I was born and raised in the second district of Tondo, called Gagalangin, a town near the border of Caloocan. I remember this place when it was still under developed: rural-like living where houses were gated by shrubs and surrounded by gumamela, santan, and sampaguita flowers. Where farm animals provided livelihood to a number of families, when chickens would cross the dirt road, and the creeks were still filled with gurami and tilapia fish.
My father, or Dada, as we fondly call him, would recall his father’s stories about an earlier time when Gagalangin was still a dump area. They had relocated to Gagalangin after his parents learned of land grants. At that time, the place was like the Smokey Mountain dump; it was the remaining resemblance he could use to illustrate the place where the first folks settled and thrived.
Dada showed us how to cross the river between our place to a neighboring town of Balut, which was on the other side of the estero de Tondo. He showed us a shortcut, using a makeshift string-drawn banca that would take us to the other side where we would buy lumpia wraps and other goods we needed for Nanay’s carinderia. I remember asking him: Why not build a bridge instead? Dada explained that the two neighboring towns were frenemies: “Remember the gangster days?” he answered. Building a bridge would mean brewing daily war and nonsense rage, even if could help with the exchange of goods and making businesses deals. I myself have witnessed a few riots; Tondo has not earned its frightful reputation for nothing.
But not everything about Tondo is about fear and rage. Not for those who remember the beauty underneath.
My father told us of a river that was a sprawling area of activities. That river had clear water, where fishing and picnics were possible, and small fishing bancas and small fishing ships to the Malabon Cove would pass by. Dada would recite the different kinds of migrating birds that had flocked freely on the bay. He would reminisce about this Tondo, looking up at the sky, like weaving his memories with the silver linings of the clouds.
When Dada would recall his romantic years, he would blush, remembering how the common water shed made encounters possible, by the poso and palikuran (restroom), where the townsfolk would commune for their daily ration of water and sanitation. It was also a time when paglalako or peddling of goods was a common sight, and everyone would think of a way to raise money just by toting along their goods and shouting at the top of their lungs. Dada would woo my Nanay by offering his help to carry the bilao (wick tray) or by fetching her by the main road to carry her bayong (native shopping bag) to my lola’s house.
It was a time when you could ask your neighbor to lend you some malunggay, string beans, or tomatoes from their yard. I knew the tail-end of that time; I remember waiting with my skirts held up as a bag to fetch mangoes being picked by my brother. By then, only a few houses in our vicinity owned colored televisions and PLDT phone subscriptions, which we took to our advantage, as this lack of technology honed our wild imagination and creativity. We walked the streets with no fear of abduction or of being hit by vehicles, we were free to play taguan-pung under the moonlight and played among the midst of gangsters, who, our parents were sure would protect us from any stranger who might harm us. Those gangsters, or siga, might have inspired fear in others, but they were a danger only for those who threatened our place—the siga were the ones who’d keep criminals and threats at bay.
Tondo is now a far cry from the illustrations from my Dada’s stories. It is now a bustling commercial and residential place, mushrooming with condominiums, townhouses, fast food restaurants, and shopping nooks. A new kind of life and livelihood now thrive here, keeping pace with the modern world.
Because of marriage and work, I have relocated from Tondo, yet a big chunk of my heart stays there. As one of those raised among the unsung cavaliers of the gang era, I am never be ashamed to say I am a Tondo girl. I face life’s challenges toughly, for I have been raised among the streetwise and the brave.