learning as they only have one laptop borrowed from their aunt. One of two of the children help her sell but not regularly.

She did not receive any aid in cash or in kind because she does not have any identification cards. “Sinabihan ako ng mga nakakausap kong bumibili sa akin na dapat may ID ako para makakuha ako ng tulong. Nagpaturo ako kung paano (People who buy from me advised me to acquire some IDs so that I can receive government help. I asked them to teach me how to do it.)”

She said her two oldest children taught her how to register for a social security card. She said she already has an ID from the local government, for a start.

Nora Magallanes and her face masks

Nora Magallanes, 49, is a fixture outside a MacDonald’s drive-thru where she sold fabric facemasks starting in late June 2020 after the government allowed food establishments to reopen. Staying under a tree in front of the fastfood chain, she approaches every car leaving the drive-thru to sell the facemasks, holding a placard that says, “Para sa pangangailangan araw-araw. Sa mga anak at apo. Pagkain at gatas. (For the daily needs of children and grandchildren; for food and milk).”

Her earnings were not that much as she had competitors also hawking masks, face shields, snacks, and mobile phone accessories. Anywhere from P50 to P60 per mask, she is able to sell a few pieces, just enough for a day’s meal. She goes home to another district more than 30 minutes away. At this time last year when there was no public transportation, she had to hitch on a motorcycle with her neighbor who also sold the same goods in the same area.  

They became poorer, more vulnerable, and fragile with the absence of safety nets and protection.

Prior to the lockdown, Nora sold packed meals and snacks in a commercial area a short distance from her neighborhood. Good thing that at the start of 2021, she went back to her old business, and added the reselling of fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, oranges and bananas to the goods in her small stall. She hasn’t done away with her old business of fabric facemasks so they’re still hanging on top of her stall, along with face shields.

There are now more street sellers in Nora’s place outside the McDonald’s drive-thru, where she still sells from time to time or asks her nephew to take her place when she’s running her food business. She laments the government’s lack of concern for people like her who did not have the means to fend for their families when it imposed the lockdown. She says the pack of processed food from the government aid that her family received, plus the measly amount that did not even last for two weeks, were not helpful.

Ang tanging inaalala ko lang ay ang pamilya ko, ang pagkain at kalusugan nila. Hindi dapat pabayaan ang pamilya. (My only concern is my family, our food and health. We shouldn’t neglect our families),”she said. “Sana may ganitong pakiramdam din ang gobyerno (I wish the government shares my concern.)” WWW