When Agham Road led elsewhere

JV in DeQuiros PDI column 001
To my utmost satisfaction, Conrad reprinted my letter in full a week later in his column. I had misplaced my copy of that issue. This morning, however, it reemerged, yellowed and brittle, from a closet of old files that I was cleaning out. Its contents might be of interest not just to the younger generation of PSHS scholars, but to student activists who, I hear, are still doing the same kind of mass work among the squatter colonies of North Triangle as we did 40 years ago.

I hear The Bourne Legacy is shooting a few sequences along Agham Road in the North Triangle area of Quezon City’s central district. I suppose some film scenes will utilize the communities’ slum-housing conditions, which represent perhaps one of the starkest contrasts between abject poverty and cosmopolitan glitz this side of Metro Manila.

Portions of this sprawling area have now been cleared of so-called squatter communities and replaced by sleek malls, carparks, and office buildings. But there remain urban poor pockets that continue to remind us of how this part of the city looked ten years ago.

Nay, twenty years ago. Nay, forty years ago, when the road now known as Agham (“Science”) Road was just a gravelly dirt track that led to God knows where.

It was 1970. My classmates and I were third-year high school scholars attending the Philippine Science High School, which had just transferred to the new North Triangle site from its old “matchbox” building along Quezon Memorial Circle near NHA. Back then, the new PSHS site sported a wild bushy terrain with patches of cogon growth, and criss-crossed by a creek, mud gullies and a swampy lagoon back of the Parks and Wildlife area.

While the main building construction was going on, the school had to content itself with one-story prefabricated classrooms built around a quadrangle. We were a short distance away from the south gate of the Veterans Memorial Hospital with its vast grounds and golf course. My classmates and I used to explore the nooks and crannies of the new site, as well as the Parks and Wildlife and Veterans grounds, to find spots where we could furtively drink alcohol after class.

That year, the activists among us realized that our new school was practically surrounded on all sides by growing communities of urban poor settlers all the way to Bago-Bantay. Predictably, we soon set to conduct organizing and education work (“mass work”, we called it) among the stone-cutters, farmer-gardeners, drivers, vendors and other odd-jobbers who lived in ramshackle huts in the vicinity–often just across the school’s temporary barbed-wire fence.

Fast forward to a quarter-century later.

By 1996, the PSHS site had grown to a robust campus of elegant buildings and well-trimmed grounds. But there was a slight problem: the urban poor communities around it had also grown, and in a much more prolific manner. The shanties were particularly thick and overflowing along Agham Road (which was named such to symbolize the predominance of the PSHS in the area). These communities were increasingly seen by government and the upper classes as urban blight teeming with crime and disease, a big ugly scar on the otherwise bright face of the city’s central district, and a threat to public order and safety.

The worst fears of the elite science school seemed to be confirmed when, on April 1, 1996, one of its students, Oliver Ang, was killed by two men who attempted to rob him of his newly-received scholar’s stipend as he walked across a parking lot near SM North. His tragic death became the talk of the town for days. Most everyone blamed the proximity of the squatter colonies nearby. Even progressive writers like Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros–in his April 16 “There’s The Rub” column–called for relocation of the urban poor residents of Agham Road to somewhere else.

I was aghast at Ang’s killing, of course. But I was more horrified by the words I read in Conrad’s column piece.

Normally, I wouldn’t write reaction letters to newspaper columns, and I dilly-dallied whether to react publicly or not. But when I did decide to write, the words just seemed to flow spontaneously through the keyboard. Wanting Conrad’s readers to realize that Agham Road should lead to a deeper understanding of the society that bred both elite school and squatter shanty, pampered scholar and murderous thief, I promptly finished and sent him my letter.

To my utmost satisfaction, he reprinted it in full a week later, in the PDI‘s April 25, 1996 issue. I had misplaced my copy of that issue. This morning, however, it reemerged, yellowed and brittle, from a closet of old files that I was cleaning out. Its contents might be of interest not just to the younger generation of PSHS scholars, but to student activists who, I hear, are still doing the same kind of mass work among the squatter colonies of North Triangle as we did 40 years ago.

Here it is:

[Conrad’s intro note] I NORMALLY do not like airing letters that are addressed to me. I figure that if the letter-writers wanted to make them public, they would have written to the editor. But here’s one letter that is too precious to keep to myself. Deeply thoughtful and passionate, it was written by Pio Verzola Jr. of Kamuning, Quezon City. It goes:

My apologies for this rather delayed reaction to your Inquirer column for April 16, 1996 (“Sense of community”) which tackled Dr. Robert Hanan’s reaction to your earlier piece on the Oliver Ang murder. I fully agree with your position that over-population is a non-issue in the context of the Ang killing. I also agree that, as you said so yourself, “The crime won’t go away simply by bulldozing the shanties and driving their occupants away.”

However, I strongly disagree with two specific ideas that seem to emerge from your effort to reason with Dr. Hanan.

First, you accept the notion that “grinding poverty … breeds callousness and mental torpor.” You say that “many poor and miserable youth turn out to lack the moral scruples that build the foundations of civilized life.” Perhaps. But the way you put it, it sounds like the general rule for poor people that doesn’t equally apply to middle-class and rich people. My own experience, and that of many personal friends of my generation, prove otherwise. It is precisely among the destitute that I most commonly see the most heart-wrenching acts of kindness and mercy. Of course you’ll say something about different people holding on to different realities. But even Eponine in Les Miserables shone with tragic heroism in the end. With Victor Hugo, John Steinbeck and Ka Amado Hernandez painting the virtues of poverty, my vision of reality seems in good company.

Seond, while you insist that razing down shantytowns is no solution to crime, curiously, you also say you “agree that the slum-dwellers in front of PSHS should be relocated elsewhere.” Why? Because, as you say, PSHS students “deserve a better view of the world.” This is incredible coming from you. Sorry to say this, but those words are insulting to urban poor slum dwellers. If PSHS students, our “best and brightest,” are repelled by the sights and smells of utter poverty at their very gates, that’s bad enough. But to use this argument to justify relocation smacks of outright intellectual elitism.

Our generation of PSHS scholars transferred to the present North Triangle site in 1970 when it, too, was teeming with squatters from Parks and Wildlife all the way to Edsa, especially along the creek and lagoon. But many PSHS activists took this very situation as an opportunity to humble themselves and learn first-hand about their poor neighbors’ lives, by visiting slum households after classes, asking all sorts of questions (we called it “social investigation”), initiating discussions, eating and drinking whatever was offered us.

Remember Lorenzo “Nick” Lansang? Just entering his teens, Nick practically lived in those slums, that memorable summer of ’71. Remember Francis Sontillano? He was there, too. Like Oliver Ang, Nick and Francis would be brutally killed in their teens, at the hands of a totally different monster.

Did we also fear for our lives and limbs, not to mention worry about our pockets that bulged with scholars’ monthly stipends? Yes, at first. Tattoos on wiry arms, toothless Max Alvarado grins, the familiar Ginebra smell, dark paths between crooked shacks–all these have a way of striking terror into the hearts of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old boys and girls that we were then. But as everybody soon discovered, behind those lumpen countenances were often the gentlest souls. By 1972, slum dwellers’ organizations in that part of Quezon City (yes, including the sitio where now stands the BLISS buildings near SM) were producing community activists by the dozen and were able to hold an urban poor congress of their own.

Over the years, in other urban jungles and in prison, I would encounter again and again exactly the same phenomenon, callused lumpen characters treating teenage activists with utmost respect and loyalty, even awe, because we tried to articulate what they achingly felt all their lives, but could barely put words to.

I’m not saying that Oliver Ang would have been alive today, safe from muggers and killers, had he become an activist and plunged into slum community organizing. Of course not. I’ve known personally of several activists who were killed for some senseless reason by someone among those they were trying to politicize. Such incidents create painful moral dilemmas. But Ang’s tragic death should not be used to damn the slum communities where his killers allegedly kept their den. Going by this logic, no urban community can claim innocence.

We should not relocate the North Triangle slum communities, even if only for the quite simplistic reason that that is government land and no private land rights are being violated. Still less should we relocate them just because our scholars suffer nausea when they glance in that direction.

Instead, an appropriate program for comprehensive on-site development must be drawn up and implemented. The PSHS should in fact consider setting up a student volunteer corps to help in such efforts. After all, “science” does not simply refer to the natural sciences but also to the social sciences. Scientists and scholars cannot and must not insulate themselves from ground-level reality as experienced by the masses, however ugly it may be.

This much, I think, was accepted by our generation of PSHS scholars as one of the legacies of the First Quarter Storm. This much, I think, we owe to activist martyrs like Nick Lansang and Francis Sontillano whose lives were touched by those same communities now being condemned as criminals’ dens. #




One Reply to “When Agham Road led elsewhere”

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