How to survive as a nouveau-poor: a mother’s guide

by Danton Remoto

I wrote this piece in the mid-1980s – after returning Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. had been shot at the airport and before the People Power Revolution that swept his widow, Cory, into the presidency. I dug this up in the journal I kept during those turbulent times.

I am publishing this because I want to ask – have times really changed for our poor but beautiful country? It’s written from the point of view of a mother who is a public-school teacher. The mother is both the fulcrum and focus of the Filipino family, keeping it balanced, not teetering to despair, or to doom. It would have been easier for us in the Young Turks to just stay abroad after our studies there. I left twice to study and returned home twice to our country. I was not happy teaching Literature and Creative Writing to American college students. Jose Rizal said the world is so big, but there is only one home. And we all know where it is.


1. Every morning, repeat this line after waking: we’re better off than a million others. At least we have fried fish and tomatoes for breakfast. Then rise form bed, wash your face and mouth, proceed to pour vegetable oil into the frying pan. Usually during cool mornings, the lard would have congealed. Get a tablespoon, scoop the lard and let it rest on the bottom of the pan. Let the lard sputter and quiet down. Now the lard is hot and you can begin frying the tuyo (dried fish).

2. After frying the tuyo, flatten a head of garlic, throw into the pan, and then follow this with last night’s rice. Sprinkle salt to taste.

3. Wake up the only child, now a teenager having his share of rebellion. Tell him to wash up and then sit before the breakfast table. Fill him with rice enough to last until snack time, then give him his allowance of ten pesos per day.

4. Buy minced meat, not whole meat. Use the minced meat sparingly, just enough so your mung-bean stew would smell of meat. Buy a big bagful of mung bean, and let a bowl of it stand overnight in water. The bean sprouts could be cooked the next morning, mixed with garlic, onion, tomatoes, soy sauce and calamansi juice.

5. Look around in your workplace. Check what item was not yet being sold. In my elementary school, almost everything was already being sold: sweet meats of tocino and longganisa, clothes and decorative items of angels painted pink; insurance plans, funeral service and memorial-park lots. I sold Tupperware, like I did in the 1960s. It was like returning to an old love. My sales pitch: these lunchboxes would save you money in terms of cheaper, home-cooked food, in the short run, and hospitalization, in the long run: the canteen sells overpriced slabs of cholesterol.

These plastic glasses could contain calamansi juice you had squeezed right in your very kitchen. No Coke, no false orange flavors, no coffee, no tea: just pure, natural citrus good for bones (ours are beginning to ache from age and this horrible inflation) and teeth (the stronger the better, for the inflation rate would still go up before it went down, and we would need stronger teeth for the chattering to come).

6. On the way home, I would ask for cassava leaves from Mareng Mely who lived around the corner. She thought I would give them to the children in the neighborhood, to play with. They would break the stems into inch-long strips, the tough skin hanging on, and the strips of stem could be turned into instant necklaces, with the star-shaped leaves as pendant. But no, the cassava leaves could be simmered in coconut milk flavored with shrimp paste from Pangasinan. It reminded me of what my parents ate in World War II.

7. Bring home the nutribuns, those bread hard as rocks distributed to school children by the Nutrition Foundation under the sponsorship of the First Lady. Bring these rocks home, use a hammer to break them down into bits, soak them in a basin of water. When sufficiently soft, pour half a small can of Alaska condensed milk, then add sugar. Pour the mixture in your old pans, then steam. After 30 minutes, lift the lid (the steam blurring your very face), set the cans on a basin quarter-filled with water, to cool. Then put in the ref (heaven help us this 15-year-old ref would not break down, not now, Lord), and the morning after, serve as breakfast to your rebellious teenager, in case he has already gotten tired of having fried fish every morning.

8. Night. Draw a deep, deep sigh (a mother is a lifeline and the rope should not break). My husband was working thousands of miles away, in deepest, hottest Riyadh. The distance would spread between us like a desert. My heart would thud heavily in my chest. A stone of pain would fill my throat.

Then I would repeat numbers one to eight when morning comes through, again. I am a mother, and have no choice but to survive.