Silent sidewalks: The unheard voices of Manila’s street vendors

Mere months after assuming office, Mayor Isko Moreno upheld his promise to clean up the nation’s capital. From an outside perspective, Moreno’s rebuilding efforts for Manila manifests as brilliantly lit trees and obstruction-free walkways. Massive cleaning operations in Divisoria and Quiapo have made headlines, with similar operations in smaller street markets also meeting the same fate in mass media.

His methods to transform the nation’s capital to a “Bagong Maynila”, however, have sparked criticism, as longstanding vendors whose businesses once lined the streets of Manila have now been displaced. While much of the discussion has centered on the operations themselves, the stories of these vendors have not been given as much attention.

Faces in the streets

Near the puddles and potholes along the sidewalk of Pedro Gil St., Myra Benito sets up shop. Every morning, she lays out her wares—a motley of socks, hairpins, and padlocks—on a simple black cloth, and packs them back up when evening comes. It’s a routine she’s practiced since 2012, when she made the decision to leave Davao for her children’s education. “Pumunta kami dito kasi ang mga sabi-sabi [ay] maganda [ang] buhay sa Maynila; mapapa-aral mo anak mo,” Myra explains.

(We went here because people said that life in Manila is good; your children can get an education.)

Before the clearing operations began, Myra shares that the vendors along the streets of Manila were thriving. “Sobra kaming kabuhay na buhay,” she recounts how the city’s heavy foot traffic meant sustainable earnings for vendors like her. “Napa-aral namin ‘yung mga anak namin sa magandang eskwelahan.”

(We were so lively here. We were even able to send our children to good schools.)

Nowadays, the ever-present threat of a sudden clearing operation by the infamous City Hall “hawkers” is a burden on the minds of the vendors. They are afraid of finding their goods confiscated and having their customer
base dwindle away—and with it, their livelihoods. “Dito, hindi lang trenta ang bata na patigil mag-aral dahil walang makain, walang baon, [at] wala silang matirahan. Tignan niyo ‘yan, [madami] ngayong tambay [na] walang
,” Myra says.

(More than 30 children had to stop schooling because they had no food to eat or a place to stay. Many of them loiter the streets with nowhere to go.)

The untold story

The atmosphere among the remaining street vendors can probably be best described with one word: tense. They carry on with the knowledge that, without warning, teams of hawkers could take their wares and dismantle their stations. Myra claims that vendors who resist are sometimes beaten up or jailed. “Hinahabol ako ng pulis. Hinahabol ako ng hawkers. Kapag maabutan ka [nila], kinukuha ang mga paninda mo [at] sinasaktan ka pa,” she explains.

(The police have chased me. Hawkers have chased me. If they catch you, they seize your goods and hurt you.)

Myra recounts the first clearing operation in the area. “‘Yung paninda ko na hinuli nila noong first time sila manghuli dito, malaki. ‘Yung mga relo na kabibili lang […] ‘Yung mga tempered accessories. Kahit isa, wala nabalik sa amin,” she says. Further, she believes her confiscated goods were brought to the city hall, where hawkers may have kept them for themselves.

(The value of my wares confiscated by hawkers were expensive. Recently purchased watches and tempered glass accessories were never returned to us.)

Myra is not the only vendor who feels unjustly stripped of her livelihood. Roberto*, a burly, silver-haired man that the other vendors refer to as “Pinuno”, speaks out about the difficulty of finding other forms of income in lieu of the recent clearing operations. “[Tinatanong nila ako kung] bakit hindi ka magtrabaho?’” he says. “Hinahanapan niyo ako ng [clearance]. Wala naman ako pambili ng mga clearance-clearance.” He adds that it is especially hard to find work for those without an education, which is the case for many of his fellow vendors.

([They ask me] “Why won’t you work?” They look for clearances. I don’t have the means to buy those clearances.)

Telling their side

A video of Moreno himself confiscating an elderly woman’s goods made rounds on social media during this year’s Traslacion, putting the cleaning operations and its effects on the livelihoods of street vendors back in the spotlight. The public was generally divided; some praised the Mayor’s efforts in cleaning up the streets of Manila and condemned the illegal selling of goods, while others criticized the government’s methods but not completely disagreeing with the need to clean up the notably polluted capital. Myra, who has a far more personal connection to the issue, only wishes that her voice be heard, “Sana may pumunta dito na midya, sasabihin ko lahat.”

(Should the media ever come here, I would tell them everything.)

When asked how she thought the mayor could have handled the situation any differently, Myra simply states that she wishes he’d treat street vendors with more respect. “Sana sabihan niya yung mga tauhan niya na huwag nila kami gawin na hindi tao…kasi hindi maganda yung mga ginagawa [nila] na higit pa kami sa mga daga na nagtatago sa mga sulok.”

(I wish he’d tell his people to not treat us like we’re not human…it is wrong how they treat us as if we’re lower than the rats hiding in the gutters.)

She goes on to note that, while it may seem like Isko is only taking these actions to make Manila a cleaner city, it is important to keep in mind the people most affected by these actions: those with nothing to their name. “Pinapaganda ni Isko ang Maynila, [pero paano] naman ang mga pobre? [Ang] mga walang-wala?” exclaims Myna.

(Isko may be making Manila better, but what about the poor? The people who have nothing?)

When walking down Manila’s crowded streets, it is easy to see the rows of vendors as nothing more than nuisances lining the city with clutter and noise. However, each person has a life not all of us are privy to. These vendors work to support themselves and their families; and while progress must be made for Manila to become a better city, one must not overlook its poorest citizens.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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