By Jola Ajibade and Arla Fontamillas
In her book, “The Durable Slum," Liza Weinstein points to how informal settlements are often able to survive natural disasters and multiple city-state attempts to dismantle them. What is not often articulated in stories about slum resilience are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly, creatively, and fearlessly to improve the lives of slum residents and ensure their safety during and after disasters. Crisell Beltran, the chairman of Bagong Silangan, murdered on January 30th of this year, was one of such unsung heroes.
We met Beltran on Aug. 22, 2018 during fieldwork in Metro Manila. Beltran was a petite woman with bright eyes and a soft demeanor. She smiled through most of our conversations but a few times seemed stern when talking about disaster preparedness and her vision for transforming her community.
Beltran was born and raised in the slums of Bagong Silangan, which is a relocation area for informal settlers from downtown San Mateo in the province of Rizal. She had her education in the same barangay and later obtained a degree in Mass Communication from Polytechnic University of the Philippines. Beltran described her rise to local politics as a “personal calling.” She said, “I feel it’s a personal responsibility to be the leader.” Apart from being a leader, Beltran was a political activist, a grassroots organizer, and a change agent who turned Bagong Silangan from one of the dirtiest and most notorious slums to one of the cleanest and relatively safe places to live, work, and play. Out of 142 barangays in Quezon City, Bagong Silangan, one of the poorest, ranked sixth place for safety and cleanliness in 2018. The first five were rich subdivisions.
During Beltran’s eight years of tenure as chairman, Bagong Silangan was transformed into what Catherine Brinkley described as an ‘opportunity of the commons’ or a place where the right of access to economic, political, cultural, and social goods were provided and expanded to a variety of people, especially to poor and marginalized women. Beltran employed several low-income women and men and ensured that they were paid a decent wage (P3,900-5,300 or roughly US$75-100 a month—twice as much as what a typical barangay worker normally receives). She also implemented childcare programs, health services, street cleaning initiatives, and disaster preparedness and response projects.
Bagong Silangan hazard monitoring and disaster response programs could rival those in industrialized nations. Their program components include: state-of-the-art CCTV monitoring and early warning systems; rescue vehicles; emergency stockpiles (which include kits for babies and children); a dedicated evacuation team; and other multi-hazard contingency plans.
Describing how vulnerable her community is, Beltran said: “During the rainy season, this place is like a sea. So, the people are trapped when it rains. You know, the fear, the anxiety that these people feel. They can die because of this. That is the reason why we do not stop responding. We do not mind if we get wet. My prayer is that no one will die. I don’t care whether they are stubborn, they are my children. You know it is your responsibility. So, I need to get them out of that vulnerable condition.
“During [Typhoon] “Ondoy” in 2009, around 200 people died in this barangay. I was not the barangay captain yet. But since I came into this position, no one has died, because we are very persistent.” These statements speak to Beltran’s sense of responsibility as a leader and it also reflects her passion and motherly affection for her community.
In an era when most politicians use their office for personal aggrandizement, Beltran stood out for transparency and accountability. She believed politicians should serve the people and political gains should be redirected into community prosperity. “You need to serve properly with sincerity and love, not because of religion or politics but because you love the people. If there is no love, everything is meaningless. There’s also God, who guides you,” Beltran said responding to questions about what influences her as a person and as a leader.
Beltran believed in building bridges not walls. She did not see the need to have an entourage of security officers around her and was willing to meet anyone who needed her assistance. She found safety and confidence in her community. This was later exploited by the four gunmen who shot several bullets that killed Beltran and her driver in Silangan.
Beltran was 47 years old when she was murdered. She left behind three children and three grandchildren. The reason for murder is yet to be uncovered, although media speculations suggest that it may be politically motivated or could also be due to personal conflict or land dispute.
The mayor of Quezon City has offered P5 million for information leading to the identification of Beltran’s killers. On Feb. 3, the four identified gunmen were caught. We note that this is a step in the right direction. However, beyond financial incentives, we demand that proper investigation be conducted.
Too many unsung heroes in the Philippines die before they can reach their full potential. Beltran was running for Congress as a representative of Quezon City’s second district, where a huge slum population resides. If given the chance, she could have done more to transform the lives of these poor communities.
This is not the time to look away. Impunity must not be tolerated in the case of Beltran. Her death and those of other unsung heroes are a direct assault on human rights and on the freedom of every Filipino.
Above all else, public safety is a common wealth that must be protected. As the 2019 election approaches, people must not give in to cynicism and apathy but instead should engage with power to ensure that peace and justice prevails.
Let justice prevail for Beltran and the vast community of slum dwellers she passionately served.
Jola Ajibade is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University, Oregon.
Arla Fontamillas is a researcher and independent consultant.