By Erik de Castro
It was a few minutes before 6 a.m. when I arrived at the dwelling of Liza Cabiya-an, 39, and her 14 children. Liza was pouring coffee on a plate of rice as her five small children, including her youngest 11-month-old baby, huddled on the floor around her waiting to be served their breakfast. On a good day, Liza says breakfast would be pan de sal, or the classic Filipino salt bread, which they dip into hot instant coffee.
While the small children have their breakfast, Liza’s nine other children were still asleep, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a room of approximately 9-square meters.
The only appliances they have are the television and a DVD player. The glassless window provides natural ventilation to the space. Liza’s family lives on the third floor of a three-story tenement in a slum neighborhood in Paco, in the Philippines capital Manila. I had to go up a narrow wooden ladder to reach their dwelling. Residents of the tenement share the same toilet, which is on the second floor. Liza complains that there are nights when they have to endure the stink of the toilet, which is not regularly cleaned.
“Life is hard with so many children but we still try to have fun,” says Liza as she turns on the TV, inserts a music CD in the DVD player and, as if on cue, the little kids start to dance. The noise wakes up the rest of the brood. “I still remember the names and birthdays of each of them,” Liza boasts with a grin, revealing her decaying teeth. After a while, she turns off the music and half-jokingly says, “That’s it for now. Too much activity will make them hungry again.”
While I took snapshots of the family, Liza told her story. She works as a part-time house help and laundry woman. She can’t accept full time work because she still has very young children to take care of. Her husband, a construction worker, comes home only on weekends. Her grown up children – the eldest at 22 – help augment the family income by scavenging, selling rice cakes and working as part-time house helps as well. All children are physically small for their age, most likely because of lack of nourishment. Only five of her children are also in school, most of them in elementary education.