ALFREDO HAD HEARD from an aunt, a few months before coming back to the Philippines, that Aling Marta – his regular dealer of puto, kutsinta, sapin-sapin, and other rice-based snacks, or kakanin – had passed away.
“When did it happen?” he had asked his aunt, who had called him long-distance on his birthday.
“A little over a month ago.”
He knew that it was true, for why would an aunt lie to him about a matter like that, which was quite close to his heart?
But there was a part of him that refused to believe Aling Marta had passed away. He refused to believe so because he had become quite close to Aling Marta – she had become like an aunt to him – and, in addition, had become friends with her only son, Caloy. He was not only sad for Caloy; he also felt that with her passing, a part of his life had left him.
Alfredo loved kakanin from childhood, and there were a few who sold these along the national highway, near their village – but as far as he was concerned no one there sold better kakanin than Aling Marta. And so he made it a point to buy something from her whenever he was going home from an errand to the town proper, and later, on, whenever he was coming back from his classes at the municipal college.
After college, he found himself having no opportunity to do anything except to count flies. His search for jobs had taken him several times to as far as the provincial capital – to no avail. This, despite the fact that he had graduated with satisfactory grades.
Eventually, he decided to join the multitudes who had left the Philippines searching for greener pastures abroad because of the lack of such pastures in their own land.
He went to the US, where another aunt had been residing for over a decade. For two years he worked secretly, illegally, as a baggage boy at a grocery store in Honolulu – even though he had finished Business Administration at the municipal college back in his hometown – while applying for permanent residency status. There were glitches in his application so he had to repeat the process and stay for another two years. After getting his green card, he was advised not to travel back to the Philippines right away to avoid legal problems concerning his status. It was only after his sixth year there that he was advised that it was already “safe” to go back to the Philippines.
Still, he was not able to return right away. He spent a year more saving money for his plane fare.
He had left the Philippines at a time when his hometown and several other towns in the country were rapidly undergoing a change of face. It was the time of then-President Fidel V. Ramos’s Philippines 2000, which promised “progress” to the Philippines.
In their hometown, the food stalls along the national highway, near their village, were giving way to factories owned by American, Japanese, and German businessmen. A number of fastfood outlets were also sprouting in the area.
As he was nearing their village, he noticed that Aling Marta’s stall was among those that had given way, replaced by a branch of an American fastfood chain.
He did not take a second look. He would not have anything to do with something that had taken over a part of his life.
CALOY WAS NOT home when Alfredo came to visit him. It was one of Caloy’s sisters, Ria, who let him into the hut.
“He’s at work,” Ria said as she offered him a chair and started preparing juice for him.
“Where’s he working? By the way, I heard what happened to your mother,” he said as he was taking his seat.
The moment that passed was like an eternity. The silence was punctuated only by the sound of the teaspoon bumping against the glass as the juice was being mixed.
Ria’s eyes were dim as she gave Alfredo the juice drink and sat in front of him. “She fell sick soon after the municipal government forced us out of our stall,” she said.
“Is that so?”
“That kakanin business was one of Nanay’s main reasons for living. When we lost it, she seemed to feel that the world had come to an end for her. Imagine having worked at it for most of her life, and being able to support Kuya’s studies at the municipal college with the earnings from it, and then suddenly losing it just like that. And Kuya suddenly had to stop college, not even making it to third year. She became very depressed, went on like that for about three years, and passed away.” She took a long sigh. “That was a thriving business that fetched us more than what Kuya earns right now from sweeping the floor at the restaurant.”
Alfredo felt what, to him, was the shock of his life upon hearing the name of the restaurant. It was the same fastfood outlet that had replaced Aling Marta’s stall.
On the way home, Alfredo did not even take a glance at the fastfood outlet. He was excited to see and talk to his friend, but not here – he would not have anything to do with this place.