Family, A Mirror to What Could Have Been…

by alex

My god-daughter and I in Quiapo, near where my fam has different streetstalls.

One of the great things about coming home to the Philippines is being with family.  It’s a joy to have that connection with another part of yourself when you meet others of your blood, those who never migrated.

One question I hope to explore in this project is “what if?”  What if my family had not moved to Canada?  What if I had grown up in Manila?

What would my life be like here?

Family provides me that mirror.  And on some levels it leaves me awash in different emotions.

You can see here in these photos images from where some members of my family live.  Clearly, my life would be much different had we stayed.

I took Vince and Dyan (a friend from Toronto who is currently in the Philippines interning with the Philippine Inquirer, a major newspaper) to visit some family in Quiapo.  They come from different family backgrounds, and for both, this was their first experience with the lives and living spaces of the common working class Manileño.

A bunch of family live in that building behind Vince and Dyan.

We dropped by and instantly they had someone off and running to buy halo-halo from a street vendor. I'm proud of both Vince and Dyan for accepting it (I know how freaked out most Westerners are by mystery water and ice!). -photo by a.felipe-

I remember my first time back and realized that my family really were living the difficult lives my parents used to tell me about when I was a kid and being a little ungrateful.  I used to think it was just a scare story far removed from my reality—like when parents tell their kids to finish their food because there were starving kids in Africa.

This truth has shaped my worldview considerably.

The place you see in the photos above and below is next to still water, waterways left over from the days when Manila was a city of canals.  The first time I visited I remember having the smell of the water, sewage really, hit me hard.  It was better this time around–probably because the flooding that came with Typhoon Ondoy.

I'm shooting this from the balcony seen in the photo above, and in the distance in the photo above that.

Speaking of the typhoon, my fam here were relatively lucky, the flooding in this area was only waist deep (at street level).  My Tito Sonny’s house in Bulacan was completely washed away, along with their very simple car (the jeep-like vehicles called ‘Owners’ here).  Now the family of six lives in a single room (about 4×4 metres), in a shared house in Quiapo (seen below).  They live on the upper floor and share the kitchen and bathroom with three other families.

My Tito's family lives in that room on the second floor directly in the centre of the photo. (photo by v.galvez)

Who I am today grew out these realities.  What I care about and what seems important to me all come from this as one primary source.

I often wish others could understand this reality too.  Because it’s a similar story for so many other urban residents of Manila.  I often think the city and the country would be a better place if we could just try to see things from the point of view of the common people–but not from a perspective of sympathy and charity, but to see their strength and how their situation is the result of the improper governance of the Philippines, and the continuing exploitation by those (people, corporations, and nations) who have more and should know better.

Maybe then the question can change from “What would I have been?” to “What will I be ?”



  1. Wow.

  2. Amazing! Love to go with you if we’re ever in Manila at the same time, man. So different from my family (which you should come see too next time).

    I wanna hear what Vince thinks.. and also your impressions of Vince’s fam’s place.

    So interesting to hear about the places where our families live, all different looks.

    • The family impressions are coming Len, just putting it together with a bunch of other family stuff.

      • Nice man!

        I’d be interested to see how the Galvez fam in Bataan lives.

  3. Len: any time man, just swing by!

  4. I am so homesick!! Your pictures are great!

  5. Love what you’re doing, guys 🙂
    I’m there the last 2 weeks of April, let’s go for halo-halo!

  6. Kate: Is this Kate Delmo? if not which Kate? In any case lets hang out!

    • Kate Delmo indeed! lets!

      • Hi Kate! Musta na dyan sa frozen-land?

  7. I have never been in a place like that in the Philippines, or anywhere else. I have to admit, my initial discomfort. The germ-a-phobe in me was sending off blaring alarm bells in my mind as we were coming in.

    But I instantly calmed down when we entered their home. It was like any other Filipino home, clean, inviting, ASAP playing in the background, and Alex’s Lola just hanging out. Soon we were told that Alex’s aunt was off getting everyone Halo-Halo and a quick hello turned into a warm welcome. Vince and I were strangers to them, but they shared with us hospitality given to family, whether it was the best thing for them or not, given their limited resources.

    I will always remember that day. The sights and smells outside of their home would have faded in my memory if not for Alex’s pictures. What will remain is the kindness they showed, and the knowledge that inside every house like that I pass, and often turn away from, is a family’s home which may not be so different from my own. I have a deeper appreciation for all that has been given to me and a way of life I should never take for granted.

    • Thanks for this comment Dyan! I’m so glad you guys were cool with everything that day. I think one of the first things you’ll notice when really getting to know less well-off areas is that inside the homes they are very clean, and the outsides usually smell like laundry.

      If you’re interested I can hook you up with people/orgs that can bring you further into that world–this might be useful for a story, or maybe even if you want to volunteer somehow…

      • Man, that’s amazing — Dyan’s comment is exactly what I wanted to hear – honest observations and all. Experiences like that and vice-versa are what we need to break down walls.

        Alex, I wonder if you’ll feel queasy also if you went to visit someone’s mansion in Alabang or something? Do you think?

        Man, that’s a project in itself — trading places, Philippines style.

  8. i like this post, alex. thanks for showing us the images of what it’s like inside the slums of manila. you have shown the humanity and hospitality of people who live below the poverty line, things that people tend/ prefer not to think about because it’s not pretty and doesn’t feel comfortable to be faced with poverty. thanks.

    • Thanks Bombes. Keep in mind though that this isn’t quite the worst of the ‘slums,’ and my relatives may be offended by your calling it that. These are working class homes of people with their own businesses (streetstalls).

      Hold on, we’ll be showing you the full-on urban poor soon…

  9. I used to live in an area like this in highschool when I was around 12 – 13 years old together with my elder sister. We were two “probinsyana” teenagers moving to the city to attend highschool. We rented a room and included in that room are our other friends/enemie: RATS. They were all over, they would always come at night to visit us. They would always keep us awake at night. We had a kerosene-stove, a small radio (our only form of entertainment), a small folding bed (so small that my sister and I would sleep with our heads on the opposite ends. I always hit her in the face. LOL) and a “balikbayan” box as our dinner table.

    Sure, I was scared at first because I didn’t know my way around the city. But slowly, I got used to it. One step can lead to the other. All you need to do is take that first step. 🙂

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