5 February 2008
I am first daughter, and I have no name. When they talk about me, they call me bata ni Evangeline, Evangeline’s kid. I call myself Angel because I’m not here. I exist—but only in the shadows, gone as soon as I am noticed. It’s better that way and easier for you to go about your lives if my story remains untold. But before I go, let me explain the circumstances of my departure and introduce you to someone else’s story—that of my sister and the unlikely family that would become her own.
I stand on a narrow dirt path, peering at my former home, a squatter’s hut along the waterway near Barangay 275, District III in Binondo, Manila. Although technically Binondo, everything about my neighborhood is Tondo, the nearby district with the largest slum in Manila, bound by the dark canals from the main 3 Pasig River. I have heard that this river used to be full of life, but I’ve never seen anything alive in those gray waters. Staring across the garbage-filled waterway framed by the crossed clotheslines of the slum’s inhabitants, I am glad they will never see me again.
I had planned my escape many times in my mind, but the details did not come together until recently. Several weeks ago, the skinny man with a tattoo of a spiderweb on his left elbow spotted me in the market. I had seen him before, but this time he approached me. I had been stealing rice, scooping it into a used plastic bottle that I had slashed into a cup and hid in my dress pocket. I knew he wasn’t one of the bad men because they wore blue with a gold-colored badge. The man with the tattoo showed me a picture of another place far from here and said a girl so pretty could get a really good job there. I didn’t know where there was, but I knew it wasn’t here.
That day, I walked away from the man, not saying a word. For many days after, I couldn’t help but wish to see him again. I had dreamed about leaving Binondo, where crowds of shoeless wanderers picked through heaps of garbage, looking for food and items to sell. They were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were floating in the Pasig, dead from the drugs or the gang dealers or the bad men with badges. As soon as the bodies were dragged away, they were forgotten.
I had heard from some ladies in my district that important people needed cleaning ladies and nannies in Dubai and remembered the stories of girls becoming entertainers in Japan. These rumors captured my imagination. I spent hours staring at the posters on the market walls of the Divisoria, which showed uniformed women working at fancy hotels, and I tried to read their words.
For some time now, I had been seeing the man with the spiderweb tattoo, as I ducked around the rows of milkfish and open sacks of rice, near Lalang’s oyster counter and right next to the chicken shop next door. Like me, the chicken shop also had no name, identified only by its purpose. From my station, I would wait for something to distract the old ladies selling rice, so I could shove my cup into the open bag just steps away from where I stood.
As I waited for my moment, shooing away the flies from my sweaty cheeks, I would watch the man. He often approached other girls like me, girls who were too young to leave home, but old enough. Anyone older than five was old enough. Mama already had sent me to other men four times in exchange for money for Papa’s medicines. I, too, was old enough.
On my long walk to the market a few months back, I spotted a miniature white bus in front of the sari-sari store, dirty and bent in on the driver’s side from what must have been several motorbike accidents. I had seen this bus before but never parked in front of the sari-sari store. The man with the spiderweb tattoo grabbed the hand of a small girl I knew from District III and led her onto the bus. She was younger than me, or at least smaller. I watched as the bus drove away, seeing her long, black ponytail blowing in the breeze from the open window. She, too, is gone forever, the thought came easily.
And she was. No one talked about her or spoke of her disappearance. There was no commotion in the District the next day when her parents finally came home. Girls often left, whether by choice or quiet force. And here in Binondo, they never came back.
I used to fear being picked up by the minibuses, the old vans, and the trolling motorbikes, but I am no longer afraid of them. I fear nothing—not Mama, not her boyfriends, not the drunken visitors, or even the bad men. Night terrors left me long ago, along with other emotions that I recognize in the happy faces of the people on the posters at the Divisoria.
Gone are the sparks of hope that would sometimes rise in my chest when I was a younger girl and Papa would bring lechon on Noche Buena. No longer does my belly tighten when I hear the shrieks and screams in the darkness during the hot summer nights on the river. And the softness that used to fill my mind when I thought about my family has been absent since Papa got sick. In fact, I no longer feel anything at all. I think that’s what old enough really means.
I knew Mama was going to give birth to her next child any day. She already had five boys other than me, and now they said she was having another, this time a girl. As her belly grew, I thought maybe I would feel excited, but I felt nothing—not joy, fear, hope, or love. I saw my soon-to-be sister’s whole life and future before me without ever seeing her face. I am no Plaza Miranda psychic, but life in my neighborhood was predictable, if nothing else.
I refused to follow the ways of the estero and claimed my way out. I found the man with the tattoo on a cool Tuesday evening in January and planned my pickup. Then I waited for my day. I would sneak away and meet him at the sari-sari store when Mama hid inside the house to have her baby. He’d be watching for me every day during the early morning hours until it was time.
And now that time has arrived. Since yesterday evening, I have listened to Mama struggle against the early pains of childbirth. All night, I laid in the corner of our shack, waiting calmly and quietly. Yet one thought kept nagging me: Give your baby sister a name. The thought was unyielding, like a command from God himself.
I knew what this little life was about to become, and I couldn’t help her or give her anything, except a name—at least, she’d have a name. In between Mama’s contractions, I pleaded and whined for her to choose one, finally deciding to name baby sister myself. After several minutes of me shouting at Mama to promise to give her the name that I chose, Mama conceded, “OK lang.” It was the last time I would ever speak to Mama.
Now I stand on the highest point of my neighborhood—a hurried, five-minute walk from our home—and take a final glance down toward the Pasig, knowing I am gone forever. Facing forward, I make for the sari-sari store and wait for the man with the spiderweb tattoo to take me somewhere—anywhere else.
As I press on, I hear in the near distance a final scream, and then—just barely—the tiny cry of my sister. Angela is born. I pause to appreciate the moment, but I feel nothing. As I leave both you and baby sister, I wonder if you will feel for me—or at least for Angela, whose unexpected journey to finding family is just beginning.