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Caffeinated catharsis: Shedding light on the drug war with Silingan Coffee’s baristas

Each barista employed at Silingan Coffee has a different and often tragic story to tell.

Quaint and peaceful, Silingan Coffee is exactly what one would expect from a little café situated at the heart of Cubao Expo. But what sets this café apart from the rest is its story: it was established to serve as a helping hand to women whose relatives were victims of the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) brought about by former President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

Despite the pain these women have been forced to go through, the baristas carry themselves with quiet pride. It is in the weariness of their eyes that all the hardships they’ve had to endure are revealed.

Somber retellings

Grace, a mother of three, explains that she had been with Silingan since it first opened in 2021. Like routine, she greets customers with a pleasant smile as they walk through the café door and excellently whips up delicate orders of coffee in a matter of minutes. But deep inside, she holds a timeless story that is far from riveting.

She vividly recalls the days she lost her father and older brother: it was July 22, 2016 when her father was shot in front of their sari-sari store by men wearing civilian clothes. She wasn’t there to witness it, as college-aged Grace was outside studying for a test; it was her nine-year-old sibling that saw everything. “Sabi niya…nung nakita [nila] na gumalaw pa si papa, binaril siya ulit sa dibdib–papatayin talaga nila,” she relays as her fists tightened.

(My sibling said…when the men saw that my father was still moving, they shot him again in the chest-they really wanted to kill him.)

Her 27-year-old brother, Joseph, also witnessed the murder of their father upon waking up from a nap. Grace describes him as the bravest out of all the siblings and it was this bravery that allowed him to stand up to the men who forced their way inside of their house. Unfortunately, it was also this bravery that led to him being taken away by the police to an unknown location to be tortured, eventually to be killed.

She imparts in a shaky voice that she discovered Joseph had died when his body had been taken to the funeral parlor—the same parlor that she was at to inquire about her father’s burial expenses. “Pagbaba ko ng hagdanan [ng funeraria], saktong-sakto may nilalabas na bangkay doon sa sasakyan. [Ako] naglilinis ng kuko [ni kuya]—kaya pagkakita ko pa lang sa kuko, umiiyak [na’ko],” Grace divulges.

(When I went down the stairs of the funeral home, a dead body was taken out of the vehicle. I was the one who cleaned my brother’s nails-so when I saw the nails, I already started sobbing.)

Although initially reluctant to view her older brother’s body, Grace peeled back the white sheet covering Joseph, and recalled what she saw with much detail. “Parang pinaglaruan [siya]…talagang [parang] tinorture talaga siya. Basta parang tumigil ang mundo ko,” she laments, drawing her conclusion from Joseph’s blackened and presumably electrocuted fingertips.

(It was like they played with his body…they really tortured him. All I know is it felt as though my world had stopped.)

But Grace isn’t the only one who suffered an unlawful loss. Dianna, another barista in Silingan Coffee, lost her husband the same way Grace lost her father. While she was doing their family’s laundry, she recounts hearing a huge bang, “Biglang sumigaw ‘yung mga nasa loob ng, ‘May baril! May baril!” In fear, she approached a nearby police officer; but he had chosen to remain deaf to her cries.

(The people inside started shouting, “There’s a gun! There’s a gun!”)

Dianna discloses that her eldest daughter had witnessed her own father’s murder and subsequent planting of evidence against him at the very hospital where he had died. Packets of drugs and a gun were “found” in his pocket, even though they were empty at the crime scene. She confesses regretfully that her husband’s death had tainted her children’s sense of justice. “Sabi ng pangalawa kong anak [na 17 years old], dati gusto niya mag-pulis, pero ayaw niya na.

(My second child, who is 17 years old, doesn’t want to be part of the police force anymore when they grow up.)

After years of shedding heavy tears, Grace angrily declares, “Bakit nilagay sa amin ‘to?…Kahit anong gawin mo, hindi na magiging maayos, kasi nangyari na.

(Why did they do this to us? Whatever I do, it will never be fixed because these things have already happened.)

A space for subversion

Even after their accounts, the baristas would go on with their usual routines at the shop because Silingan Coffee serves a safe place for both Grace and Dianna. It houses, narrates, and concretizes their stories of subversion. “As a mother, life after the incident became difficult,” the latter admits in Filipino, especially when her own children recount the travesty. But despite the heaviness these narratives hold, sharing them with people who willingly listen allows them to process their emotions. “Ngayon lang ako ulit nagkwento. Nakaka-luwag ng puso, nakakahinga,” she continues.

(It’s the first time I shared my story again. It gives my heart space and rest.)

Beyond their own personal gain, both baristas believe sharing their stories allows people to realize the truths behind Duterte’s drug war. “Gusto ko malaman ninyo na ito ‘yung side namin…hindi lang isa lang ang pinatay nila…parang kami pinatay na din nila,” Grace stresses. For her, coming forward gives EJK victims their lost voices. She furthers in Filipino, “Here, you will find the families [of EJK victims] who are ready to share their stories.”

(I want you to know that this is our side. They didn’t kill just one person…it’s like they killed us too.)

On top of that, Silingan also helps their staff amplify their narratives by organizing workshops and pop-ups in collaboration with feminist literary publisher Gantala Press and Resbak, a group of art and media practitioners who dissent Duterte’s drug war. Beside the barista’s coffee bar is a stairway leading to the shop’s spacious second floor, where most workshops and exhibits are held. “Kapag umakyat kayo dito sa taas, mararamdaman niyo talaga [‘yung panawagan nila],” Grace asserts.

(When you visit the second floor, you will really feel their calls for justice.)

Continuing the resistance

But the legacies of Grace, Dianna, and the other baristas of this café may soon crumble away. With Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte’s administration, Grace admits she feels unsafe given the histories behind both the newly inaugurated president and vice president. “lisa lang sila…noon pa man kasi, meron nang EJK na nangyayari, iba nga lang ang tawag,” she stresses. “Hindi ako ligtas sa administrasyon nanaman na ito… ‘di na nga ako ligtas noon, ngayon pa rin.”

(Their administrations are the same…even before, EJKS were already happening, it’s just called a different name. I’m not safe again in this administration…I wasn’t safe before, and now I still am not.)

Still, Silingan Coffee aims to be a space of subversion. Both baristas urge everyone to visit the coffee shop not just to help them support their families, but to continue sharing the administration’s true legacy. “If they only followed the right process, my husband would be alive…they [didn’t] have to kill him, right?” Dianna expresses in Filipino, recalling the false promises Duterte vowed for the war on drugs and fearing how it can continue given his daughter will be in office. “Siguro ‘yun ‘yung tulong ko [at] ng shop, na imulat ‘yung maraming tao na talagang nangyari [ang EJKs] sa rehimen ni Duterte,” Grace accentuates.

(Perhaps it is the shop’s and my way of helping others recognize that EJKs really took place during Duterte’s regime.)

Beyond these stories, both wish for Silingan Coffee to open more branches and to reach out to people. This expansion will also create more job opportunities, especially for the relatives of EJK victims. “Di na kayo ‘yung lalapit sa amin, kami na ‘yung lalapit sa inyo,” Grace anticipates. Dianna also shares that the founder of the coffee shop plans to locate a branch in Binondo, hoping to become a regular employee there to be nearer to her children.

(We want to be closer to you, instead of you having to come closer to us.)

Sa kabila ng mga kinukwento namin, merong mga totoong tao—kami ‘yun,” Grace says, still with a hopeful smile. Some may still consider Silingan Coffee as a trendy café.

(Behind our stories, there are real people—that’s us.)

Grace’s and Dianna’s stories are a reminder of Duterte’s mishandling of human rights in the country. But, will justice finally be on their side when a Marcos-Duterte government has crept on our doors?

By Danielle David Castillo

By Marie Angeli Peña

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