In a mangrove habitat in Silay abundant with oysters, crab and fish, 39-year-old Mae Lupo, mother of four, lives with her family in one of those remote communities seemingly untouched by infections. The dock where they live in Barangay Balaring only had two cases in November last year, and that number has remained the same in official reports from its task force up until as recently as Easter break.
Ten minutes away from the main road of the city by car, twenty if by tricycle, Balaring was a place they couldn’t leave per the barangay captain’s orders. This affected her husband, a tricycle driver and breadwinner for the entire family, who can now only make daily trips that yield 200 - 500 pesos a day. However, the tricycle isn’t his, so the actual owner takes ₱120 for every day he drives out, leaving them with only ₱80 to ₱380 a day. “Ang biyahe na daan indi na permanente, alternate gid gyapon” (The trips are consistent, it is always alternating situations), Lupo said.
Mouths to feed
To some, lockdown had an abstract quality: talk of time loops, hobby holes and creative outlets. Yet to others it was more concrete: a struggle to just cover daily needs of food, clothing and shelter for the people they felt responsible for.
Before COVID, all four of Lupo’s children lived in their house. But when it became a struggle to feed the whole family, her Angel, 14, volunteered to move to the house of her tiya, while Abblyn, 8, is currently in her in-law’s place, but still in the same community. That left two young boys in the house: Aries Jake, 9 and Andrei, 5, for whom Lupo buys rice in small increments. “Subong ga kilo kilo lang kami, ga bakal lang kami bugas sa tiangge, indi ko ka tingob bugas” (Now, we just buy rice per kilo from the tiangge, I cannot buy in bulk), she said. Her in-laws and her sister usually give them more rice as well as sud-an (ulam) when they can.
Elsewhere, in Rizal, Emelita Loyola Vista, also a mother of four — though two are married and no longer under her and her husband’s roof — takes home about ₱500 for every day that she opens her barbecue stand in a ‘gillage’ between a gated subdivision and a golf course. Four or five days a week, smoke starts wafting from her parilla at 10 a.m., all the way until her wares sell out in the afternoon. But it had to close for nine months during lockdown.
On a sunny Wednesday in March, the sprightly 58-year-old shared her price list:
Dugo ng manok, ₱5.
Bato ng baboy, ₱10.
Ulo ng manok, ₱10.
“Sa ngayon pinakamataas ko ngayong kita sa isang araw, five hundred,” she said. “Pero nung ‘di pa lockdown pinang-araw-araw ko seven hundred, six hundred — ngayon medyo tumaas yung price ng mga bilihin.”
She knows this well from many mornings getting on a motorbike to the nearest market at 3 a.m. to pick the meat. Scanning through her face shield, she gets a sharper sense of her cost of goods. The white sugar and onions she puts in her vinegar are expensive but necessary for the taste, she said, and the price of pig ears has doubled from ₱110 to ₱220 per kilo. But instead of raising her prices, she just slices the pieces smaller.
“Kahit sobrang trabaho, enjoy naman ako kasi kapag dumating naman ganitong hapon na maubos na siya, hawak mo na yung pera. Talagang tanggal na yung pagod mo… May pamalengke na ako, pambili sa mga [kailangan ng anak ko]. May pang-almusal na kami, budget ko na yung ulam namin, tanghalian pati hapunan, ganun.”
In order to restart the business when the restrictions eased, she borrowed ₱2000 from a microlending company whose reps would come to their street, and she pays them back at a rate of ₱650 a week.
At this, her tone turned instructional. Borrow only if you’re going to use the money to finance a business, she warned. “Kung yung perang inutang mo ng lending, ibabayad mo sa mga utang mo, hindi puwede. Kailangan negosyo mo. Kasi pag hindi mo yan ninegosyo, san ka kukuha ng weekly mong ihuhulog diyan?”
In Butuan, equally enterprising Jessica Odvina, 38, has been growing an SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) anchored on guyabano juice. “Para lang pong bunga na napasok sa bote!” she said. “Guyabano Queen po ako ng Caraga!”
In lockdown she assumed the role of mother to her employees, housing and feeding thirteen of them in her own house as she sees her workers as family. “Nagtrabaho na po sila sa akin nang matagal… I think they are already eight years sa akin! Talagang bihasa na rin sa trabaho…” she said. “Hindi naman [lahat] e nabibigyan ng oportunidad na ayudahan ng gobyerno. Naiintindihan namin kasi we are a small SME, walang naniniwala sa amin na naghihirap kami!”
To defray the costs, they started growing eggplants, ube, pechay, onions, ginger and leafy vegetables in the five-hectare farm she acquired to grow guyabano, from seeds that came in packs distributed by the Department of Agriculture in their community. Since the company’s sales in their main outlets — airports and pasalubong centers — have thinned, she also started going door-to-door selling fruit juice like the old days. She was thankful though to the Philippine National Police for being a consistent buyer. “Meron akong two-thousand bottles sa kanila per week,” Odvina said. “Sila ang bumubuhay sakin during pandemic time!”
Keeping her head down, Guyabano Queen, who grew her company from a seed capital of ₱500 to a valuation of ₱14.9 million, winning awards from the Department of Trade and Industry along the way, said she was never interested in fame. “Ang importante sakin, mabuhay ko yung pamilya ko nang legal, at tsaka will be waiting for the second coming of Christ, maging happy kami — yun lang ang importante sakin.”
Over in Metro Manila, Honey de Peralta, 45, a sales manager for book publisher Penguin Random House, lives with her two kids, husband, two helpers, and her father, in San Juan, in close proximity to the milk tea shops and specialty food stores in Greenhills.
She shared that her kids seem independent in their studies, though her 17-year-old son has expressed how he misses his friends and measures the lockdown in terms of the number of birthdays he’s spent at home (he was 15 before the lockdown). She herself has converted a part of her and her husband’s bedroom into her workstation, while her husband has taken over the living room, though occasionally he gets tested when he has to travel for work.
“Actually, I'm finding it harder to manage my dad,” she said with a laugh.
“I could be here working, or it could be having a meeting, and then my dad comes into the room. And then because he's a senior citizen, sometimes he doesn't get that you're actually in a meeting. But he has to tell you something kasi kulang yung gamot niya, kailangan na nyang bumili ng gamot. And then one time nagpaalam siya… And I don't know kung alam niya but nataon siya sa isang week na marami akong meetings. So nagpaalam siya na birthday daw ni Helen and I was thinking it was one of my cousins. So I said yes kasi cousin ko and andun lang sila sa isang house and they'd social distance. And then when he left I was having a meeting. When he came back that's the only time I realized it wasn't my cousin, it was one of his church friends.”
She recalled another instance: “Two weeks ago pumunta siyang bangko tapos tinawagan niya ako while I was out, I was doing an errand. Tinawagan niya ako kasi nadapa siya. So I had to have my husband pick him up sa bangko.”
Prior to the pandemic, de Peralta's life had such a seamless quality, delegating chores and shooting emails from the dining table, she would sometimes forget to eat.
In Butuan City, Odvina has also had a seamless Internet connection for eight years now. It has allowed her teenage daughter, Jasmin, age 15, to seamlessly transition to the new mode of online learning.
“Hindi siya nagtatanong kung, ‘Ano ito, ano ganyan, Mommy. Very responsible yung anak ko.”
When it comes to the rest of the country’s population that doesn’t have access to the Internet (about 30% in the start of 2021) learning revolves not around a screen but a printed material you teach yourself. “Module,” the word rolled off the tongue of Loyola Vista’s daughter Mary Jane, grade 10, with a bit of disdain as she hung around the barbecue stand, shrugging her shoulders one afternoon. “Tas ‘di pa napag-aralan dun sa Cavite.” At the start of lockdown, her mom had to pick her and her sister up from there; four rides from Rizal to the house of an older sibling — who also shared emergency funds from her employer with their mom before she could restart her grilled food biz.
Lupo, in her own barangay by the mangroves in Silay City, feels embarrassed sometimes when she can’t explain a topic in the module to her young children, owing to her limited educational attainment. Fortunately, the teachers are also their neighbors so she visits them to ask for help, or sometimes her cousin, who lives nearby.
“Ang modules ya ang okay lang kung wala ka mabal-an, hambal ka maestra na kung indi ka kabalo, pwede ka man ka mangkot sa tupad balay mo (If you don’t understand something in modules, their teachers say it’s okay and even advised us that we can go around the community and ask neighbors for help.)”
Along with other parents in the community, Lupo picks up the module from the elementary school and brings them back once her kids finish answering them. Everyone is striving to learn.
But Back in Rizal, self-possessed Mary Jane decided to stop school after being frustrated by the modules for several months. “Pero yung isa ko tuloy-tuloy,” Loyola Vista clarified. “Kasi may pangarap yun, yung ate niya. Alam mo kung anong gusto nun? Pulis! Ay hindi, sundalo! Sabi ko, ‘Akong unang mamamatay sayo anak; wag ka na magsundalo.’”
The gendered division of labor is something that has been coded into society for hundreds of years — women take care of the home while men provide for the family. This harks back to the Filipino concept of the mother as ilaw ng tahanan (light of the household) while the father is considered haligi ng tahanan (foundational post or column). But the reality is, in 2021, women are committing more to their careers. 33% of Filipinas aim to be financially independent, while 24% want to start their own business, according to a study by Wunderman Thompson Philippines.
De Peralta, for one, identifies less as a homemaker. “I used to tell my family parang my skill is not in the home. I would be more of like the hunter gatherer instead,” she said. Living with helpers who do most of the housekeeping and cooking, De Peralta admitted she is hardly in the kitchen. In quarantine, during the rare times that she made her own ramyeon, her son asked, "Mama, why are you cooking!"
What she does identify with is her work at the publishing house. “Alam mo yun parang, ay may trabaho pa, halika gawin natin... ay may email pa, sagutin natin,” said the book sales manager. “So even after dinner, I go back to my laptop and then I work. Before, I would probably close the laptop at 10 or beyond.That's my usual working day.”
Able to outsource most tasks prior to the pandemic, she found herself in the role of house manager: paying bills, calling a carpenter if anything needed to be fixed, buying medicine for her dad, and scheduling regular trips to the grocery or going there herself as “tribute” during the stricter days of the lockdown so she will be the only member of the household going outside.
The same role rang true for Loyola Vista, who delegated tasks, like cleaning the house and skewering meat, to her husband. “Ako nagluluto, siya nagtutuhog, ganun.”
Meanwhile Odvina — who has learned some business management in Australia — likened her family to a team, with her as the general manager and marketing lead, husband as head of production, and daughter as quality control, checking the bottles and labels and taste-testing each batch of juices before they go out. “It’s Halal-certified,” she said.
Productivity levels are something De Peralta thinks a lot about, especially since A) more work in the office and at home meant she had to give up some of her leisure activities like reading for herself, yoga in the mornings or running. B) She’s worried that if she doesn’t perform at the highest level, she might somehow lose her job. That is, until an online staff meeting when the head of the international team admitted that he was having a hard time the previous week, and took the day off just to take a walk. “And when he said that I was thinking oh my gosh, he's been in the business for a long time. He's seen the industry grow. So you certainly look up to him. And I was thinking for him to say that, I was thinking that it was okay. It's okay.”
These days she’s given herself permission to take breaks, finding a sense of freedom, mind-clearing and control in biking (“But my dad was always like, o anak bili tayo ng kotse para makalabas ako,” she laughed) — similar to how Lupo took up planting for her kalingawan (amusement).
The latter, in Silay, shared how she formed an unexpected bond with her husband and children.
“Budlay sa mga Nanay pero ma hambal ko sa Tatay man ah. Makita mo man asawa mo ga pangabudlay tapos bata mo ma ngayo, waay ka may ma hatag. Mga bata ko daan na anad sa pangayo lang na pangayo. Kis-a ma huy-an ka gid kung ara ka sa dalan tapos ma hibi sila tapos waay ka may ma hatag. Ga ka sakitan ko. Mag puli kami, ga pangayo man ko pasensiya, ‘pasensiyaha nalang ko kay Papa niyo waay mayo biyahe. Indi kamo sagay pangayo, kung ano may-ara di, amo nalang na.’ Amo na ngaa ang bata ko nag hambal nga ‘Ma, didto lang ko anay kay Tita’ kay nakita ya man na budlayan kami.”
(It’s hard for the mothers but I can also say it’s hard for the fathers as well. You can see your husband struggling then your children will keep asking for things and you cannot give it. My children have gotten used to always asking. I feel ashamed when we’re outside on the streets and they will cry because I can't give them what they want. It hurts me. When we get home I tell them ‘I’m asking for patience because your Papa doesn’t have enough trips. Don’t keep asking for things, just enjoy what we have here at home’. That’s why my eldest also suggested, ‘Ma, I’ll just stay with Tita’ because she realized how hard we are struggling.)
Lupo, Loyola Vista, Odvina, and de Peralta carry a double burden of paid and unpaid, physical and emotional care work — not either/or but both.
Emotional labor, cushioning a partner or offspring’s feelings, can prompt physical labor: In addition to comforting her young children who could see their father struggling and out of work, Lupo started working Sundays, accepting more laundry work for an additional ₱500 a week, cooking fish balls to augment their income, or collecting bets for the small town lottery. Everyday Lupo and her husband take turns making rounds in the community from morning to afternoon; they earn a 10% commission on every win. Otherwise, they say they would be starving by now.
Pressured by the failures of a state, and the forcible hand in her own nuclear family growing up, the martyrdom surfaced too in the entrepreneur Odvina. Born to a cop father and military dentist mother, the eldest of three kids left their house at 18 with bruises on her body from a belt, keys, a piece of wood, anything that could be thrown. Sometimes there would be direct contact: tooth to breast, cigarettes to face. She often went to the adoration chapel and drew close to the priests and nuns and her choir “family.” Within a year of leaving, she married a Seventh Day Adventist, converting from Catholicism in the year 2000. And yet she still expressed a bottomless faith in the psychic foundations of the home. “Basta buo ang pamilya, suportado, nagmamahalan kayo, tsaka you have hard work, gugulong ang buhay, na parang gulong.”
Looking forward, she sees more agency for her own daughter in the contours of a world outside. “Maganda yung grades niya, she’s good in Science and English. That would be the start up of her new beginning sa market na pinasok ko na inaalagaan ko ngayon — for export,” she said.