There was once a boy who roamed the streets of Quezon City and he had no name. Or better perhaps to say that his parents had not given him a name yet. He was seven, maybe six. He did not have a birth certificate or a baptismal record, and so in the eyes of the state and of god, he practically did not exist.
Except he did. I heard about him through my college roommate N who, at that time, was working as an actress in a play written by my former editor M. It was M who actually met the boy.
“How does that work?” I asked N. “How can someone not have a name?”
N shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe he responds to ‘psst’ or ‘huy’ or to—” she said, then she raised her right hand, palm faced down, and repeatedly folded her wrist down and back.
“Weird,” I said. “How did M meet this boy again?”
“So M hailed a jeep from UP to SM North…”
Traffic moved at a snail’s pace on the day M met the boy. Something big happened, and it was big enough that it drew media attention and later landed on the evening news.
I no longer recall what the incident was. It was probably a medical mission sponsored by a nontrinitarian church, or maybe it was a former president’s sudden confinement to Veterans Memorial Medical Center. Whatever the culprit was, it paralyzed the busiest quadrant of the QC Circle and squeezed all vehicular movement into a single lane along the curve that connects Commonwealth and North Ave.
The jeep that M was riding crawled at a rate of 2 kendeng per minute. One by one, the passengers alighted and looked for alternative routes. Impatience hung heavy in the thick humid air. M herself considered joining the exodus but, before she could make a decision, three dark-skinned boys with deep brown hair boarded the jeep and caught her attention.
The boys started rubbing shabby rags against the dusty feet of the passengers. They waited for alms in return but all they got was awkwardly feigned indifference. A few more people got off the jeep but the boys stayed, and so did M.
The three young lads sat close to the jeep’s entrance, a temporary respite from the scalding heat of direct sunlight. The driver did not bother telling them to leave — manong probably had other concerns in mind — and it was then when M took the opportunity to talk to the boys.
The details of how M initiated the conversation was never relayed to me, although the idea of her talking to random strangers was not unimaginable. M was many things — a writer, a photographer, a traveler — but, most importantly, she was a city girl. She was comfortable hopping between jeeps and trains and buses, and she could always ask her way around the city if she ever got lost in an unfamiliar street with no money, no phone, no nothing. She could even get a stranger to bum her a cigarette while she’s at it.
In any case, M struck a chat with the kids and asked the age-old question: “Anong pangalan n’yo?”
Two of the boys had names, but the third boy had a unique answer: “Wala po akong pangalan.”
M prodded further. Wala kang pangalan? Anong tawag sa ‘yo ng mga magulang mo? Paano sa eskwela, ano sinusulat mo sa test paper? Hindi ka pa nag-aaral?
I could only guess how their conversation went exactly. The bits and pieces that I was told lacked the granularity of firsthand experience, but they were crisp and resonant enough to have stayed with me — to have clung to my memory like how strands of hair cling to every possible surface in my apartment — nearly a decade later after I first heard the story.
M learned that the boys belonged to a Badjao tribe from Sulu. When the boys were just babies, their parents were forced to leave their homes because of the war between the military and the Moro secessionists.
This part of the story was not unfamiliar to me. When I was a kid, I was made aware of the all-out war that Erap waged against the MILF. I knew that this conflict had persisted even after Erap was impeached, and I also knew that the ongoing dispute had consistently forced indigenous peoples to migrate to neighbouring territories.
A Badjao community even reached my hometown in Bicol, a 1,500-kilometer distance away from Sulu with no direct route by land. I remember wondering why of all the places in town where the Badjao could set up camp — the basketball court, the parish church, the covered stage — they decided to take refuge beside the grand fountain in front of the munisipyo.
It didn’t take long before they left. Years later, I learned that the Badjao were sea-dwellers. They naturally gravitate towards bodies of water, and their livelihoods and social customs are shaped and moulded by their affinity to the sea.
The boys explained to M that, back in the South, every child in their community was named through a race. Every time a child was born, the tribe leader would take the infant and sail on a raft away from the shore. Everyone would patiently watch as the leader cruised to the middle of the sea. Once the leader found a spot, he would drop the crying infant into the water, and all the male members of the tribe would swim and race to save the baby. Whoever could fish the baby out of the water first would earn the right to name the kid.
On the day the nameless boy was born, a bloody encounter ensued between the rebels and the army. The gunfight was too close to the boys’ homes, and the entire tribe had no other choice but to scamper and flee in different directions. They never got the chance to hold the race and name the newborn.
The boys had no idea how their families travelled from Sulu to QC. One of them said that their parents just hopped on a strangers’ truck, which brought them to a boat, which eventually took them to the big city. Another surmised that their parents swam tirelessly from one island to the next looking for the best place in which to settle. The elders wrapped the young ones tightly on their backs when they swam, but the kids grew up and were eventually too heavy to carry. At some point, their only reasonable option was to stay.
Either way, the boys were not certain. They were babies then, and they were all too young to remember, much less understand, the conflict that brought them to where they were at that moment: in a jeep wiping other people’s feet, begging for coins, and explaining to a stranger how one of them, however uncanny it seemed, simply did not have a name.
“Pa‘no ‘yan?” M asked the boy. “Ngayong taga-rito ka na, hindi ka na talaga magkakapangalan?”
“Magkakapangalan pa po,” the boy said.
“Darating din po ang dagat.”
M never saw the boys again after that day. A part of me wondered if M just made up the story — she was a writer, after all — but a bigger part of me knew that stories of displacement, especially among indigenous peoples, were no fabrication.
“Maybe those kids react differently to storms and floods, ‘no?” N said. “Whenever the city is submerged in water, maybe they think it’s the sea paying them a visit.”
“Maybe,” I said. I imagined the kids swimming gleefully in tubig-baha, their mothers standing atop rusty iron roofs as their fathers swim around floating cabinets, plastic bottles, and soiled diapers, racing to name the boy.
The boy must be in his late teens by now. Has he gotten a name already? What about his friends, are they doing okay? How are their families faring during the pandemic? What about the drug war?
When 17-year old student Kian delos Santos was shot by cops in 2017, I thought of the boy and wondered if he and his friends had suffered the same fate. What name did they write on the police report? Did anyone bother to report the case at all? How do you trace the life of someone nameless in a society obsessed with identities? How do they tell their stories?
Recently, I thought of the boy again after I heard about the “Bloody Sunday” incident when nine activists were murdered by police officers in the CALABARZON region. Two of those killed were members of the Dumagat tribe, another sea-faring people from the Visayas. Two others were fisherfolk from the Ugnayan ng Mamamayan Laban sa Pagwawasak ng Kalikasan at Kalupaan. Parents Chai and Ariel Evangelista were survived by their 10-year old kid, a boy who, by virtue of being a minor, remain nameless in most news outlets.
Every day the numbers grow. Numerous victims of injustice remain unnamed, undocumented, and unreported. More and more kids grow up without names, without parents, without homes. Some of them have already lost their lives, and many will continue to bear the brunt of all forms of violence and neglect.
The boy was right: darating din ang dagat. There is an inevitable end to all of this, and we will bring the children the Sea if needed. They deserve a better world than this.
Featured photo from Unsplash