Discussing livelihood conditions with Escolta Vendors

by Nathalie Dagmang

Escolta vendors rely so heavily on neighborhood conditions that even the smallest incremental structural or demographic change can result in a chain of problems for their livelihoods and families. This is because of the unstable and unpredictable nature of the vendors’ small businesses and private lives – including their fluctuating income, the fragile relationships they have with members of their families, and an ever changing sense of place. These changes require that they forge a certain stability through their relationships with customers, local officials, police enforcers and other Escolta constituents.

I realized this after several field visits, interviews and two separate team workshops with the vendors in 2017. The first workshop was a structured cook-out held April 21st while the second was a walking workshop held May 12th. Both workshops were conducted within the field site.

The first workshop was at a local eatery along Escolta street and was attended by vendors who lived on the sidewalks of Escolta. I chose to conduct a cook-out in order to learn about how they cook the food they sell, their routines and history, the changes they have made on their food carts, and their shared connections and experiences in their years of selling food in Escolta. The objective was to create a timeline of events in Escolta that greatly affected their livelihood and personal lives. Through a shared meal, we wanted to initiate a discussion on the common challenges they face with the hopes of rebuilding unity among vendors to help articulate what they think are possible solutions to their livelihood problems in Escolta.

In the market with Liza, bargaining with the fish vendor for the ingredients she needed for the dish (paksiw na isda / fish cooked in vinegar) she cooked for the workshop.

We started the day leaving Escolta for the Quiapo market via jeep to buy our ingredients. Alma, Krinkle and I followed the women around the market, going in and out of narrow pathways and negotiating prices with almost every vendor in order to get the cheapest ingredients possible. We then proceeded to our workshop place where we cooked the ingredients at hand. During the first two parts of the workshop, I allowed them to be in charge of the activities. I wanted to see how they work in a communal space, sharing the same stove, work spaces and utensils, and working together in assembling our meals and assessing and deciding on the tasks of one another. It allowed me to see their boundaries in terms of sanitation, their environment’s conditions (the heat, light, smell, amount of space, etc), the pace and intensity of work. For me, the workshop space served as a scaled down version of their shared work spaces in Escolta. After all the preparations, the participants suggested that we invite other homeless families in Escolta to share the meal with us.

Sharing the meals we cooked with the vendors and the homeless families

Filled to the brim and pleased from all the food we prepared, we proceeded to creating their timelines. Other than learning about the changes in their businesses over the years and how their personal histories intersect with the history of Escolta’s development, we learned how they made sense of time and schedules, given the unstable and unpredictable nature of their livelihood and personal lives. What events in their neighborhood do they associate with the major events in their private lives? What changes in Escolta had the greatest impact to their livelihood? How did they adapt their food businesses to these changes? What events were the most memorable to them and what made these memorable?

Writing a timeline with Liza during the cook-out workshop

For the second workshop, I decided instead to follow the rhythm of the vendors’ livelihood and invited the itinerant vendors who were not able to join our first workshop due to their schedule. We initially planned out an intimate picnic with two vendors, Wendy and Gilda, whose food carts were located within the same zone. At the last minute, we had to change our plans. The vendors agreed to have a picnic workshop on the condition that they are able to sell sufficient food on that day. We obliged to assist Wendy in selling her rice cakes along Escolta. It was a Saturday and her sales were running low as there were less people working in offices. We decided to peddle the rice cakes in Quiapo to seek more customers but only sold a few.

Eager to sell a good amount of the rice cakes before it got dark, Alma and I took some of the rice cakes ourselves, placed them in small cardboard boxes and peddled around Quiapo in separate routes. We sought customers at every corner of Quiapo, going through alleys of second hand clothing stalls, vintage camera shops, and the wet market.  Although we were not able to reach our target sales before sunset and had to postpone the picnic, we learned a lot from selling food ourselves, talking to customers and walking along the peddling route of Wendy as we alternately pushed her cart of rice cakes across busy streets and through crowds of market-goers and fellow vendors, all the time avoiding the police enforcers who are notorious for extorting from vendors.

Wendy with her rice cakes which she peddles in a baby stroller – I made her the cardboard signage on the day of the walking workshop, moments before we went to Quiapo.

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