Image credit: Flickr User Brian Evans, Creative Commons

Politics and peanuts

A creative reflection on everyday life in Duterte's stronghold

“They’d better not do it here,” the peanut vendor says.

We’re talking about the recent spate of crime in General Santos, a city a hundred and fifty kilometers away. He’s selling peanuts along the sidewalk, beside one of the busiest streets in Davao, the sprawling metropolis from where Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hails.

There are now thugs, he claims, who roam General Santos at night and just whack random people in the head with metal pipes.

General Santos’ local government recently clarified that while there have been incidents of violence in the city, one of which involved the killing of a local barangay captain, most of the reports circulating on social media are either unverified or exaggerated.

Still, such reports have caused worry among the locals, who now believe that the city is no longer safe.

“Those thugs,” he says. “If they did it here in Davao, Duterte would surely kill them.”

While the peanut vendor lives in Davao now, he can’t hide his concern for General Santos, for the latter is his hometown. He moved to Davao two decades ago, when he was 18 years old, to seek greener pastures. His first job, he recounts, was at his uncle’s small shop: managing the shop, selling fish.

“But not the fish you eat,” he says.

“Like arowana?” I ask, immediately wondering why, out of all kinds of fish, it was the first that popped into my mind.

“Goldfish, carp,” he says. “Pet fish.”

He’s been selling peanuts for around five years now. It was also his uncle who introduced him to the trade. His uncle is like a businessman, he explains. When he started selling peanuts, he and his uncle agreed to a business partnership: his uncle would provide the capital, whereas he would cook and peddle the peanuts.

“Then we’d equally divide the profit,” he says.

He later realised that he’d earn more if he was in charge of everything, from the financing to the selling. As a husband and a father, he needs to make more money to provide for his family.

So, every morning, he buys around fifty kilograms of raw peanuts from his supplier. Back home, for almost two hours, he cleans each peanut, ridding them of dirt, sorting the bad from the good ones. For another two hours, he boils the peanuts in a large cauldron over high heat. The cauldron he owns can’t accommodate fifty kilograms of peanuts at once, however, so he prepares them in batches.

Late in the afternoon, just when the dark mantles the sky, he sets out on his daily journey. He pedals his food cart for a few kilometers to arrive at his usual spot. He sets up his portable shop near an intersection, where most commuters in the area cross every day, past one of the better known malls in the city. The time’s strategic, too: authorities, he says, won’t round up sidewalk vendors at night.

“I can’t imagine eating peanuts in the morning, anyway,” I say.

He laughs. “You’ll die selling peanuts under the heat of the sun.”

If you live in Davao City, there seems to be an unwritten rule that you’re expected to support—and sometimes even worship—Rodrigo Duterte, his children, his whole clan.

His daughter Sara, the incumbent city mayor, is now running for reelection in the upcoming May 2019 midterm polls; his sons, Sebastian (“Baste”) and Paolo (“Pulong”), are also vying for vice-mayor and congressman respectively.

Thirty-eight out of 58 political aspirants in the city are running under the helm of Hugpong Alliance—the joint political party of Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP), headed by Sara, and Hugpong sa Tawong Lungsod (HTL), led by Paolo.

Anywhere one looks, one sees Duterte’s influence over the city: from the ubiquitous, iconic Duterte fist stickers on windshields and bumpers, to tarpaulins with Duterte’s face hung across footbridges. “Not during my watch,” one tarpaulin warns.

In fact, there’s a place in Davao City where, upon entering, you’ll be greeted with an arch screaming, in all caps, “DUTERTE CITY”. Considering that the city is more or less synonymous with Duterte, what it says isn’t really that far from the truth.

Perhaps it’s also not a coincidence that the place is one of the most posh tourist spots in the area, with an exclusive resort and pricey restaurants. It’s located on top of a hill, too, overlooking the city, like a heavy-handed metaphor for privilege.

I have gone there only once. A friend from General Santos City visited and invited me and some other friends for dinner. When we arrived, seeing the arch, I told them, “Take a picture of me there.”

“Yuck,” they said, because they’re all critical of Duterte.

“Relax,” I reassured them. “We’ll do it in jest.”

Maybe I was just paranoid, but I suddenly worried that somebody might have heard us. Except with my like-minded friends, I feel uncomfortable sharing my political leanings, whether with my co-teachers, students, family, practically everyone who lives in Davao.

Just recently, while having a haircut, I heard the barbers talk about the senatorial bets of the opposition. These candidates hadn’t done anything yet to help the country, the barbers seemed to say, so just where did they get their right to do nothing but criticize the President? My barber then tapped my shoulder and asked, “Right?”. I couldn’t do anything but tgive a hesitant nod. I felt I needed to blend in. Besides, he was holding a razor at the back of my neck.

My friends and I ate at one of the restaurants around the place. Our dining table was right next to the metal railing at the edge of the cliff, and from where I was eating, I could see all the lights at a distance, lights that define the city. But I suddenly felt a sense of vertigo: I didn’t belong up here. I felt closer to them, those million, flickering lights than to the steady ones around me.

Six months ago, I myself moved to Davao from General Santos, where I’d spent most of my adult life. I had no stable job at that time. Since the school where my brother teaches was looking for a substitute for a teacher on maternity leave, I applied for it. Fortunately, I was hired. I still teach there now.

It was more like a homecoming, though. I was born and raised in Davao. In 2009, when I was fourteen years old, I practically ran away from home and decided to live where my father had come from. But now, after more or less a decade, I’m back again in this city.

Like Duterte—who was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte, in the Visayas, and whose family settled in Davao in 1949—my lineage harks back to the Visayas, specifically in Iloilo. Around the mid-1900s, my paternal grandfather joined the state-sponsored exodus aiming to populate “The Land of Promise,” Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines.

Unlike the Dutertes, however, we’ve not turned into the most powerful family in the city we moved to. Quite the contrary, my ancestors tilled the land and, when it wasn’t enough, which it always wasn’t, looked for other means to survive.

To this day, we still do. We’ve become one of the common people, one with our promised land.

The peanut vendor reminds me of my father. Like him, my father also moved to Davao, from a small municipality thirty minutes away from General Santos, two-and-a-half decades ago. He looked for a job and found one, as a glass installer, married my mother and then built (and eventually broke) a family.

At first, my father was an employee at a glass and aluminum company. Seeing it more lucrative to do project-based work, however, he quit and worked freelance.

He’s 51 now, bald and old, still working as a glass installer. But he now has us, his sons, to help him rebuild whatever it is that needs to be rebuilt.

My father loves peanuts. His new partner always warns him against eating too much of it. “Your knees,” she’ll say. But I love peanuts too, so I eat them together with him, as if it was our little father-and-son thing, and then I expect to feel later, in my own knees, some of the pain my father should have felt in his own.

So every night, after work, as I walk to the nearest mall to find my ride home, I make sure to drop by the peanut vendor to buy some peanuts for my father. That’s how I became one of the peanut vendor’s regular customers.

We’ve known each other for a few months now, since I started working at a private school nearby. I call him “boss”, one of the polite words locals use to refer to almost everyone. He recognizes me well enough that he doesn’t ask me anymore how many peanuts I’m going to buy. When he sees me approaching, he nods at me and proceeds to scoop up thirty pesos’ worth of peanuts from the heap. He also doesn’t forget to throw in an extra handful of peanuts. He’s always given me a little too much.

He usually wraps the peanuts with a cellophane we locally call “smoke”, which has the thinness, translucence, and color of its namesake. It’s basically smoke that you can touch. It easily rips apart, though, and since he knows that I’m going to bring the peanuts home, he wraps them again with another plastic bag, a sturdier one, with a handle.

He hands me my peanuts, and I pay and thank him. Before I leave, we often chat for a while, about nothing in particular. But tonight we’ve talked longer than usual.

“So, boss, you’re all set to vote in the upcoming elections then?” I venture.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet,” he says, shaking his head.

And I don’t blame him. I won’t be one of those people who look at—look down on—the average voter as ignorant or stupid. For people caught up in their daily grind, thinking about politics is an unaffordable luxury.

I’m fully aware that these sentiments teeter on verge of that slippery slope towards the exact same thing that fuels the popularity of Rodrigo Duterte and, by extension, the political candidates who’ve attached their names to his.

Maybe it’s all about the way we see it. I refuse to consider the average voter as symptomatic of a systemic illness, as a social phenomenon I need to scrutinize. There’s already a ton of critical takes on this matter; it has been analyzed ad nauseam. We look at them, often from a privileged perspective, and forget that sometimes we just need to see with them.

To be clear, I’m critical of any politician who has wanton disregard for the basic ideals enshrined in the constitution. I’m also critical of all the other politicians who tolerate or turn a blind eye to injustices in order to advance their own agendas. What I find so difficult is to be critical of the very people, like the peanut vendor, such politicians exploit. They’re victims, too.

Or simply that, like almost everyone else, I’ve just become disillusioned by the electoral process—what with all the same faces and surnames, deluding us into thinking that we actually have a choice.

“How about the Dutertes? The politicians they endorse?” I ask.

“Who will even run against them?” the peanut vendor asks me in return.

“Baste is actually running unopposed,” I say.

He smirks, shaking his head again, and I honestly don’t know what it means. Will we ever really know what another person thinks?

“Well,” I say instead, “I have to go now. Thank you, boss.”

He smiles and nods at me.

When I arrive home, I see my father and his partner watching the evening news on TV. I know the scene too well: if there’s a report about Duterte’s latest gaffe, or criticisms against his senatorial bets, he and his partner will always have this tired look on their faces. I’ve reached the point where I’ve stopped trying to figure out what their facial expressions mean. Sometimes, I just take it all literally: perhaps, after a very long day, they’re just exhausted.

There are a lot of things I want to tell them but just can’t. But allow me to sound naïve and say them here: whatever happens, my loyalty belongs not to the politicians but to the common people, to all barbers, to all peanut vendors, to all sons and daughters, to all fathers and mothers. I’m putting my faith in our interweaving histories and intersecting movements, our struggles and survivals. I’m betting on the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, hoping that someday the harvest from the promised land we till every day will be ours.

I take off my shoes and place them at the doorstep. I enter our house. When my father sees the plastic bag I’m carrying, he asks, “Are those peanuts?”

“Yes, Pa,” I say, and although I always need to answer my father, he doesn’t really need to ask.

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