Vilma clocks out of her barangay tanod duties at 5 am one Monday morning, only to be called back to duty a little past eight.
“Give me just a few minutes to bathe and change my clothes,” her trademark hoarse voice says on the other end of the line to some researchers who had sought her help a few days before. They had requested her to guide them around the flood-prone barangay north of the metro so they could interview families and other stakeholders there. An earlier team had evaluated whether the flood control project had been effective in minimizing the amount of flooding every year.
True enough, Vilma emerges on the street a half-hour later, wearing no trace of the fact that she had barely had a shuteye. Instead, she waves to the researchers like they were old friends, telling them to give her a few more minutes so she could finish her cigarette.
“I managed to sleep an hour or two,” she assures them. “That’s what work is like. You make sacrifices.” Vilma is a woman with curly, highlighted hair with a slingbag perpetually draped across her chest. She always wears lipstick. And a smile. “You never know when you will meet Mr. Right,” she says.
She talks freely about how her husband had left her for another woman, leaving her to take care of and support their four young children. “That’s the problem with handsome men; they’re always on the lookout.” But she has gotten over that dark episode and focuses instead on making ends meet. Her youngest is now 20.
One of the ways by which she struggles to do that, aside from working in local government, is by joining contests in noontime shows. Luck struck in 1999, when she joined Pera o Bayong and took home a kitchen and living room showcase as well as P150,000 in cash. She recalls the day the trucks came to deliver the appliances -- all of the neighbors came out of their houses to look.
Vilma’s community is home to an estero which becomes saturated with garbage—the community’s and that of people from higher places. To get to her house, one has to cross the estero from the main road and then get through a narrow winding path among other houses densely packed.
“It’s not as high as it used to be,” she explains about her house. “When I get a windfall I will have this fixed. I’ll add a few steps.”
Then and now, flooding has been at the backdrop of her life. She and her neighbors have learned to live with the ebb and flow—until 2009, when Ondoy brought unprecedented rain and flooding, causing the water to go beyond six feet. This was higher that any that Vilma has ever experienced in her 25 years in the community.
Ondoy also washed out every single item she had won at the noontime show. “It was painful, but what can you do? Everybody else suffered too.”
Vilma used to work at the mayor’s office, until politics reared its ugly head. Her gregarious nature made her an asset to any campaign, and her boss’ political enemies tried their best to intimidate her. She decided the anxiety and the risk to her life was not worth it; she went further down the government hierarchy —to the barangay.
And she seems to thrive there. As tanod, she lives alongside those whom she helps lead. She knows their names and circumstances. For example, that morning, there was a coffin and a few candles lit near the estero. “A pity. He was the brother in law of my sister in law. He was a hardworking fellow. Pity his widow, too, they have seven children and the youngest is only five years old.”
But from this compassionate tone, Vilma easily shifts into one of authority as she shoos away some kids who were sitting not on chairs but on tables. “Get down from there! That table property of the barangay! That is worth more than half a lifetime’s salary!”
And when a friend asks her to play cards with them, she looks insulted. “Are you crazy? Can’t you see I am in my tanod’s uniform? I will never dishonor my office. Maybe later, when I get off my shift.” Vilma forgets that she is really supposed to be off hours, because she has completed a full shift just before sunrise.
She smokes again and chatters on about how when she was directing traffic at an intersection, a neighbor who’s mentally ill stood beside her on the middle of the street, naked, and imitated her traffic gestures. Hurriedly, she looked for a tarpaulin and wrapped it around the girl’s body, crossing her fingers that no accidents would occur since she left her post.
Vilma does a good job of engaging the researchers, telling them in front of the camera that the flood guide was how she was able to ascertain her true height. “I’m really 5’4. I wish I were taller,” she says with a laugh. And then she changes demeanor yet again when a young woman runs to the barangay hall with her daughter in tow, complaining about her live-in partner who was high on drugs and who had just slapped her child.
“You sit there and do as I say,” Vilma roars at the man, who does as she says.
“Looks like another long day,” she tells the researchers with a wink.