Joey A. Velasco's "The Dangerous Life of a Child-warrior" [PG-13]

This story is an excerpt from the chapter "Bruises of Itok" of the book They Have Jesus: The Stories of the Children of Hapag by Joey Velasco.  The painting Hapag ng Pag-asa (Supper of Hope) is a rendition of the popular Last Supper theme by Velasco.  In his version, Velasco replaced the apostles with street children.  Velasco, who died from kidney cancer at the age of 43 on July 20, 2010, picked up both the pen and the paintbrush late in his short life.  Velasco was dubbed a 'heArtist' because his works are poignant images of reality.  The stories in his book are exactly like his paintings.  

I chose this story because there is nothing in this story that showcases love.  It is a showcase of the absence of it.  This is very different from most stories in this blog because it is real.  It is hardly uplifting.
Love is a beautiful emotion that enables us to feel the joys and the pains of the ones we love.  Thus, one aspect of love is compassion. 

This story was written to awaken our compassion for others, by painting a picture of a world without it.  

In this entry, I have only posted English translations of the boy's interview.  I modified them slightly because the English translations in the book don't always seem correct.  I removed some of the commentaries, which I felt detracted from Itok's tale as well.  The beginning of the story is from the start of the chapter.  It gives us a setting and context.  As you read, keep in mind that this is the interview of a child.  A boy child who has not even experienced his puberty growth spurt. I do hope you will read it to the end. - paris

"Putang ina mo!" (Literally, "Your mother's a whore!") Linda yelled at her son Itok.

"Eh di Nanay...puta ka pala?" ("Then Mother... you're a whore?")  he brutally barked back at his mother.

Striking a raw nerve, his mother grabbed Itok by the hair and they wrestled like animals until she pinned him down.. Raging with anger, she challenged him to repeat.

"What was that?"

"Aren't you my mother?...You said putang ina mo, then you're a whore. You were the one who said that, weren't you?" the boy snorted back.

This was the exchange that transpired between mother and her 11-year old son before Itok was wrung in chains in their house.  It was a show of force by a desperate mother in her desire to transform him before he becomes the next-generation criminal of Metro Manila.  Rage filled the house.  Broken glass.  Broken dreams...

A year ago, Itok was my model for the glutton boy who was right next to Christ.  He didn't have to act or play that part because he only had to be himself.  He was literally so hungry that time that he didn't care about what was happening around him.  He didn't know all along that it was just a role and that they were posing for a modern Last Supper in the slums.  I wasn't able to talk to him at all too because I was so preoccupied with the total composition and balance of the figures plus the alert capturing of the expressions on their faces.  It was as if we were doing a million-dollar production of Les Miserables.  I served them all-you-can-eat "Lucky Me" pancit canton and bottomless juice prepared by my cook Cecille.  We set the table which was made of scrap wood palette and let it stand on empty drums and other improvised materials like second hand tires.  We used the old dented aluminum casseroles and pots to give a semblance of a poor people's dinner.  All these were unnoticed by Itok because he was too engrossed with satisfying his hunger.  In my few glances at him, I saw him literally devouring the food.  He just swallowed it like an empty gas tank being loaded with crude oil.  After his amplified burps, he wiped his face in the same manner as he would wipe the windshields of cars during traffic.

Mustering quite a great deal of courage, I tore off to the cage-like house of Itok one day.  They said it was a rough and dirty place.  Thugs really looked mean.  Their place was called 'La Dakila' (the honorable).  Contrary to its name, it was the hub of villains and murderous gangs that the police or politicians hire for a delicate job they code as "operation".

Estokwa, Itok's 23-year old uncle who was a scavenger, guided me to the house of terror.  Before my very eyes, I couldn't believe such a gruesome sight.  With both hands shackled in a door chain, this little child Itok was growling and gawking like a young captured lion possessed by an evil spirit.  He was salivating and his red eyes were sharply piercing through.  There was not a single tear in those brave eyes.  His hands and wrists were bleeding and his fists where clenched in fury.  It just made me sick to my stomach to know the cruelty he had gone through.

I begged her, whom Estokwa called 'Hitler', to release her son.  It was her only known form of discipline for a son who got involved early in robbery.  According to his mother, he got hooked with three firends and was detained in the local station a couple of months ago, but he was able to escape twice using a hair pin and 'fluid'.  He feared nothing on this earth.  Recently, his mother was able to prevent him from another imminent detention due to alleged stealing of six sacks of palette wood from an abandoned warehouse a few nights back.

"That animal of a whore's child has a hard head...!" The mother cried while unshackling the chains entangling her son's widespread hands.  She narrated to me how her son often got involved in perilous affairs.  His group became well known for the juvenile violence in their place.

"You don't do anything besides playing bingo and tong-its (a card game) all day... Father, meanwhile, acts as if he always has boils under his feet." Itok retorted like a hungry Rottweiler.

"What's your name again?" I verified calmly.

"Itok. Itok Garganera po." ('po' is a word in Filipino often used to show respect.  Itok does not use this when speaking to his mother, but in fact uses it frequently when addressing Joey Velasco.)

"His real name's Jessie," Estokwa said.

"What happened to him?"

"It's because of one of our companions here, Simon.  He invited my nephew, then they enjoyed it... they were caught stealing palettes.  Thre sacks of palettes.  Itok was almost sent to jail."

I would like to believe that this very young child was hardened by the violence around him and by the events that transpired in his every day life.  A boy fails to see rightly because of a clouded mind and a huge pile of life's bruises and ugliness.  While walking towards the street corner to buy squid balls (flavored flour balls which are sold as street food), we were calming down after he had been tied up like an animal.  Itok hopped so nonchalantly like a freed slave.

Itok started telling his own piece of story.

"I trade junk.  

"I started when I was 8. 

"My parents do not have work.  My mother drinks and gambles.  Tong-its (a card game) and bingo.  

"I'm the second among five.  I'm the only one who works.  

"By morning, I am walking to Payatas; then I scavenge. I don't even get to eat breakfast anymore.  At night, I collect stuff from the garbage until nine o'clock (PM). I wake up at five o'clock (AM)."

"What is your ambition in life?"

"I want to be a lawyer so that I can help... it seems Jesus did not make us equally."

"Do you go to school?"

"I should be in grade 5. I'm sad because my life now is difficult.  I force myself to work so that we would have something to eat.  If I don't work, I am hit with a 2x2 [piece of wood], sometimes with wire.  Cut  wires.  Sometimes I get cut, sometimes not."

"How much do you earn?"

"In one day, I earn 80 pesos.

"I buy half a kilo of rice.  Sometimes, sweet potato with sugar will be our viand."

He spoke fast with his mouth filled with a herd of fish balls wrestling against each other mixed with an ocean of hot sauce and flour.

"I use a kariton (a wooden cart). Sometimes, I can't find anything.  I exert more effort at night if I can't find anything in the morning; I collect stuff from the garbage.  Sometimes, I get caught.  I am imprisoned for two days.  I've been in jail a number of times."

It has always annoyed me to talk to people who sprinkle me with saliva as they spoke.  This time, it was really worse.  He was narrating his life while he picked his nose two inches deep as if extracting a slug of a .45 caliber form the cut of a soldier fatally wounded in battle.  He didn't care if he damaged his blood vessels inside his double barreled nose with his claws just to pull out those calcified plaques.  When he failed, he applied pressure by covering one of the barrels, and like a cannon would throw a solid mass faster than the speed of light.  I thought his brains were spattered out too.

What do you do in jail?

"The other prisoners talk to me.  They punch me. The bump my face [against objects] and then make me eat cockroaches.

"They held me and crushed my hand.  Don't you steal anything, they said.  They even tried to rape my butt.  It's a good thing that I shouted.  Then the police came."

He spoke with so much fury and anger, his eyes sharply piercing through again.  In his young age, he was fluent with the street lingo.  His body movement spoke like that of a bull fighter as though he wanted to strangulate a foe.

"Some of those I go with snatch (steal by snatching). Many of us here at La Dakila have parents who dispatch jeeps.

"When I am in prison, the police hurt me.  Most of the time, we go to sleep starving.  I pray at night saying that I wish He would take is so difficult."

He cried profusely and found it hard to breathe.  I began to realize that "the warrior was a child..."

"All my siblings have defects.  One of my siblings, my older brother, has a head that grows in size, Rudolph, on the other hand, was run over, he can't walk.  Ryan, meanwhile, was born without an anus.  His feces come out of his stomach.  His stomach was operated on.  Then my youngest sibling, Neneng, fell into the toilet bowl. She was affected between the legs. A vein was pinched.  She is able to walk now. Limping.

"I steal from junk shops.  I steal metals.  Sometimes I get caught by the owner of the junk shop over there, outside of Payatas.  Sometimes, I reach San Mateo.  Heat, rain, I've even been hit by a jeep.  I even have stitches on my stomach.  Video karera and basketball are my father's games.  He beats me powerfully.  I have a cut on my head.  I was hit by the metal [buckle] of the belt by my father."

He has some nerve to beat you up, doesn't he?

"One time he was going to cut my finger with pliers.  Crush it.  Especially when we tried to open the video karera.  He locked me inside the man's video karera.  One time he was going to drown me in the drum [of water].  That was when I was with them in front of the apartelle."

He picked up a sharp stick from the plastic container and started piercing the bloated deep-fried fish balls himself again as if catching small fish from the river.  He ate eight sticks in all.  He asked me if the interview was over so that he could leave with his uncle for a second junk hunting round.  It was dark when we parted. I gave him some money and he grabbed it with his sticky hand.  I was left with the vendor to settle the payment.

"Do you know him?  Why did you talk to him?" Inquired the fish ball man who was computing silently the amount I was supposed to pay.

"No reason. I just wanted to know about his life.  He was punished by his parents earlier, that's why he was sweating profusely." I casually replied.

"He's the terror amongst the children here.  This is the only time his mother got angry with him because he was almost jailed again.  Usually, his mother is on his side."

"Ha?... Looks like you know very well?"

"He's very famous here, that Itok.  At a very young age, he's already pushing drugs.  Only eleven years old.  His father's a former policeman.  He learned to handle money.  He's really anxious to get a hold of money.  He's been caught and jailed a number of times.  We're surprised because even the padlock of his cell, he can open.  The padlock of the jewelry shop, he can open.  He's merciless, that child.  The jeep of the councilman here, he can open.  If he sees coins in a car expect it.  If he passes by there, those coins will disappear, he will lift them from the car.  He always carries some wire, that boy, a hairpin.  There are stories in the city that he broke into a jewelry shop.  He didn't get any gold.  Cash, he got a lot.  Even the combination padlocks, he knows how to open. He's a smart boy.  Then the big padlocks, he knows how to make them explode.  They just put fluid in and light it up and it opens by itself.  Even if he's jailed, he escapes.  He scavenges, as well.  The guards don't let them into the subdivisions.  He just needs to move a bit and he's already inside.  That boy's amazing.  He has really quick hands, that boy."

"Do you think he still has a chance?"

He answered like a sage.  "It depends on how life goes, whether that boy has a chance.  That boy is something else.  He messes with cigarettes, alcohol, money, he takes them all.  Eggs.  The next day, they sell those at another store.  One time they were caught inside a store, they were eating inside.  They've taken a liking to that.  He'll become a hoodlum when he grows up.  Certainly."

"He climbs to the top of electric posts and cutes even live [electric cables].  The wires explode.  They cut the wires and sell the copper of the wire."

After giving me the change, the vendor walked away tired with a few pieces of the uncooked squid balls and quikiam left in his plastic bag.  He was whistling with contentment for a full day's work.

It was an exhausting experience to witness the unimaginable harsh and bitter existence of a boy.  It was a depressing sight.  To enter a place which was like hell's gate, was an easier task than to enter a hardened boy's heart.  Any ounce of optimism will easily be waned.  I was vexed with some questions that nagged my mind.  Could he have been an outstanding student if he were in school?  If he was at La Salle Greenhills or Xavier, could he have been good in Math?  With his strength and agility, could he have been a varsity player? If he was fed with Promil when he was a baby, could he have been a gifted child?  A wonder kid?  This mirage is just part of wishful thinking.  We all know that it is not reality...because he was born poor.

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