Fire in the Village of Water

Houses were burning on the morning of May 28, 2013, in Artex Compound, Barangay Panghulo, Malabon City. It was around 9 a.m.: breakfast smells still lingered in the air, sounds of daytime TV drifted outside open windows, and the children were sent to school just two hours ago.  In fact, the day unfolded calmly: no different from any other morning in the village. Corazon Bascon, 66, was at the water pump near the main gate, filling plastic containers with water when she saw the cloud of gray smoke, rising darkly above the roofs of Pasilio B, where her house was located.

Blood rushed into Corazon’s head and her chest pounded like a drum. She saw her neighbors rowing quickly away from the burning buildings. Families screamed in panic. Red flames licked at the walls and embers fell on the black water. The firemen came, but putting out the fire was difficult. They couldn’t load their equipment on boats, so they circled the block of houses and smothered the flames from the street behind.

“Wasn’t it a little funny?” they thought as the houses burned.

The world of water was on fire.

 *

WE ARE STILL ON STRIKE!

These are the words, written in bold, red letters, on the walls by the path leading to Artex Compound.

Home to about 200 families, Artex Compound has been dubbed by some people as “The Venice of the Philippines.”

In 2004, the former textile mill and housing compound was submerged in a five-foot deep flood. Since then, the village has been surrounded with water. The residents live on the second floor of their houses, and the primary mode of transportation is by boat.

Although in the past years, there had been attempts to pump out the water from Artex, the water only manages to ease back in. This is because Artex is located at the lowest-lying area of Malabon, a city prone to flooding. Urban developments have caused the area around Artex to rise higher above ground, making Artex a natural “catch basin” for water.

A majority of the people residing in Artex, like Corazon Bascon, used to be employees in the textile factory which belongs to the Filipino-Chinese Typoco family. Labor disputes mar the history of Artex: numerous court cases have been filed and counter-filed. Employees continue to protest their lack of wages. The owners had accused some labor union members of robbery. 

Today, the people of Artex are still fighting for their cause, demanding the factory administration to give them what they are due: back pay, separation pay, housing benefits. But what they are truly fighting for is the right to ownership: they have been residing in Artex for many years, and they believe they should stake a claim on the place they consider home. 

As the villagers continue to fight and wait for a resolution, they are doing their best to lead normal lives in Artex Compound, despite the water that is as motionless as the cases they have filed in court.

  *

It was 1970 when Corazon Red went to work in Artex Yupangco Textile Mills Corporation. The Bicolana, hopeful about the future, returned to Manila to try her luck once again. The first time she went to the city in 1967, as a fresh-faced probinsyana who was only 19, the odds seemed to work against her. Corazon’s mother had just died. Rather than be disheartened about her passing, Corazon’s father urged her to go to Manila, where she would study and live with a cousin who had promised to pay for her education.

Corazon’s dream was to become a teacher. She wanted to major in Education, but the program was unavailable at the small college in Sta. Mesa where she was to study. Instead, Corazon took a two-year secretarial course, which she juggled with her responsibilities at her cousin’s house. She was expected to do her share of the chores: wash clothes, iron, clean, cook, take care of her infant nephew.

“It was too much,” Corazon said about that time in her life. She slept during her morning classes. She would wake up, embarrassed, whenever her instructor called her name. After a year of failing to balance domesticity and scholarship, Corazon quit school and went home to Bicol with a slightly heavy heart.

So when one of their neighbors in Bicol, the president of the Artex labor union, recruited her for a job, Corazon jumped at the chance. She packed her bags again for Manila, where, unknown to her then, she would exchange her watery dreams for a life built on stilts.

  *

Each day, Corazon clocked in at the Bundy clock by the entrance of Artex. It was in October when she learned that she would be working at the Preparation Department of the textile mill.

At each shift, Corazon worked with threads, connecting the strands, aligning them on a carding machine. Corazon had to wait for five months before she learning she was hired She was consumed with doubt as she waited for her application to be processed. There was a height requirement for factory workers. Women must stand at least 5 feet, 3 inches. During her job interview, she was asked to turn around slowly while a factory official surveyed her and took notes on a clipboard. Along with many others, Corazon wanted to land a job at Artex, one of the biggest textile factories in the Philippines at the time.

Corazon received a weekly paycheck of 36 pesos, an amount that went a long way in the ‘70’s. A week’s wages was more than enough to buy groceries at the market in Sangandaan. Even if the daily minimum wage at the time was eight pesos, Corazon was content with what she was getting. She spent her weekends at the house she shared with her coworkers. The company did not collect rent from them, but, according to Corazon, a certain amount was deducted from their salary every month. The employees, however, did not have to pay for water and electricity bills. 

Soon, Corazon found herself falling comfortably into routine: a work schedule that shifts every two weeks; morning walks by the playground on her way to the factory; mingling with her coworkers; weekends spent lazily at home; quiet Sunday afternoons at the chapel. 

Who would have thought that it would all capsize?

  *

There was only ever one man who sparked the flame in Corazon’s heart. Corazon was introduced to him, a young Batangueño who worked in the Engineering department. His name was Ricardo Bascon, five years her junior. She met the machinist when she was 25, him just 20 and fresh out of his two-year engineering course. Ricardo went to live and work at Artex, where his two sisters also worked.

“At first, I didn’t like him at all. But he was persistent,” said Corazon. She told Ricardo she was not interested in younger men, but he went to visit her at home anyway, coming over for a chat, bringing something to eat. The visits both annoyed and worried her. Quiet provincial lass that she was, the last thing Corazon wanted to happen was to become the subject of gossip. Just the idea of walking alone past the basketball court terrified her. 

One day, on her way to a cousin’s house in Bulacan, it surprised her when Ricardo decided to tag along. It became their first official date. Corazon remembered it fondly: her three-inch platform shoes and bellbottom jeans; the two of them walking side-by-side along dusty streets; the surprised amusement on her cousin’s face; Ricardo’s warmth next to her.

They dated for three years.

  *

“Sometimes you get what you don’t ask for,” she said, laughing. “You just get used to it.”

  *

The textile mill closed down in 1989. Business was running well despite the strikes. Within a year of working in Artex, Corazon witnessed a strike for the first time. The Samahang Manggagawa ng Artex Union (SAMAR) protested their low wages, pointing out that what they received was below the standard minimum wage. The owners reasoned that the lack in wages was compensated for by the houses they had provided for the employees.

Corazon recalled how violent the strikes could be. The protesters would block the factory’s main gate to choke its operations, and would sometimes force entry into the premises. In retaliation, the administration would hire employees who were not members of the union, such as Corazon, to block off and fight the protesters. 

In the end, it was the water that shut down the factory. By the late ‘80’s, the flooding had worsened in Malabon, due to the upsurge in urbanization projects.

The first time it flooded in Artex, sometime in the ‘80’s, Corazon wondered how they would survive. The ground floor of their house was submerged in water. To get around and buy provisions, there arose the necessity of boats. The water rose unexpectedly and nobody was prepared for it. People took turns riding the only boat in their pasilio. When someone in the village put their boat up for sale, for 300 pesos, Ricardo thought it wise to buy one for his family. The boat Corazon uses now when ferrying passengers cost her over a thousand pesos, but she said a boat is an investment if you are living in Artex, where you couldn’t trust your own legs to get yourself from Point A to Point B.

  *

Corazon, who has been living in Artex for 45 years, has already witnessed two fires in the neighborhood. The first was in April 9, 1979, exactly twenty days before her wedding. She thought it was bad luck that an enormous fire had burned down an entire street of houses prior to marrying Ricardo. Someone had forgotten to unplug a faulty clothes iron, causing the houses to go up in flames. Luckily, nobody died in the fire; firemen responded quickly before the entire village could be razed to the ground. Last year, a man, drunk from a drinking session at a neighbor’s wake, had slept through the uproar and died. 

But Artex Compound is a peaceful place. Corazon recalled what Christmasses were like in Artex, now that the holidays are near. Before the water came, the neighborhood celebrated Christmas like a typical barangay: tables of potluck food, singing and dancing, everyone chipping in to rent a karaoke machine. Christmas in now-flooded Artex is celebrated the same way, with the parties held on the street by the entrance to the compound. Even so, Corazon couldn’t help but long for the Artex of before — the Artex where one could actually walk the streets, a place which is not veiled under the pretense of normalcy.

  *

For weeks after the first flood, the people of Artex feasted on fish. A monsoon overflowed the nearby fishponds of Karisma, a fishing enterprise that was later redeveloped into a subdivision. The water surged through the barriers, plunging Artex in a flood that was six-feet deep. But to the villagers’ delight, the water carried hordes of bangus that the residents caught and served on their tables for a fortnight. 

“We knew that the fish belonged to the pond owners,” said Corazon. “But the fish found their way to our place, so we didn’t think it was bad to get them for ourselves.”

Today, fish can still be found in the waters of Artex. But instead of fat silver fish, tilapia swim about, as dark as the water in which they swim. Unlike the bangus, Corazon said eating the tilapia was not safe: just the thought of eating the fish makes her stomach turn. The water in Artex includes refuse from wet markets, restaurants, and surrounding houses. Sometimes the water carries a sewage stench so strong, sleeping at night becomes impossible.

  *

Artex may be a water village, but the residents have limited access to clean water. The villagers row to the pump by the entrance to get water for their everyday use, because the water that runs from the faucet is not clear.  Of course, local government officials have tried to help the villagers over the years. Election season is a particularly lively occasion: hopeful candidates go from house to house by boat, to shake as many hands as they could while delivering their promises of “extending help the best way they can.” Flyers and posters and caps emblazoned with the candidates’ smiling faces are distributed to the neighborhood. The candidates’ names, reverberating on the water, are repeatedly shouted through megaphones.

Once, a very well-meaning candidate who ran for mayor gave Artex a water-removal device. It was presented as a gift and the villagers thanked him for it. The flood subsided whenever they used the would-be mayor’s gift. But after the election results were announced, when everyone knew that the generous politician failed to win the mayoral seat, some official-looking men were sent to Artex to take back the gift.

  *

In Artex, it seems that nothing is ever certain. It was in 1997 that Labor Arbiter Jovencio Mayor declared that Yupangco Cotton Mills, Inc., owned by the Typocos, has become the absolute owner of the properties located in Artex since May 1989, up to the present. Hence, the now-defunct Artex factory is legally considered a private property—one reason the local government could not freely intervene in the Artex issue. The villagers could be ordered by the courts to depart anytime.

  *

Corazon quit her job at the factory, three years before Artex shut down. After marrying Ricardo, the two applied for a new house in the compound. The house provided for single employees was not suitable for raising their two sons. They wanted to build a home, so Corazon resigned from her job to better take care of her children. For the most part, the Bascon family was happy. Corazon and Ricardo rarely fought, unlike the neighbors who screamed and threw things at each other at night without care. The boys kept the house alive, filling it with noise and laughter.

However, in 1984, Corazon’s youngest boy was struck with an illness that she claimed was “made by man.” The doctors could not find out why the little four-year-old fell sick. The boy was confined in hospital for weeks, but the doctors failed to revive him. Corazon eventually lost her youngest child. She claimed her boy died because of kulam  or a hex. Word got around the village that it was a neighbor who did it, and that it was done out of envy. “Envy for what, I do not know,” Corazon said. “My family is not rich but we are happy, and we love each other,” she said. “But we are all the same here.”

 

Corazon’s family had to build another house last year; after the fire, nothing was saved from their house in Pasilio B. The new house is a quaint hut supported by bamboo poles. On most days, there are only four people living in the house: Corazon, her eldest son Ricky, and her two grandchildren. The boys, aged 6 and 9, were both born in Artex like their father. They have known no other home but Artex, and, according to Corazon, they have never asked why the village was surrounded with water. 

“They already know how to row a boat!” she said. At first, Corazon herself found it hard to maneuver a boat. Paddling is not as easy as it looks, but after teaching herself how to do it, Corazon can now steer a boat smoothly. She ferries passengers sometimes, and earns about 50 pesos per day. Competition is tight because there are many families who also ferry their boats. Passengers are hard to come by as well. But when there are visitors in Artex, Corazon can earn up to a hundred pesos or more.

Before last year’s fire, Corazon accepted odd sewing jobs: fixing broken zippers, replacing frayed collars, re-hemming skirts. Her sewing machine was destroyed in the fire, which, out of all possible reasons, was caused by a pot of adobo that was left on the stove for too long. Corazon chips in her earnings, however small, for the household’s expenses. Her husband Ricardo is currently staying in Angono, Rizal, where he oversees and supervises a project for his brother’s small construction company. Her son, 34-year-old Ricky, is unemployed. His wife is an overseas worker in Dubai, and she supports him and the two boys. She wants Ricky to follow her to the Middle East so he could find work there as well.

“I told them to work hard and save money for a house and lot,” Corazon said. “I keep telling them: that’s the only way to get yourselves out of the water.”

Some of the villagers whose houses were destroyed in the fire had left Artex Compound. They are now renting apartments in Panghulo, or have moved to another town. But Corazon’s family chose to stay in Artex.

“At least here, we have our own house,” she said. “Outside, we would have to pay rent. I’d hate having to worry about paying rent every month.”

One of the things demanded by SAMAR is for land ownership to be transferred to the residents of Artex. Whenever SAMAR holds a dialog with the stakeholders in the issue, Corazon sometimes attends meetings with the members.

“To be honest, I am no longer expecting anything,” Corazon said. “If they decide to give the compound to us, then that is good. We will accept whatever we are given.”

  *

Artex is not called the “Venice of the Philippines” for nothing. Putting aside its complicated history, there is a certain charm about the flooded village. People go to Artex for different reasons: showbiz personalities to film TV shows, location hunters to plan logistics, students to do research, photojournalists, foreigners. Usually, they all come to the same conclusion, a simple fact of ecology: where there is water, there is life—no matter how tough its conditions may be. 

A Japanese man who once visited Artex, while riding on Corazon’s boat, couldn’t help but exclaim, “Wow! Beautiful! Little village in water.” And somehow he is right. The sunsets in Artex can be amazing: the fading light dapples the water with flecks of gold. A photographer had shown Corazon a picture of what Artex looks like in the afternoon, just when the sun is setting. “Until I saw the photo, I didn’t know our place could be that beautiful,” she said.

Transience is weaved into the fabric of life in Artex, but some things remain unchanged. The same sun sets over the charred houses of Pasilio B, casting shadows on the water which has plagued the neighborhood for a decade. Corazon plans to live out her days in Artex Compound. But what she truly takes comfort in is knowing that she can still change her mind. Artex has taught Corazon that the present is not a factory machine: its movements are un-mechanical, unpredictable, forever adrift. Because for all Corazon knows, at any moment, all of waterworld could sink, or blow up in smoke.

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