By Anjo Bagaoisan
For Marlon Mendoza, a walkway over one of Quezon City’s busiest roads is as good a place to study as a table at home.
After his Grade 5 classes at a school in Brgy. San Antonio, the 11-year-old commutes south with his younger brother Melvin, aged 9, and their mother to the area of two big malls in the Q.C. north triangle.
Their “mama” Rochelle, 37, brings a lunch-box-sized cooler. In it are roughly a hundred mini-garlands (up to P2,000 worth) of sampaguita flowers commonly worn on Catholic saints and hung on rearview mirrors.
The three divide the flowers among themselves and part ways. Rochelle usually sits on a sidewalk in North Avenue. The boys–still in their blue school uniforms and wearing plastic rosaries on their necks–climb up different walkways.
Once Marlon sits on the floor of an overpass along EDSA connecting a mall and a call center, he lays out his share of sampaguitas in front of him, opens his bag and brings out one of his books, a notebook and a pen.
Passers-by never fail to glance at the boy finishing his homework while selling his mother’s sampaguitas for his daily allowance.
“Sobrang halaga sa akin ‘yon para makapagtapos ako (It’s really important for me so that I can finish my studies),” Marlon says of both elements of his nightly routine.
He has gained admirers far more than the number of people who pass him by each night, many of whom are rushing to catch their rides home. Few know their names, only as the boys hunched over a book on an overpass whose images have inspired thousands on social media.
“What’s your favorite subject?” we ask Marlon. It’s Math, he says, and shows us a notebook. On it are arithmetic problems, almost all the items checked correct.
Why Math? “Mag-a-accountant po kasi ako. Sabi kasi ni mama maging ganoon na lang ako (I plan to be an accountant, because mama told me),” he tells us.
Does he know what accountants do? Not yet. All he knows now is why he’s juggling studies with what most will consider work.
“Kasi nakakatulong po kami kay mama. Kahit papaano nakakapagbigay kami ng pera. (Because we’re helping mama. Somehow we can pitch in money).”
* * *
At 11 p.m., Rochelle Asadon, 37, is trying to calm her sons down. They usually go home by 9 p.m., sometimes 10. But they’ve been approached this night by a number of TV programs wanting to feature Marlon’s story after seeing it on Facebook. With a smile, she entertained their queries.
And at a time when boys get tired and doze off, Marlon and Melvin are running and jumping around, chasing each other on the sidewalk she usually sells flowers in.
More affluent children their age may pass the time with gadgets, toys, or hobbies. All these two have–aside from school and selling–is play.
Rochelle heard about the comments her boys have been getting online.
“Natutuwa naman ako. Masipag daw anak ko. Totoo ‘yan, mababait naman ‘yan–malilikot lang talaga (I’m glad with it. They say my son is diligent. That’s true, they’re good kids–just really rowdy).”
She opens the paper bags stuffed in Marlon’s bag. Rice and viands in transparent plastic. A fried chicken meal. A pack of snack cakes.
“We no longer need to buy dinner with what we earn since some people choose to give us food instead,” Rochelle says in Filipino.
She calls the kids near. “Kumain na kayo para mamaya pag-uwi, diretso na tulog (Eat up now so that you can sleep at once when we get home).”
Marlon wants to open the pack of cakes, but she stops him. “Wag na, ‘di ba meron pa niyan sa bahay? (Not now. Don’t we have one pack open at home?)”
He settles for the fried chicken.
* * *
Rochelle says she originally sold sampaguitas on her own, after her husband was imprisoned 2 years ago. He had used drugs, she says, and was allegedly framed and arrested for a crime related to it.
She and her kids have been visiting him in jail every Sunday–the only day they don’t sell the flowers which Rochelle gets from a market in Balintawak.
“My sister-in-law who also sold sampaguitas taught me to do it. I tried it and it was okay. They (the boys) didn’t stop their studies as a result, so we kept at it,” Rochelle says.
Later on, she says, Marlon and Melvin asked to come along and help her sell. And some days they insist on staying on longer if they haven’t sold all their flowers.
“Hindi ko sila pinilit o inobliga. Sinisigurado ko na ligtas sila at ‘di mapapahamak (I didn’t force them to do it or made it an obligation. I make sure they’re safe and won’t be harmed).”
The kids get around 50 pesos allowance each from the P300 they usually earn if they sell off their entire share of flowers.
Marlon says he does not mind his safety, since he’s used to sitting on the footbridge.
Rochelle knows their only source of livelihood is frowned upon, even illegal, but they return to the area every night even if they are turned away at times.
“We still try our luck,” she says. “How can we eat if we don’t have a livelihood? We’re not part of the 4P’s [the government cash conditional transfer for indigents]. How can we survive? Do they want us to steal? At least we’re getting an honest buck.”
(The Department of Social Welfare and Development later said their social workers talked to the family in response to the viral posts and offered to shelter the kids. Rochelle “strongly refused” because the boys were already going to school.
The DSWD said the family will be endorsed for verification to their Educational Assistance and 4P’s programs.)
* * *
The Mendoza boys’ story is not new. In 2015, thousands pitched in to financially support a kid in Cebu City who was seen doing his homework outside a fast food joint by a person who posted the image on Facebook.
The family of Daniel Cabrera, the Cebu kid, had no permanent home. The Mendozas, meanwhile, live under a bridge near the school where the boys study.
Children selling sampaguitas have never gone away from the streets. And with local anti-mendicancy laws, they have not always attracted buyers. But seeing a kid on the street clad in a school uniform or buried in a book often catches the eye–and the heart.
Marlon’s nightly sessions paid off–he landed in his class’s top 10 when he was in Grade 4, and hopes to repeat that this year or do better.
He does get sleepy in class, though, yet makes a point to still pay attention and answer in recitations.
Marlon and Melvin’s “viral” story of carrying a dream while trying to survive reflects the cross of issues in the country today–how the drug problem paralyzes families, how mothers and their children have to step up to fill the void left by fathers lost to it, how social services may not be enough for many homes in need, and how poverty continues to haunt the streets.
But their story also shows the determination of many Filipinos to move past their circumstances and their belief that despite life as it is, all is not lost.
There’s trust in the goodness in people, too.
Marlon says the pedestrians who buy from him or give him food often have some advice to go with it.
“Mag-ayos daw ako sa pag-aaral (Shape up in my studies),“ he says.
When we asked him his Christmas wish, his immediate answer was less for himself and more for his family:
“Malipat kami ng bahay po. Makalaya po si papa (For us to move a new house and for papa to go free).”
* * *
When it’s time to go home, Rochelle and the boys walk the series of connecting footbridges above EDSA which end at the terminal of buses in the mall.
Marlon and Melvin walk ahead, arms over each other’s shoulders. Rochelle smiles at how her boys can alternate between being enemies and best buds–as most brothers often do.
She spares a thought if puberty could change that.
But then, she says, they’ve already grown up somehow what they’ve been through and what they’re doing.
What was her wish this Christmas?
“Sana yung Panginoon, bigyan kami na sana ‘wag aila makahinto sa pag-aaral. Gusto ko po sila makatapos (I hope the Lord would will it that they don’t drop out from school. I want them to finish),” she says, breaking into tears.
“Lagi ko sinasabi, ‘Mag-aral kayo anak para yung magiging anak niyo di maghihirap’ (I always tell them, ‘Study, my sons, so your future children won’t suffer’).”
“Gusto ko iba naman yung buhay nila. Yung lahi nila maiba naman. Yung may magandang kinabukasan silang mabibigay sa mga anak nila. (I want for their life to be different. For their offspring to be different, where they can give a good future to their children).”
Rochelle and her sons board the northbound bus home just before midnight, after another day of making that wish real–one sold sampaguita garland and finished homework at a time.
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Watch out for more of the Mendoza family’s story on “Rated K,” airing on ABS-CBN Channel 2 and ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel.