What it’s like living inside Manila North Cemetery

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Inside the Manila North Cemetery, the living and the dead have coexisted for years. For those who have made cemetery grounds their homes, what does life look like? Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Along the sidewalk of Manila North Cemetery are white chrysanthemum flowers and red roses stacked in black plastic buckets, under a makeshift flower stand made of galvanized iron and thick wooden strips. “Sa amo ko ‘yan,” says Mae Ann Baluyot, while pointing towards the blooms she sells. “Nung nandito pa ‘yung asawa ko, nagtitinda kami ng basahan, eh ngayon, nag-babakasyon siya … nakakulong,” she adds, laughing.

Originally from Bagong Silang in Caloocan, she moved to live in Manila North three years ago to be with her husband who was born and raised inside the cemetery grounds. Baluyot’s family is one of the approximately 10,000 informal settlers who reside in the 54-hectare cemetery: a piece of land owned by the City of Manila, swarming with intricately designed crypts, pastel-colored tombs, improvised food carts, an abundance of children jumping from one mausoleum roof to another, and filled with the noise of tricycle engines that never seem to stop.

While this hidden 'barangay' brims with activity and life, Manila North has also seen its residents shot to their death, a supposed consequence of President Duterte’s war on drugs. On July, Baluyot’s husband was one of the informal settlers allegedly caught using shabu (methamphetamine) during one of the police’s anti-crime operations called Oplan Galugad.

“Nung nandito pa ‘yung asawa ko, nagtitinda kami ng basahan, eh ngayon, nag-babakasyon siya … nakakulong,” says Mae Anne Baluyot, a resident of Manila North Cemetery, who lives on top of one of the mausoleums. Photo by JL JAVIER

“‘Pag sinabing Oplan Galugad, ‘yan na yan. Hahanapin nila ‘yung mga lalaki dito tapos ‘pag nakukuha … lalagyan ng basura ‘yung bulsa para kunyari nag-dru-drugs. Sa asawa ko, ganon ginawa eh, nilagyan ng basura 'yung bulsa,” she shares, noting that ‘basura’ is the term people in the cemetery use as codename for methamphetamine.

She, however, quickly adds that her husband does snort meth, but not at that time he was caught. “Pinag-aawayan din naman kasi namin ‘yan ... ‘Di ko alam kung kailan makakalaya, wala akong pampyansa eh,” she says, adding that she can’t possibly find ₱40,000 in her lifetime, so her husband may as well stay in prison.

Further down the sidewalk is another vendor and cemetery dweller, Adenita Benavidez, who sells junk food and soft drinks in her small, make-do store in front of a gray pebbledash mausoleum she and her husband have inhabited for 25 years.

Benavidez is an education graduate who used to be a teacher in Masbate. She left her province to try to earn more money in Manila, met her husband while working at the Manila City Hall, lived in what is now the Manila North Green Park (a private cemetery that boasts of its ’24-hour security,’ ‘ample candle light areas,’ and ‘relaxing ambience and greenery’), and ended up in Manila North after their house in Green Park was demolished.

Adenita Benavidez, a vendor and a cemetery dweller, sells junk food and soft drinks in her small, make-do store in front of a gray pebbledash mausoleum she and her husband have inhabited for 25 years. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Para akong na-shock kasi siyempre ‘yung naipon mong kaunti na pera pinagawa mo ng bahay tapos biglang naglaho lang, nawala. May mga bahay kami talaga diyan pinasemento namin, hindi naman namin akalain na ibebenta ni [former Manila Mayor] Atienza ‘yan,” she says.

Benavidez’s family has a house in Cavite, but she says it’s not an option for them to live in the province since she still sends her three grandchildren to school, and Manila is where their income is more stable.

“So ngayon dito na nga, dito na nga kami nakatira … Libo ang ginagastos namin dito para magpalinis diyan,” she says of the money she spends for the maintenance of the marble-tiled mausoleum, especially since the owner regularly visits this gravesite and is making them live there for free. “Kung mabait ‘wag natin samantalahin, kailangan may give and take naman tayo ... Hindi naman sila naghihingi, ako na ang kusa,” she adds.

Susan and Nestor Mandane, also residents of the cemetery, live in a similar gray roughcast mausoleum. But unlike Benavidez whose area is regularly checked by the owner, the mausoleum where the Mandane family resides has never been visited. Susan says that it’s easier that the owners never bother to do so, as they were somehow able to live in their own terms: they were able to build a sari-sari store without anyone’s consent and also have their tricycle parked in their ‘front yard’ without anyone complaining.

Susan and Nestor Mandane are both from Bulacan and Bicol respectively, but they moved to Manila to look for jobs. To reduce living costs, Nestor urged his wife to live inside the cemetery where rent is free. Photo by JL JAVIER

Susan says that it is through these livelihoods that they were able to send one of their children to study at a private school. “Nakapundar na kami ng tricycle, may tricycle na kaming sarili. ‘Yung anak ko, pinag-aaral ko na sa private [dahil dito] at sa trabaho [ng asawa ko],” she says.

Nestor works for the Parks Development Office of Manila, and has been in a contractual setup since 1990. “Marami akong napasukang trabaho. Naging tindero ng mga gulay sa palengke, sa construction … J.O. [Job Order] lang ako ngayon, mula pa nung 1990. 1990 ako pumasok, hanggang ngayon J.O. parin … parang contractual lang kumbaga,” he says.

Susan says that even if she’s not entirely thrilled to be living with the dead, her husband’s insistence to live inside the cemetery, so they could reduce their day-to-day costs, makes more sense. “Sabi niya, mahal mangupahan, saka ano, mahal din ang tubig, ilaw, kaya [dito] nalang tayo sa sementeryo.”

As one of the oldest cemeteries in the Philippines, Manila North Cemetery displays the architectural styles of mausoleums and headstones that not only speak of our colored historical influences, but also shows a certain extravagance — one which contradicts with the pungent smell of shantytowns circling marble tombs, art-deco mausoleums, and memorial places of some of the most iconic names in entertainment (Fernando Poe, Jr.) and politics (presidents Ramon Magsaysay, Sergio Osmeña, and Manuel Roxas).

The roundabout where Roxas’ black granite tomb lies is guarded by a 71-year-old caretaker, Elpidio Rafon. He covers his right ear with a rubber key holder while speaking, as he recently went deaf (blaming this unfortunate event to one of his neighbors he had a fight with — “Pinabarang ako, kaya ayan nasira tenga ko.")

His family was renting a place in a squatters area in Caloocan in 1964, but due to recurring financial hardships, they moved to Manila North Cemetery — it’s free and it’s relatively ‘safe’ because it is within a gated community, he says. Rafon has been cleaning graveyards and digging graves for when there are funerals ever since. With every story, he inserts his fondness of the Roxas family, who helped his daughter finish school.

“Nung last term [ng anak ko], humina na ‘yung kita ko, nag-lakas kami ng loob kay Judy Araneta-Roxas [Mar Roxas’ mother],” he says. His daughter went on to finish two degrees: one in nursing and another in business management. Rafon also recounts a time when he had another violent encounter with a neighbor who he said was stealing various things from the community, and the Roxas family also came to his aid. “Dinemanda ako ng pinalo kong tao. Tinulungan ako ni Mrs. Roxas … Pumunta ako sa opisina nila dun sa Cubao, humingi ako ng request na sana tulungan ako na ganon ‘yung nangyari,” he says.

The roundabout where President Roxas’ black granite tomb lies is guarded by a 71-year-old caretaker, Elpidio Rafon. Photo by JL JAVIER

Rafon adds that he did everything he could to protect his children, even hiring tricycles to fetch them to and from school, even it meant he needed to work ten times as hard to provide this ‘luxury.' He was protective because he says the cemetery is replete with thieves and drug addicts. “Katakot-takot ‘yung mga magnanakaw dito. Pati ‘yung mga shabu shabu,” he shares, hinting that one of the streets that extend from the Roxas roundabout is a breeding ground of meth users.

In 29th street, which is ‘filled with drug users’ according to Rafon, several children wearing worn-out rubber slippers are running around. Women in tank tops are gossiping while sipping soda poured in plastic, and men in jersey shorts are cleaning tombs or mixing sand and water to make cement. One of the men busy at work is Von [full name not disclosed], a 33-year-old construction worker with dyed hair, who has lived inside the cemetery all his life. He stopped school after realizing he earns more while working in Manila North. He also tried a couple of construction jobs outside, but he says he’d rather work inside the cemetery as he earns more (he gets ₱600 compared to his daily wage outside, which is usually at ₱550 or less).

Near the mausoleum he is paid to refurbish is a bust sculpture of Duterte. “Hinulma ko ‘yung mukha ni Duterte kasi siyempre alam mo namang idol natin 'yun eh,” he says, as he clenches his right fist. In what seems like a sudden epiphany, he adds: “Binoto ko ‘yun, ang problema lang sumobra siya sa pwersa. Ginawa niyang kamay na bakal eh … dapat kahit na papano, hindi niya dapat pinapatay diba? Kinukulong niya. Dito sa amin, maraming tinumba ‘yung mga pulis.”

Von, shaking his head, says that some of those killed were people he grew up with. “‘Yung iba pinagkamalan, ‘yung iba totoo. ‘Yung problema lang hindi nila actual na nahuli. ‘Yung mga nahuling drug lord eh puro buhay pero ‘yung mga pinapatay, mga wala, kung sino-sino lang,” he shares.

“Hinulma ko ‘yung mukha ni Duterte kasi siyempre alam mo namang idol natin 'yun eh,” Von says of the bust sculpture he made of the president. “Binoto ko ‘yun, ang problema lang sumobra siya sa pwersa … dapat kahit na papano, hindi niya dapat pinapatay diba? Kinukulong niya. Dito sa amin, maraming tinumba ‘yung mga pulis." Photo by JL JAVIER

When asked if he has also used drugs himself, he immediately answers without a hint of hesitation: “Dati, halos minu-minuto.” He liked how meth usually made him forget his problems, how the high made him concentrate more at work, and how he never felt exhausted even if he spent his day making cement, cleaning graves, or carrying caskets. He also likens his drug usage to taking vitamins, one that makes him stronger, and to some extent, more sane.

“Kasi ‘yung iba nagte-take ng ganon, naprapraning, titira ng titira tapos di kakain … [Para sa akin] parang vitamins lang sa katawan. Kung wala kang vitamins, diba matamlay ka? Parang ganon lang,” he explains, as the other men and adolescent boys surrounding him laughs at this comparison. He says he used to buy them for ₱200 per 0.1 gram, but now it costs around ₱500. But it isn’t the increase in price that urged him to stop. “Mula nung nag-uso ‘yung tokhang, ‘yung patayan dito, ‘yun, ‘dun na namin iniwasan ‘yan.”

While he admits that there are a lot of drug users inside the cemetery and that he knows he may be caught for having been a drug user before, he says he’s not afraid to meet his fate. “Malapit ako sa Diyos, ‘di ako natatakot mamatay,” he says. “Once na mangyari ‘yun, handa naman ako kasi meron na akong nitso diyan,” he laughs, as he points to a burial space from a far-off distance, lying in an over a century-old cemetery, where some of the poorest of the living try to make a life.