I was in a taxi Christmas Eve coming from my hotel near Mango Square in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, when my destination took my driver by surprise. "Ermita?" he asked. "Are you buying drugs?"
Huh? "No, I'm not," I responded.
"But Ermita is dangerous," he added.
"I'm visiting a close friend," I added. (My friend is a veritable "princess" of Ermita, the granddaughter of one of Ermita's most infamous personages, a now-deceased "godfather.")
Having been to Ermita nearly half a dozen times before Christmas Eve, I already had many impressions of the neighborhood bisected by a single pulsating thoroughfare: crowded, chaotic, in-your-face, friendly, even welcoming.
Every time I had been driven by "tricycle" into the Ermita barangay (burrough) from one of Cebu City's main bayside arteries, Magallanes Street, I had been warmly welcomed by kids wanting to give me a high-five and voices familiar and unfamiliar alike: "Hey Blackstone! Hello Blackstone!"
And though there were stares and the occasional threatening glare, I never had the impression that Ermita was dangerous, not with so many children out and about. My most immediate reaction was that the place, while teeming with seemingly hundreds of kids of all ages playing games, was like a gigantic pre-school. Of course, Ermita's main drag, more like an alley lined with mostly open drains and an assortment of narrow makeshift wooden and brick homes, stores and other structures, hosted not just kids but also gossiping housewives, preening teenagers, straining videoke singers, street vendors selling everything from local dishes and pastries to bagged soft drinks and bottled water, lounging village elders, and random chickens and ducks (and even the occcasional pig). At various spots along the alley, fires were being tended, with black kettels hung over them being brought to a boil or skewered meats being grilled.
Even with such robust activity though, Ermita was clearly one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Cebu City. This was evident in the rags that many of the residents were wearing and the scrawniness of so many of the kids. On my early visits I had also been struck by the fact that so many babies were being carted about by tiny mothers, some barely into their teenage years. In fact, a recent article bears witness to the pressing social problems confronted by the area's residents, from unemployment and gambling to teenage pregnancy and hunger.
Still, even in the face of such problems, the neighborhood has impressed me as its inhabitants strive to work together to overcome the obvious challenges and create a sense of normalcy within their community. I've seen this in the way that those who have share with those who don't, in the manner that the most fragile young are so often protected and even adopted by the ones who can do so, and in the enduring and seemingly genuine cheerfulness that pervades interactions---and in the smiles.
Of course, as I reflect on my experience with the residents in Ermita, I wonder what I can do to help. The impromptu English lessons that I gave, the tips to the trike drivers and the asundry holiday handouts are not enough.
What could I or any one of us who are in more fortunate positions contribute to a community such as this?