MARIE CLAIRE - Manila's Park Avenue Gangstas
by Stephanie Dychiu




Editor's Letter, Marie Claire, January 2009:
. . . about her story 'New Lives for Teen Gangs', Stephanie Dychiu says, "meeting the Park Avenue gangstas was a reminder that change and hope don't always have to come in big sweeping moments--they can take place in small acts aimed at one person at a time." A group called Community and Family Services International whose spokesperson is comedienne/actress Tessie Tomas helps these kids change the course of their future.

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Original title of this article: "One of the Gang".
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NEW LIVES FOR TEEN GANGS
By Stephanie Dychiu


Named after New York City’s wealthiest address, Park Avenue in Pasay City is a narrow side street where teen royalty go by the names Bad Boi and Shawtababee instead of Blair and Serena. Only 15 minutes by MRT/LRT from the real Park Avenue of Metro Manila (Ayala Avenue in Makati), Park Avenue, Pasay is a parallel universe where fortunes are made not on the stock market but on the Libertad Market, and social status is attained not through money and pedigree but through brute strength and a flair for rap.

AWAY-ALAK
Typical of most mean streets that make up the underbelly of the metropolis, the alleys around Park Avenue are patrolled by youth gangs who are fiercely protective of their turf. Here, traditional trappings of civility such as work, school, and family have a long history of failure, so the gangsta becomes the surrogate that brings identity and structure to the lives of the out-of-school and out-of-work. Furthermore, when all it takes to be the victim of a brawl is to walk past someone who is “lasing, tapos nayabangan sayo”, it makes sense to join a group sworn to mutually protect each other before the violence actually happens.

“Minsan may atraso talaga, pero madalas, away-alak lang,” says Melanie*, 24, a native of the area who joined the West Side Mobstahs* at age 15. “’Pag naka-inom ka, matapang ka.” Where does a tambay get money to buy booze? She nods toward the Libertad Market. “Madaling dumiskarte diyan. Halimbawa, may namili. Buhatin mo yun. Bibigyan ka ng P20 o P60. Yung iba, humihingi ng ulam sa mga nagtitinda, tapos binebenta nila.”

A skirmish her cousin got into in a recent fiesta shows how trouble can start randomly when tambays get soused. “Nag-iinuman sa labas, kasi may videoke dun. May nagpaputok ng baril. Warning shot lang, pataas ang putok. Yung pinsan ko, lasing, lumabas. Naghahamon ng away. Pinagsusuntok yung iba. E, siempre, may gang, e. Yung pinakamatapang sa kanila, nakita. Sinugod. Hanggang ngayon hindi siya makapunta dun.”

STARTER VS. FOUNDER
“Yung taga-umpisa ng banat, ang tawag diyan Starter,” Melanie continues. In a fight, the Starter throws the first punch (or takes the first blows, if on the defensive). Seems like a role few people would want, but Starters actually like their posts because it gives them power over other members.

The Starter, however, is not top dog. “Yung pinaka-lider, ang tawag Founder.” How does one become a Founder? “Maghahanap ka ng grupo mo.”

Launching a new gang is no different from launching a new shampoo. First, create a distinct brand identity: “May sign-sign, minsan tattoo.” Second, build brand awareness: “’Pag naglalakad, isigaw mo ang pangalan ng gangsta. ‘O, ano ako. . .!’ Ganyan.” Third, reinforce brand recall by popularizing a slogan or jingle. “May ginagawang mga kanta, mga rap. Kumakalat. Naririnig na lang dito.” Finally, demonstrate superior product performance: “Pakita mo matapang ka. ‘Pag hinamon ka, patulan mo kaysa masaktan ka.”

How will a gang leader know his campaign has succeeded? “’Pag pinaguusapan na siya. ‘Pag naririnig na ng mga bata.”

HIRAP, SARAP?
When females want to join a gang, Melanie says the Founder usually gives them two choices: “Hirap o sarap. Yung hirap, sampal, 15 times. Yung sarap, sex.” The preferred choice? “Siempre sarap na kaysa maghirap. Kaya maraming babae na nagiging pokpok.” An older cousin of Melanie was already a member of the West Side Mobstahs when she was initiated. “Sinalo ako ng pinsan ko. Siya ang nagpa-sampal.”

For the all-male Real Pinoy Tribe*, hirap is the only route to becoming a member. “Ang ginawa sa amin ‘jump-in’. Ginulpi kami for 30 seconds,” says Jason*, 19. He joined the gang at age 15. “Six kami nun, tapos mga 20 katao bumugbog sa amin. Hinika nga ako nun.” The gang has rules to prevent serious injury during hazing. The head, neck, and face are off limits. “’Pag tinamaan ka dun, pwede kang sumigaw na ‘Foul!’ Stop na yun, kahit wala pang 30 seconds.”

Why go through all that just to be part of a gang? “Gusto ko kasi maranasan kung paano magkaroon ng power sa isang lugar.” That power comes at a price. Like NATO, gang members are bound to a mutual defense pact that views an attack on one as an attack on all. “Kahit wala kang ginagawa, pero yung iba mong kasama may atraso, pwede ka nang gulpihin.”

Hence the importance of allying oneself with the right leader. “Ang basehan namin, yung nandiyan para sa amin lagi,” says Jason. “Kasi, ‘pag may kaaway kami sa school, kung hindi na namin kaya i-handle, tinatawag namin siya. ‘Rekta na yan. To the rescue na siya.”

“MANNY PACQUIAO”
The rescuer Jason is referring to is Randy*, 21, the leader of their branch of the Real Pinoy Tribe in Pasay (the gang has several chapters spread across Metro Manila). “Siya ang Manny Pacquiao namin.”

Small, quiet, and soft-spoken, Randy at first glance would never be mistaken for a gang leader. In fact, he objects to the title. “Walang leader, mas ahead lang,” he says, attributing his seniority to having joined the gang before the others.

His reason for joining: “Marami akong nakikilala, kahit sa Cavite, kahit sa ibang bansa. Sa Korea, sa Japan. Dito rin sila dati. May mga Mexicano din, sa L.A.

The Real Pinoy Tribe does not allow females to become members. “Pinagmumulan kasi lagi ng away.”

The gang activities, as Randy describes them, seem harmless enough. “Inuman three times a week. Basketball. Computer.” How then does trouble start? “’Pag ginugulo kami ng mga taga ibang lugar. Bigla na lang pupunta diyan, maghahagis ng bote. Makikipag-away.”

It was in this arbitrary manner that a major blood feud erupted around one year ago. The feud was so intense, it drove Randy to embrace his current lie-low status.

RESBAK
It all started when a man on a motorcycle went to the gang’s turf pretending he needed to ask something. “Lumapit ang isang kasama ko,” recounts Randy. “Bigla na lang may binunot, kutsilyo o ice pick yata. Nakita ng isa pang kasama ko. May hawak siya na fluorescent na itatapon na sana niya. Pinalo niya sa mukha ng naka-motor. Tapos mga limang bote ng Emperador. Pinagtanggol niya lang yung kasama namin.”

The man on the motorbike promptly went to his own gang to report the attack. “Nagsumbong din sa pulis, kasi maimpluwensiya siya dun, may kamag-anak yata siya. Na-ospital siya, puro tahi ang mukha. Dinemanda kami.” Randy and his friends went into hiding. The matter with the police was settled only after Randy’s older brother, a seaman, paid P26,000 to get him off the hook. “Ayaw ng kuya ko na makulong ako.”

Things did not end with the police. There was street justice to contend with. “Yung resbak nun, matindi,” says Jason. “May pinatay sa amin.” Late one night, while the gang was hanging out on their street, a man armed with a sumpak, or homemade shotgun, came and fired several shots. As the most prominent member of the gang, Randy was one of his main targets. But it was someone else who was killed. “Parang araw na talaga niya,” Randy philosophizes. “Twelve gauge yung shotgun, kumakalat ang buletas nun. Isang buletas lang ang tumama—sa kanya.”

Reprisal was swift. A hit squad was dispatched to hunt down the gunman. He wasn’t found, but one of his cohorts who happened to be near his house when the squad arrived was killed in his place.

TEKWAT
Just like Randy, a close call caused Melanie to distance herself from gangsta life—she almost landed in jail because a friend filched (tekwat or shoplift) a bottle of cologne from a supermarket and put it in Melanie’s pocket. “Bumukol, e. Nakita. Pinababayaran ng ten times. ‘Pag di nabayaran yun, dun ako sa kulungan.”

One of her cousins—the same one who bore the 15 slaps in her behalf when she joined the West Side Mobstahs—got wind of what happened and went to Melanie’s mother so the money owed could be paid before she got locked up. “Binato ako ng orasan ng nanay ko. Tapos umiyak siya. Nakakahiya. Magkano lang yung cologne? P20? Nahuli ako sa halagang ganun.”

Meanwhile, the West Side Mobstah gang was disintegrating. “May nasaksak kasi sila, tapos namatay. Kaya naglayo silang lahat.”

HANAP- BUHAY
Watching the mayhem from not too far away were the people behind Community and Family Services International (CFSI), an NGO that happens to be located in an old building along Park Avenue. The group’s primary focus is helping displaced persons in far-flung conflict areas like Mindanao and Myanmar, but it became clear the gangstas in CFSI’s own backyard were also displaced persons—displaced from mainstream society—whose lives were being ripped apart by conflict.

CFSI set up the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay program to take tambays off the streets and into vocational courses so they can eventually find work. The most popular course has been food and beverage (F&B), because those who complete it are guarranteed jobs at restaurants that are allied with the vocational school. The course costs P13,000 and runs for 6 months. CFSI shoulders only half the cost of the tuition. The other half is paid for in installments by the youths themselves once they start earning, so they have a sense of personal responsibility.

BAGONG BUHAY
Ruth Solis, the social worker assigned by CFSI to the program, explains how the gang’s own psychology and dynamics are being harnessed by the NGO to reshape their lives. “As you can see, they are very territorial. Kada-street may grupo. If we gather members of different gangs here [in Park Avenue], mag-iinggitan yan. ‘Ma’am, baka nandiya si ganyan . . .’ So we take them out of town. Tagaytay, Mount Makiling. ’Pag inalis mo sila sa teritoryo nila, they become less mayabang, because they become dependent on you, for food, for transportation.”

Outside their turf, the boundaries between gangstas start to blur. The trip out is like a vacation—no pressure, no pontificating, lots of fun and food. But life skills training is subtly woven into the activities.

CFSI also puts the gang members’ advanced capacity for loyalty and solidarity to good use. Winning over just one leader can mean winning over an entire gang. Randy, for example, has been a valuable ally to Ruth. “Ang advantage ni Randy, magaling siya makisama,” says Ruth. “Tapos, ‘pag kaibigan ka niya, talagang hindi ka niya papabayaan. That’s why a lot of the other kids look up to him.”

Jason hopped on board because Randy was in. After spending 2 years in first year, 2 years in second year, and 2 years in third year high school, then dropping out altogether, he passed the Accreditation and Equivalency Test with CFSI’s help recently. “If you pass that test, it’s like the equivalent of passing high school,” explains Ruth. The test is administered to people who feel awkward going back to high school, but want to have the credentials. “Manny Pacquiao also took this test.”

ENDO
The streetsmart Melanie is one of CFSI’s most successful Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay participants. She has completed vocational courses in computers, cosmetology, and food and beverage. Her favorite is food and beverage, “kasi may trabaho kaagad”. Her first job as a waitress was in a restaurant in Mall of Asia, and she was asked to come back for a second stint after her first 6-month contract ended. Hard work surprisingly agrees with an ex-tambay like her. “Gustong-gusto ko yung napapagod. Halimbawa, closing ako ngayon. ‘Pag sinabi ng sir ko na wala tayong opening, ako ang magvo-volunteer. So straight na opening at closing ako.” Why does she like it? “Pera. Tapos mas marami akong nakikilalang tao.

Saving is a challenge, however. When not on “service break” (the idle period between 6-month contracts), Melanie earns an average of P7,000 a month from waitressing. She gives three-fourths to her mother to pay for household expenses. At the end of her first 6-month stint, she was able to funnel her last pay to a small venture that tided her over the service break. “Nagtinda ako ng sigarilyo, kendi, tinapay, noodles, diyan sa kanto.” At the end of her second 6-month stint, there were no more savings. “Bumili kasi ako ng gamit,” she says. Deprived of life’s little luxuries for so long, she splurged on a TV, DVD player, “slide-up MP4”, and silver bracelet “na may bato-bato, maganda”, all bought in “gives”.

Currently on “endo” (end of contract), she is hoping her third 6-month assignment will come soon. Her long-term goals are simple. “Gusto ko lang may tirahan kami na malayo ang mga kapatid ko sa gulo, tapos may trabaho sila. Yung matinong trabaho ha? Hindi yung nagbebenta ng kung ano-ano. Yung kapatid ko dati, nagbenta siya, marijuana. Ang ginawa ko, nilagay ko sa tubig. Di na pwede.”

There is also the matter of getting pustiso for her younger brother. “Sawa na rin siya sa pagiging tambay. Gusto niya mag-apply sa fastfood. E bungal siya ng isang ngipin kasi nabagsak siya sa scooter. Hindi siya natatanggap.” She told him to apply again only after his dentures are in place, which she expects to happen in a couple of months, “kasi magkakapera ang kuya ko. Gas boy siya, malakas kumita.”

KABA
Randy briefly worked as a busboy after completing Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay’s food and beverage course. He was assigned to a posh restaurant in Greenbelt, where he has seen “KC, tsaka si Pops” in the flesh.

“Gusto ko yung nagdadala ng food, kasi hindi ko nagagawa yun dati. Pero nakakatakot mag-saulo ng order.” A 12 gauge shotgun does not faze Randy the gang leader, but he balked when he was asked to take over bartending duties at the restaurant. “Naunahan ako ng kaba. Hindi ko alam mag-mix ng cocktail. Tinuruan naman kami pero hindi mo naman makukuha yun sa isang beses lang.” He was so panicked over the assignment that he stopped going to work after the first 15 days. He was even too ashamed to call.

Ruth, whom Randy has taken to calling the real gang leader, has arranged for him to personally deliver the check for the balance of his tuition to the food and beverage school, to force him to set things right with them after going AWOL. A job transfer is being worked out.

“JOHN MAYER”
Jason, meanwhile, is still high from passing his high school equivalency exam. He is now eyeing college. “Gagawa ako ng paraan na maisabay.” (He will start working in a restaurant soon, after completing his Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay training.) “Kahit two-year course lang.” Which school? “Hindi ko pa alam. Hindi ko rin alam yung schedule, kung magkano. Kelangan malaman ko muna kung saan ako maa-assign.”

Then, there’s his music career. “Nasa banda ako dati, alternative. Pero acoustic na ako ngayon, blues na ang tinitira ko. Idol ko si John Mayer.” Wide-eyed and well-built, the affable Jason actually looks a bit like John Mayer. But showbiz is not for him—or so he says. “Mas sikat ka ‘pag underground artist ka. Magpapakalat ka lang ng CDing burn.” Sample nga? “Ay, ayoko! Ano kasi e, yung lyrics ko, hindi naka-copyright. Iniiwasan ko magka-leakage.”

Finally, his political career. “SK councilor kasi ako sa amin.” What? “Oo. Nangampanya ako, tapos nanalo. Dapat nga chairman na lang ang tinakbo ko e, kasi mas mataas pa ang boto ko sa kanya!” He turns serious. “Gusto ko rin magkaroon ng mark dito, para magkaroon ng change.” How? “Una, sa aming magto-tropa. Hanap ako ng pagka-busyhan namin. Hindi na yung vices.” Sports? “Hindi na magki-click sa amin yun. Ganun na rin ang project nila lagi. Sports daw nang sports. Bibigyan kami ng bola, ng dart board. Wala namang gumagamit. Gusto ko yung habang tumatagal, mas magiging interesado sila. Diversionary tactics lang. Kasipag busy ka, wala kang oras para sa bisyo.”

ISTAMBAY ME
As Melanie, Randy, and Jason struggle to keep themselves busy, the work also goes on for CFSI. Barangay officials and parents of out-of-school youths are being closely involved in the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay efforts so progress is sustained. Many kids still need to be placed in vocational courses to keep them away from drugs, violence, prostitution, and criminal activity. But more funds are needed to pay for 50% of their tuition. At only P6,500 per life-changing course, it’s money well-spent.

“Hangga’t hindi pa sila namamatay, meron pang chance,” says Ruth. “Ang tingin kasi sa tambay laging masama. Pero actually, ‘pag sinabi mong kelangan nila tumulong, tutulong sila. Mabilis sila kumilos. At ‘pag sinabi nila walang manggugulo dito, talagang walang manggugulo.”

Such is the gangsta’s uncanny charisma. With Park Avenue, Pasay only 15 minutes away from the real Park Avenue (Ayala Avenue in Makati), it’s wise to work with it rather than eradicate it.

To sponsor a Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay scholar and know more about other ways to help, call CFSI at 519-0048, or email headquarters@cfsi.ph. More information about CFSI’s other projects can be found at www.cfsi.ph.

*Names of gangs and gang members have been changed.

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Teysi ng Tambayan

Tessie Tomas on celebrity philanthropy and finding meaning among the tambays.

While making buzz-worthy films (Ploning, 100, One True Love) and top-rating soaps (Kim Samsoon), Tessie Tomas works as Public Relations Officer for Community and Family Services International (CFSI), the NGO behind the Hanap Buhay, Bagong Buhay program that provides jobs and training for disadvantaged youths.

What bothers you most about tambays?
I lived in Tondo when I was younger, and also in Blumentritt. Nakakakita ako ng mga tambay, but it was not as bad as now. At age 10, I was doing radio soaps. I would take a jeepney to the radio station to record until nine in the evening. You cannot imagine a 10-year-old girl now taking a jeepney and feeling safe by herself. I felt so safe at that time.

Some people will freak out if they knew the waiter or waitress serving them is a former gang member.
I would tell them to focus on the positive instead of being afraid. Be happy for the person and give him or her encouragement!

Many celebrities exploit social causes to boost their image. Has your sincerity ever been doubted?
Sometimes people think I am running for public office. But the reason why I [became active in] social work was my mid-life crisis. I had a 10-12 year conflict that started at 40. Then one day, parang I heard a soft voice that said, “Stop searching so far for the meaning of life”. I was already helping CFSI then. I realized that was the work that made me happy. This is my second passion. Nagugulat ang mga press. “How come you didn’t tell us?” Kasi it was something private e. The same with Regine (Velasquez, her co-star in Kim Samsoon). I told her, why don’t you come and visit my NGO before our season ends? I explained what we do. She wanted to donate 20 sacks of rice. She didn’t want any TV cameras. Halos ang buong Pasay naghintay kay Regine Velasquez. Sabi ng mga bata kay Regine, kumanta ka naman sa amin. Sabi niya, anong gusto niyo? “On the Wings of Love”. Kinanta niya ang buo, hindi excerpt ha, acapella. Naiyak ako. Biruin mo, Regine Velasquez singing. And she did it so casually, one morning.

How do you cope when things don’t work out, or when people take advantage of you?
Yung rate of success, I don’t focus on that. Hindi ako nagpapaka-result oriented. I just focus on helping. I have no expectations. When I hear that voice that says ‘You help’, hindi ko yan kinu-question. Hindi ko iniisip na, pucha, baka igastusin ito sa iba. Every single time I have a chance to help, I just do it.

Why were fame, fortune, and family not enough to make you happy?
I had my first Pajero in 1992 when I had Teysi ng Tahanan. I looked at it and I said, this is really the car that I like. Glistening, it’s the right color, it’s so ganda, I have a driver, I live in a nice condominium in Ecology Village—I was still single then—daily show and all. And I looked at it, and in two days, the euphoria was gone. When I organize a medical mission, the joy lasts for a month. Why? Because it is soul work. I am feeding my soul when I do social work. It is when you are of service to others that you feel so fulfilled. Pala.

What keeps me going is the balance. Nag-burnout ako sa showbiz. If I kept going on that route alone, it was really dangerous for me na. I might say I’m gonna drop all of this. But because of my social work, I am more motivated to do showbiz. At this point in my life, I really, really know na what counts.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Marie Claire magazine.)