One, two, three. One peso, two pesos, three pesos. Jaquline counts again to make sure. Three pesos in all. A grin appears on her face.
With the money in her left hand and her one-year-old brother Nathaniel in right, Jaquline runs gaily toward Ellen, her mother. This happens repeatedly in the corner between Osmeña Boulevard and Colon Street until midnight when Jaquline and her family of nine would at last call it a day.
From Monday to Saturday, can be seen Jaquline standing in “their” corner of Colon waiting for the traffic light to blink red. While waiting for it, she would either dance or play tag with other friends. Ignoring the loud horns of jeepneys and trucks passing by, these children play as if they are in a field rather than a busy street. To Jaquline and her friends, this is their unique idea of fun. Next, of course, to accosting foreigners who give more money.
When the green figure starts walking, Jaquline’s work begins. With all her paraphernalia–flattened bottle crowns (tansan) and bottles with 25-cents inside as musical instruments, placards which read “Ma’am/Sir, Merry Christmas to you. Spare us some of your blessings. Thank you.” in Cebuano and Nathaniel on her shoulders–Jaquline faces the pedestrian and asks for alms. Jaquline does this either by plain begging or by singing carols.
“Ma, O! (Here Ma!),” Jaquline’s dirt-stained face lights up with a smile and she opens her long and dirty fingers, revealing a few pesos for her mother to keep. Ellen takes the coins and immediately Jaquline runs off again to earn some more.
Jaquline appears mostly as long bony limbs and looks more like a seven-year-old than nine. Yet, she already has four jobs–her mother’s house help in the morning, a caroler and beggar in the afternoon and a scavenger at night. Her daily uniform is either a small blouse with cartoon character design and a tattered short or an oversized shirt probably from an older brother and of course, her favorite pair of rubber slippers with thinning soles.
Just like her six other siblings, Jaquline cannot read nor write. She can only scribble strange figures with meanings only she can comprehend. In counting, however, she could give any twelve-year-old a run for his own money. Since she was four, she would count the peso after peso she gave to her mother.
How could an unemployed mother and a jeepney dispatcher father send five children (two are too young to study) to school? They can barely build a roof to stay in much more send the children to school. Jaquline’s family lives in a one-room house with rice sack walls over the tides in Highway Tagonok, Cogon, Pardo.
Dusk signals scavenging time. Jaquline roams around Colon tinkering with the garbage. With siblings, Jaquline sorts out garbage, taking only the cartons, plastic bottles and newspapers that they would sell later on.
Though Jaquline loves watching fantasy series like Darna, Encantadia, and Sugo, these stirrings are altogether forgotten when it comes to earning a few pesos. Even their supper is mainly from the food that people have given to them like tempura, lanzones, juice, shake and sometimes, packs from Jollibee or Chowking. To Jaquline, these are treats that they cannot afford.
Recently, the Cebu City Government passed City Ordinance No. 1631 authorizing the arrest of beggars and other street children. The arrested children would either jailed or fined so that they would not keep on returning to the streets.
I asked Jaqueline once whether City Hall operatives have caught her in Colon and she said yes. In fact, she already knows who are these persons who does the catching. So when they are in the vicinity, they would immediately run and hide. And when she was apprehended, they only bathed and fed her. After that, they set her free when Ellen claimed her. This happened several times yet she manages to stay in Colon.
As darkness engulfs Colon, the bright yellow lights and Christmas decorations like series lights in all shapes and color of nearby establishments starts to appear. Only during nightfall can Jaquline and her family recognize that Christmas is at last upon them.
Christmas makes the days more special. However, Christmas to Jaquline is not about gifts or getting to meet her godfathers and godmothers.
“Why do you carol?” I asked.
“To have more money for buying food and fire wood,” she answers immediately in a steady voice.
To say that Jaquline is fascinated with money is not enough. Money to her is important because their father’s earnings could not sustain their needs. In a way, she, with her siblings, brings food to the table.
“Does your parents force you to work?”
“Dili man, ganahan man ko. Ganahan man ko sa Colon (No, I like working. I like it here in Colon),” she answers and smiles.
I believe that in Jaquline’s situation, child labor is out of the question. In fact, she had the choice to study and leave Colon. Ellen tells me that Asilo de Milagrosa in the past sponsored all her daughters but they ran away and went back to Colon. It seems to me that Jaquline is happy in Colon, the environment where she grew up.
Christmas and caroling is about earning more than normal, gaining additional pesos spent in their basic needs or to afford little luxuries like cheap, second-hand clothes for family members.
“What do you want Santa Claus to give you this Christmas?”
Jaquline shyly smiles and answers, “A bicycle.”
“Why a bicycle?” I asked.
“Para ako magamit pamasura (use it for scavenging).”
At midnight, Jaquline prepares to head home. These last few nights, their families’ earnings were not so good. She hopes that tomorrow would be better. As Christmas nears, she prays that she could earn more. Tomorrow she would be there again in that corner accosting people to share their blessings with her and her family. Tomorrow she would again carol, beg and scavenge if it is to help her family. That’s for tomorrow–but tonight, Jaquline hopes as she nears their home that the tides are not so high.
Ace Matthew Togonon is a second-year Mass Communication student of the University of the Philippines in the Visayas, Cebu College. He is trying to understand the circumstances that push children to beg, or to work in general rather than act like children.