Felix Sarmiento used to be in the movies.
He has appeared alongside Fernando Poe, Jr, the “Philippine Box Office King,” in such films as Sambahin Ang Ngalan Mo (Praise Be Your Name), Ang Maestro, and Tatak ng Alipin (Mark of a Slave). He had screen time in Sunugin Ang Samar (Burn Samar) with Ken Metcalfe, Tigre ng Mindanao (Tiger of Mindanao), Urban Ranger, Maderaso with Ian Veneracion, Diego with Jestoni Alarcon, and Di Pwede ang Hindi Pwede (Not Allowed is Not Allowed) along with Robin Padilla and Vina Morales.
As a stuntman and extra he has starred in well over fifty films (as Alex Sarmiento when credited).
He claims he has even appeared (very briefly) in Chuck Norris’ Delta Force, Hamburger Hill, Missing in Action, and Crossborn Territory.
Today, Felix lives in a shack beside a canal. He is sixty four years old, balding with long white hair and a long white beard.
He ties both in a knot and wears a cap to shield him from the sun when he pushes his cart around the neighbourhood, selling rings, bracelets, and other trinkets. At nearly six feet, he is gaunt, but stands straight, and his eyes twinkle when he talks of his glory days. If you came across him dressed in finer clothes in a more decent environment, one would assume him to be some kind of artist, perhaps a musician or painter.
However Felix, who the people in the neighbourhood have taken to calling Brother Alex, or Balbas (Tagalog for ‘beard’), lives by a canal that is green with slime and dense with shit and garbage. He has been living here since 1967, with the leave of his neighbour, whose boundary wall serves as the sturdiest part of his makeshift shelter. In 2000 he cohabited with Rita Aguirre (59), who also used to work in the film industry.
To get to his shack, one must go down P. Binay street until one reaches the canal bridge.
One must then descend into the canal, cross step a narrow ledge spanning no more than 20 centimetres running along the right side of the canal for a few meters, then step quickly to one’s left onto a bridge that Felix constructed himself from scavenged wood, careful not to fall into the green water below.
The bridge is cluttered with various buckets and receptacles for water. These are for washing and must be hauled everyday from a NAWASA water source a few blocks away.
His other companions are two dogs that are excellent for keeping possible bucket thieves away, and some cats who apparently fear neither dogs nor water, or are too starved to care. Inside, the shack measures no more than two metres across, and about two feet wide. There is a second floor which can be accessed through a ladder, and it here that they sleep. There is no electricity or running water.
For 37 years Felix has lived this way. And even that is stretching the definition of the word. He makes enough money from selling his trinkets and giving reflexology massages (he took a TESDA vocational course he says). Who would want a massage from a toothless hermit who could be harbouring all sorts of diseases, is the question.
Back in the day, when Barangay Pio del Pilar was nothing more than jungle, it was considerably less safe than it is today. Felix said you could hear the sound of guns and panas ringing out throughout the street as the gangs warred, and he had to get a gun to defend himself.
When the canal overflowed, as it regularly does during rainy season–but especially during Ondoy, his shack filled with the sewers’ refuse and was almost swept away by the waters. When he burns with fever, going to a doctor–who will write him a prescription he cannot pay for for medicine he cannot afford–is out of the question.
Felix is not the only squatter in the neighbourhood. There are communities of them in adjacent streets, teeming with naked children and bursting with noise. But Felix and Rita have no children. They are educated, can speak good English, and have a quiet dignity about them, despite living in the most deplorable conditions. They put money away in a card bank, a micro lending setup, which will give Rita something should he die suddenly. Their only misfortune, and Felix says this himself, is that he was born poor.
But things are changing for Felix. The kagawad, the local government of Barangay Pio Del Pilar, is giving them a house in Trece Martires, Cavite. All the squatters in the area are being offered this, along with relocation assistance and an allowance of P5,000 (about 100USD) plus a bag of groceries. He said that the Makati Social Welfare Development Fund of the National Housing Authority has even promised them P18,000 (about USD 400) to get them on their feet. They visited the place a few weeks ago, and they said it was legitimate, and that the houses were there. They had already begun to move their few belongings.
A few weeks later he had dismantled most of his shack. They sound excited. Felix said that if ever this article should get published that I must express his gratitude to Vice President Binay. And P-Noy as well, he begrudgingly added after some thought. A few days later, Rita had already relocated.
Two weeks later, Felix was still in his shack. I asked him why he hadn’t gone yet. “There isn’t any livelihood there,” he said. “My customers are here, the ones who need my reflex massage. And I sell my goods at the nearby public school. There, there is no one. I have no customers.”
Felix says he will construct another shelter elsewhere, once he has dismantled his shack and sold off most of the wood and roofing material for scrap. He will join Rita in Trece Martires eventually, he says, when the time comes and he no longer has the strength to keep living this way.
A month later, Felix’s shack was gone, although oddly enough, he was still there. He had started to camp in a 2 x 2 metre guard house where he cooked during the day, and he disappeared at night. A few days later Rita had returned. He said his nephew had moved into the house in Trece Martires. All day he would sit on a stool in the shade in front of my building. I began to detest his presence. Some of the neighbours had started to tell him off for having the remnants of his shanty–wood he claimed was valuable and that someone was coming to buy–lying on the sidewalk, and that he had occupied public property without any permission. At one point I stopped saying hello.
Author’s note: By coincidence, after interviewing Felix I ran into the Vice President having breakfast in a hole in the wall eatery a few blocks away. I passed on Felix’s message to him, but I think he didn’t hear me.