Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cultural crosses we bear

The quality of life has always been quantified by one’s wealth. This is just how the world works—at least that’s what generations before us have imparted in classrooms and this lesson might be handed down just the same to the next generation after us. There is a truth to this statement which seems to be a continuous validation achieved through countless self-fulfilling prophecies done by the most ambitious, competitive and privileged of people everywhere. The struggle between classes of people is not a new concept, most notably between the rich and the poor that goes back from ancient civilizations. People used to believe that once you are born to poverty then there is no way to reverse that. The only difference now is that this belief has finally been defined more as a social condition attributed to many factors, and that people have also grown less apathetic and passive about the conditions they are born in.

The world has evolved—innovations and progresses of different types can attest to that—but what has yet to evolve is our way of thinking at least in a general standpoint. Now and again people still cling to old systems that have detrimental consequences, and other forms of parasitic practices that only benefit an individual’s ego while others, who are victims of a perpetuating cycle of circumstances, suffer in exchange.

In its publication around the 70’s, Slum as a Way of Life must have been groundbreaking because it was an extensive examination of the lives of people inside a concentrated slum area in Manila. The author F. Landa Jocano not only strived to challenge the way of thinking of the people then, but he also painted readers a most harrowing, poignant and diverse picture of what it truly means to be poor and what is not, and perhaps there have been changes that tipped the scale after its publication. Consider the timeline. The country and its citizens were more adept to learn and discover new explanations on how the world and environments work around them. The book certainly makes an interesting and insightful read because the perspectives are fresh and the readers then are more open to the experience. Consider the time students of my age or of this generation now live in. Young people are once again more comfortable about the situations they are born to, no matter how bad. Unconsciously, especially when they come from middle-class backgrounds, they see poverty not as an ailment but as an inevitable product of the modernization. Young people could skim through the pages of this book and arrive to the brilliant inquiry of “And so what?” because it really doesn’t concern them personally if there are people suffering in poverty because the only thing that matters if that they are not one of those people. I suppose I had the same reaction initially, especially when the book began to specify the kind of culture and practices ‘those poor people’ partake in order to live and survive. So yes, thank God indeed that I was born into a capable middle-class family, that I’m studying at a prestigious university, that I have all the means to satiate my needs for food, clothing and shelter, that I can happily type away in this laptop in a well-lit, breezy room while a girl of my age is probably a whore. Thank God indeed. This is the kind of mindset that is fixed and innate among my generation. And it’s not as if we choose to be this horrible. We were automatically conditioned to feel less bad so we can adapt while the poor have learned through a process to feel less good so they can adapt to their situations.

The Philippines is a developing country—that is to say if I want to be sugar-coated about it. The fact is we are still a third-world country and the problems we have are, more often than not, lifestyles we subscribe to readily because it is most convenient. One of them is the culture of poverty. The American anthropologist Oscar Lewis defined it as, “People with a culture of poverty have very little sense of history. They are a marginal people who know only their own troubles, their own local conditions, their own neighborhood, their own way of life. Usually, they have neither the knowledge, the vision nor the ideology to see the similarities between their problems and those of others like themselves elsewhere in the world. In other words, they are not class conscious, although they are very sensitive indeed to status distinctions. When the poor become class conscious or members of trade union organizations, or when they adopt an internationalist outlook on the world they are, in my view, no longer part of the culture of poverty although they may still be desperately poor.”

What I find interesting in this excerpt is how it struck me as a rationalization that wants to justify why poor people remain poor and how the blame never shifts away from them. I agree with Jocano’s statement that their data does not support this view at all. The poor are victims of their own choices because they do not know better. It’s certainly laughable. The statement also makes an excuse for people like us. It would definitely be easier to blame the poor for being poor rather than immerse ourselves into a rude awakening that we enable poverty by being close-minded and selfish. We have the means of education and opportunities and we are obliged to provide these to those who need them. That is not to say that the poor are faultless and neither are we. The phenomena of third-world problems rapidly increase with children and the youth who suffer most.

In reading Jocano’s book, it was like living among the Looban residents as well. That was how his dyadic language was both informative and imaginative. The accounts of the informants are also fascinating, particularly on the sex trade and gang initiations. I was fortunate that my middle-class upbringing has given me opportunities to correct my mistakes of the past but in contrast with the young people in the slum, their own bad habits are easier to break and can have lifelong consequences. Slum as a Way of Life also offered composition tables that were challenging to analyze at first until you have read the research data they were based on. The de-familiarization of Filipino family values are also elaborated on with a brisk accuracy that was enjoyable for me as a reader and student. In a nutshell, the book was a great way to learn about culture as well as the many stigma on poverty.

The quality of life has always been quantified by one’s wealth. This is just how the world works. The struggle between classes of people is not a new concept, most notably between the rich and the. People used to believe that once you are born to poverty then there is no way to reverse that. The world has evolved but what has yet to evolve is our way of thinking. People still cling to old systems while others are victims of a perpetuating cycle of vicious circumstances.