Framing poverty

THEORIES, if not sentiment, have always helped me cope with poverty. The sight of poor people, stories of families in abject poverty. As a public anthropologist, I always find, somehow, a perspective through which I can understand why people are poor. But a few days ago, I watched an episode of an ABS-CBN 2 show, called Mukha (Face), and I did not know how to respond to it.

tito-genova-valienteThat particular episode focused on a lola, or grandmother. In our culture, grandmothers are generally the soft and gentle elements of a family. We all knew a grandmother in our life, the person who spoiled us and gave us candies or other food items. Was it novelist Isabel Allende who said grandmothers must play the “part of protective witches who must watch over younger women, children, community and also—why not?—this mistreated planet, the victim of such unrelenting desecration?”

Knowing Lola Diling was getting to know another kind of witchcraft—the witchcraft of living. What pushed me to watch the episode was a trailer showing this old woman, her back hunched by days of walking and walking. On her head sits what looks like fancy bread. She calls them doughnuts, the home-cooked variety.

It is tough and saddening to see her sell her products, because she does not so much as hawk them as she walks them. She just keeps on walking, and the camera is relentless with its close-up shots of her legs, toughened and distorted by her long walks, and of her toes splayed through old, old slippers. Poverty does not mark her; resignation does. As she goes around the city, the sky seems to shroud her, watching over this old lady who is so strong and, yet, so weak. She has no defense against old age and she is helpless against the most severe form of poverty.

Diling has a backstory: Somewhere in the south again, where she remembers a bountiful life: of a good harvest, of a community. She had a husband who was left behind because, many years ago, she opted to leave her poor village to work in the big city. She also left her children. In the city, she worked hard and regularly sent money back home. The year came when she could no longer do the work she had been doing and the money dwindled. The husband passed away.

After some years, Diling remarried. It was painful to watch Diling’s daughter pass on to her the container with the food to be sold, sending out a grandmother alone into the big world. The brave and street-smart Diling, however, could take on the world. Back in the house, the daughter says she worries over her mother, who refuses to stay home. It is hard not to judge this daughter, but it is even harder when our judgment about the lack of love and of caring is expressed. Being poor does not seem to accommodate the discourse of love and benevolence; there are other important matters to attend to.

I wanted to judge the episode. I wanted to make sense of what
was happening.

The old woman seems to be punishing herself as she trudges on. Sometimes, she would look up without reason. She laughs with her clients, whom she calls her fans. She has a wonderfully big sense of humor that can never match the lack of comfort in her life.

Diling does not know how to count. She relies on the kindness of strangers, which makes her daily job even more irrational. But rationality does not seem to thrive in poverty.

The episode ends with the grandmother preparing her place to sleep. It is a tiny patch, made even tinier as she pushes the cooking utensils and the jars to the side. Cleaned up, the square of linoleum bears the emaciated body of the old woman. The camera looks down on this creature who never loses trust in the goodness of the world. She curls up and we see her fingers all balled up, the veins looking like they are about to burst and bleed through the hands.

This episode cannot be about poverty, I told myself. This episode cannot be about materialism and the lack of logic in the minds of those who do not have anything. Diling does not represent all poor grandmothers. But the show is not about representations of poverty, or else it fails in that regard, because it chooses to dramatize the extreme.

I am trying to analyze the reason this grandmother is poor. It is the wrong frame.

The blurb for Mukha says: “Behind every story are the men and women that live it. Behind every issue that the country faces today, there is a human being that faces it on a very personal level.”

I may be looking for the big picture, but, this time, it is the small one that is truly significant.



Image credits: Jimbo Albano


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