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Chapter 1: Deo Regnat

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Sylvia finds an abandoned infant—a boy—atop a mound of garbage. She thinks she found in him a treasure that, when cashed in, could help her land an overseas job, redeem herself, and repay her mother for the disappointments she brought to the family. But she risks losing the child to government authorities. This prompts her to offer the custody of the child to a catholic priest (Father Andoy) in nearby Quiapo Church (St. John the Baptist parish). Father Andoy and fellow priest Father Revo give the boy a nickname—Anding—and later baptize him as Deo Renato. On learning that the priests have arranged for a permanent custody of the child by a foster parent, Sylvia panics. She hastily auctions the month-old baby to interested buyers. Meantime, OXD, an international syndicate preying on orphans for money, gets wind of Anding. OXD almost successfully snatches Anding from Sylvia and her client, Judge Vida De Gracia, if not for the sudden appearance of a police car. Anding goes on to live for the next five years under the motherly care and protection of De Gracia, who legalized his adoption. For his legal identify, she names him Francisco De Gracia; she calls him Franco by his nickname.

Watkasing Street in Quiapo, Manila, Philippines, was short in terms of distance, but it had a long history. It barely measured eight hundred meters in length, more or less, and was narrow, even by the standards of the colonial era. But in its vicinity lived Manila’s rich (mostly traders) and famous (some were the butt of jokes) during the early years of the Spanish rule in the Philippines.

In 1745, Octavio Benedicto, a Spanish mestizo and son of a Catholic priest named Leo Benedicto, leveraging his influence in the Church hierarchy, caused the change of the name of the street from Bukabuka to Calle de Octavio. Filipino natives would have no way of knowing why the street signs had changed, but, as always, they had a good time keeping the gossip about Octavio and his personal life alive. Rumors had it that Octavio’s Filipina mother was the eighth mistress of his philandering father, which was how he got his name. As an adult, it turned out that Octavio was the most enterprising among his siblings from the father’s side (all illegitimate, of course, given the sociopolitical context at the time). His father rewarded him with access to the growing real estate properties of the Church, and the latter parlayed this resource into commercial alliances that led to the accumulation of his wealth. Octavio’s prestige further expanded when he married the daughter of a capitán del barrio in neighboring Pandacan de Pequeña Venecia.

The motive behind the officially sanctioned renaming of Bukabuka street, which was an impossible process unless one had the money and political connection like Octavio had, was to impress upon the community, especially among the natives, that he deserved to be accorded with respect, given his asterisked legacy as an illegitimate child. In some unquantifiable measure, this also established the brand for his business interests.   

In 1928, Ko Wang Co, a Chinese businessman who migrated from mainland China to dodge unrest due to uprisings mounted by communist guerillas, bribed the Commonwealth-era government to officially change the name of the street from Calle de Octavio to Cuanco Street. Even before he learned to talk a few English and Tagalog words, he knew what worked when dealing with officialdom, along with other tricks of the trade, as it were. Bribing people got things done for him. That was how he changed his name from Ko Wang Co to Juan Dewee Donald Dee Cuanco (the English-sounding names were presumably intended to please the Americans in the Philippines). Despite his gold-plated business cards in which his new identity was printed, he could not avoid getting in conflict with the law, and sometimes with fellow wealthy businessmen. For example, when he bought a Chinese restaurant in what would become known as Escolta, a competitor filed a complaint with authorities charging him for breaking a Spanish-era law that ordered the closure of non-Catholic establishments. From that point on, he changed the name of his businesses to sound like either Spanish or English. He even put up altars inside the restaurants and stores he owned, and adorned them with statues of saints, notably that of the Black Nazarene and Sto. Niño.

Emboldened by the ironclad protection he got from the American-dictated government, Cuanco gobbled up more investments, including wads of declaración jurada.   

By this time, Octavio’s fortune at the hands of his heirs had practically dissipated, mostly due to mismanagement of their businesses and sibling rivalries. The only remaining memory of his once vibrant chain of family firms was a merchandise store at Watkasing Street, which was operated by one of his great-great-grandsons, who married a Chinese woman. Octavio’s clan resented Cuanco’s expansion binge within Quiapo, as this practically dumped the latter’s competitors out of business. They could not match his clout, however, and the official renaming of the prestigious street from Calle de Octavio to Cuanco Street went unchallenged.

In some measure of revenge, the Octavio clan mobilized the public market vendors to dump their garbage right in front of the Cuanco residence in the middle of the night when police patrollers were either off-duty or sleeping. This filthy practice would eventually become a tradition for vendors, one generation after the other.

When the Americans granted the Philippines its independence, Filipinos elected their leaders through supposedly democratic processes. In the 1940s, a young and dashing mestizo from Manila named Adonis López de Romualdez rose to national prominence. One Spanish-English broadsheet called him the new Cinderella of Philippine politics. He eventually married Aurora Singh, a beauty queen and daughter of an Indian businessman named Kawshat Singh who, like Cuanco, officially changed his name to Benito Watkasing.

Part of the marriage agreement called for Adonis to lobby the City Government of Manila for the renaming of Cuanco Street to Watkasing Street, as well as for grooming Benito’s future in politics. The latter did win as Manila councilor in the 1949 local elections, then as Vice Mayor in the 1953 elections.

However, Adonis found the renaming of Cuanco Street to be a contentious lobby. Johnny Jr., one of Cuanco’s multimillionaire children, was a major financial supporter of a politician friend whose support he needed to keep his speakership at the House of Representatives. Johnny Cuanco objected to his name-change lobby. As a compromise, Adonis promised to help Benito win the 1957 Manila mayoralty elections, so that Benito himself could oversee the process at the city council. Benito did win the 1957 Manila mayoralty elections but did not press his renaming agenda too soon out of delicadeza. But when he got reelected four years later, Cuanco Street became Watkasing Street.

Benito’s wife, Parhana, beamed with pride at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Her husband fulfilled his promise to honor the Singh Family Clinic. Owned by Shawkat Singh, Benito’s Harvard-trained physician cousin, the clinic established its reputation at Cuanco Street. Shawkat followed Benito’s recommendation when Shawkat sought a prestigious address for his clinic in the Philippines.

Parhana almost died at the hospital when she gave birth to Aurora. On Shawkat’s frantic pleading, Benito brought Parhana to Singh Family Clinic, where she delivered the baby successfully. Indebted to his cousin, Benito offered to promote the clinic as an elite medical facility in all of Manila, if not the Philippines. It started with immortalizing the family name by renaming the street. The rebranding of the clinic as Watkasing Family Clinic soon followed.

The rich and famous residents of Watkasing Street who had ties to the ruling political leadership grew richer in leaps and bounds. Happy days did not last long, however. In the 1960s, protests hit the streets of Manila, calling for an end to corruption in the government. The elites soon relocated elsewhere, establishing their exclusive posh enclaves in New Manila, Makati, or Lanciano City.    

Watkasing Street soon collapsed as a commercial hub, giving way to Escolta in nearby Sta. Cruz, and to the markets for the masses in Divisoria and Baclaran. The remnants of the Octavio clan left the surviving merchandise store to the care of distant relatives. Shawkat Singh founded a specialty hospital in Singapore and sold the Watkasing Family Clinic to a group of friends among local medical practitioners.

The clinic, which was within hearing distance of Quiapo Church through its amplifiers, eventually catered to pregnant women who sought abortion services. Also, although not as often as abortion cases, the clinic earned much more when the prospective client agreed to hide and not to abort the baby. She would be incognito for about ten months (Octavio’s merchandise store was sometimes rented as lodging house for the expectant mother). While waiting for the time of her delivery, the clinic regularly checked her physical condition. She also received monthly stipends for up to ten months. In return, she would not be identified as mother of the child and would be expected to completely dissociate herself from anything related to the baby and the clinic. At the time, the clinic earned up to a million pesos for the top-secret operation from a Chinese syndicate that they could only vaguely call as Xing Dynasty.                     

AT 3:00 A.M., FATHER ANDOY WAS UP. In minutes he would be ready to leave his room and descend from the third floor to the ground floor of the convent, where work awaited him. For three years now this had been his routine: leading the first mass of the day—at 4:00 a.m.—except on Fridays.

As was his wont, he would, after a cup of coffee, wander for a few minutes toward Plaza Roma just to smell morning air and greet one or two of the early risers. The first time he did this, he wondered if people—especially the vendors—ever went to sleep. He could see them milling about in that open space and farther onto the adjoining narrow streets. Several times he had been tempted—his seminary training urged him to talk happily to people—to ask, and the responses he got were more or less the same: Yes, everybody seemed to have found a way to sleep. Some, especially women, for two hours. Others for three hours. The men, women told him in jest, drank alcohol so that nobody would have the courage to wake them up while asleep.

Father Andoy, twenty-nine, was relatively new among around eleven priests who were assigned to the St. John the Baptist Parish in Quiapo, more popularly known as Quiapo Church. The parish is home to a black statue, almost of real-life size, of what has come to be known as the “Black Nazarene,” which recreates Jesus Christ carrying a cross on his way to his crucifixion. Accounts have it that a sculptor from Mexico—whose name historical accounts have unfortunately missed out—carved the icon from a dark mesquite wood. In 1606, the black statue found its way from Acapulco, Mexico, to the Philippines via the galleon trade, which at that time linked the two former colonies of Spain commercially and culturally.

In its early years of being an object of devotion for Filipino Catholics, the image hopped from one parish to another within Manila. Written accounts at Wikipedia further say that “on January 9, 1787, the Augustinian Recollects donated a copy of the image to the Church of the Camisa (one of Quiapo Church’s original names). This devotion was later on celebrated by the faithful every January 9 by means of a procession (henceforth called the Traslación) from Guadalupe (its original home, San Nicolás de Tolentino Church; later from outside Rizal Park) back to Quiapo.” The original copy was believed to have been destroyed when Manila was bombed in 1945 as World War II reached the peak of its orgasmic madness.

Aside from the Traslación, which in later years had drawn crowds in millions, the Black Nazarene attracted throngs of devotees every Friday, prompting media to label that day as “Quiapo Day,” with heavy connotation on the monstrous human and vehicular traffic this devotion had generated in that part of Manila.

Devotees of the Black Nazarene have attested to its miraculous healing powers. Aside from physical healing, many believers have credited the Black Nazarene for helping them pass licensure examinations, overcome all sorts of addictions, and even save personal relationships. Athletes in two of the country’s most popular sports, basketball and boxing, could be seen among the Friday crowd, especially if they were involved in big games lined up for the weekend.  

Plaza Roma was iconic as a melting pot for public debates in the same way that Quiapo Church was a haven for private devotion and piety. In the early 1960s, Plaza Roma was the site of a political rally when a bomb explosion killed and maimed at least 104 local and national candidates, rally organizers, and spectators. 

Today—marked in a calendar hoisted at the door of a nearby store as Monday, 25 March 1985—had by all naked signs appeared to Father Andoy as just another day in the office. Mobile vending carts were getting into position. Customers haggled with sellers, who seemed very good at hustling their way into closing a sale. Even kids as young as four could be seen selling sampaguita flowers. Two policemen (they almost always showed up in pairs), whose bunkhouse occupied a prominent space at one of the corners of Plaza Roma, appeared roused—which was a normal sight to anyone who had been in that area for a long time—as they slipped out of their station.

But Father Andoy spotted something odd at the far end of the adjoining Watkasing Street, a view which was impossible during Fridays because of so many people blocking it from where he stood. A group of people had converged rather animatedly in a corner which he reckoned was close to the side of the street being appropriated as dump area—to the endless rant by street cleaners—by vendors. He could not see horror in their faces, convincing himself to dismiss the idea that crime had taken place.

He glanced at his watch. It was 3:25 a.m. He decided to go back to the convent. In forty-five minutes he would, in the performance of his duties and being true to his priestly calling, facilitate the celebration of a mysterious miracle, or miraculous mystery, that happens every day in all Catholic churches: the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.      

Right after he finished presiding over the mass, he shed his cassock and took a quick breakfast. Dawn was breaking, but some unlit portions of interior streets were still dark. He traced his way back to where he saw some kind of commotion an hour ago.

He saw a few people huddled together: a slim fellow struggled to find his balance under the weight of a TV camera but otherwise looked athletic enough as he overtook him, and the two policemen he saw earlier were at the far end of the street, one of them talking to a handheld radio. In his early Quiapo days, Father Andoy had learned that media networks were a call away from the policemen in the area. Media people scrambled among themselves for tips that would lead them to being the first (and preferably the only ones) to cover and publish choice content, and the Quiapo police topped the list of tipsters.

He was about ready to mingle with one of the huddling bystanders, in kibitzer-like manner, when the son of an Hijo friend—one of the Hijos who became a confidante—came rushing to him with news that somebody was seeking his help. Following the path which the boy was pointing to, Father Andoy spotted a middle-aged woman standing edgily in front of one of the rows of stores along Watkasing Street, about three hundred meters south of Quiapo Church. Her body language suggested urgency. He took quick steps in her direction.

As soon as he got close enough to hear what she had to say, she pleaded with him, in hushed tones, “Father Sir, please, the Social Welfare Office will be taking this baby away,” pointing to a cartoon box which both of them could barely see, parked somewhat hurriedly in the corner of an adjoining room.

Seeing that the priest was searching for his thoughts and seemingly unsure of what to say, the woman continued, “Can you take him for a few hours so I can convince the Social Welfare officer that his biological parents have retrieved him?”

Father Andoy shook his head, smiling, looking surprised and laughed at, even defamed.

“It’s not what you think it is, Father Sir,” she explained. “What will happen is that the Social Welfare Office will take possession of this abandoned child unless the biological parents come forward to claim him.” To convince him that she was an authority on the subject, she told him that she knew of at least three similar cases that happened in Quiapo and nearby Sta. Cruz areas.

Father Andoy nodded in agreement. “And the parents will have to convince the government that they are capable of taking care of the child,” he said, almost absentmindedly, “… competently and properly.”

And dumping a child, they both agreed, was almost always a certain ground for parents to disqualify themselves as custodians of their own children.

“Yes, I think so. But if I tell them that you are taking custody of the child, they will have no further questions. Then I will take him back from you as soon as talk about him is down from buzz to hiss, as it were,” she said, with one eye half winking.

She tried to draw him closer, but failing to do that, she whispered, pointing her kisser toward the still baby, “I saw something in him. I think he has powers.”

This time Father Andoy could hardly hide his annoyance. But as he gestured to be excused, the woman pressed her case. “Do you know how I found him over there?” she asked in a tone that did not expect any reply, pointing to a pile of trash at the opposite side of the road. For a moment this caught his attention.

She took advantage of his wandering focus and went on to unload her tale. “You know, Father Sir,” she continued, trying to level her tone, “these freshly dumped mixes of food and merchandise waste are fodder for stray dogs and cats. But when I found them here, these animals were not touching anything. Instead, they were just staring at the box, as if performing a duty, like Rizal’s guards at the Santiago de Compostela.” 

She meant to entertain, but Father Andoy turned serious at this point. Sensing this, the woman apologized. But she continued to plead for his help. Unknown to her, something shook him, tugging fragile chords at his memory bank. Father Revo! He told him a week ago that something like this would happen.

Father Andoy finally asked to be excused and left. With mixed feelings of hesitation and boldness, he said to the woman, “OK, if it is allowed, please tell the Social Welfare officer I can take custody of the child.”

Back at the convent, he waited for Father Revo to show up at the mess hall. This was where, at this hour, they usually traded feel-good banter, along with other priests and church workers. This time, though, he wanted to talk to him in private.

Father Revo used to be considered as the most radical-minded among Quiapo’s clergy. He joined street protests. With cassocks on, he manned picket lines with laborers who were on strike. Some four years ago, he rose to national prominence when photos of him in the middle of a fracas graced a tabloid. He was in an urban poor community, trying to pacify its leaders and members of a government demolition team who found themselves at the edge of a violent confrontation.

But recently Father Revo’s wings had been clipped. If the Quiapo Rector was a coach of a team sports, it looked as if he had cut Father Revo’s playing minutes to the minimum. Unlike fellow priests who were assigned to preside masses at specific hours, Father Revo’s role was to substitute for someone who could not, for whatever reason, officiate at a mass. Thus, he was, more often than not, at the confessional rather than at the altar.

The official explanation for his demotion was that he was having recurring bouts with diabetes and other health issues. Nobody—not even Father Revo—questioned the factual basis for that explanation. But fellow priests also knew that too often he used the pulpit as a platform for his political views, and the hierarchy had to have a way to limit his airtime.

This did not stop him from being immersed in the community, however. He knew how many homeless families spent their nights in the streets of Quiapo. He remembered the names of babies born from these families and the women who got pregnant in their teens. In that sense, he was the good shepherd, trying to smell just like how his flock smelt. 

He was particularly proud of the credit union he helped organize among vendors at Plaza Roma. The association did not only help its members cope with financial problems, especially during emergency situations, but it also helped them bargain with the police and collectors from City Hall to reduce their daily tax from 5 pesos to 2 pesos.

When Father Revo finally appeared at the mess hall, Father Andoy was almost done with his coffee break. “Revo, can I join you at your table?” Father Andoy greeted Father Revo. It was more like a command than a request, much less a question.

Father Revo moved about with an uncharacteristically noticeable bounce, as if he reaped something rejuvenating from his sleep. In contrast, Father Andoy looked winded this early, which also was quite uncharacteristic for him. 

Father Revo noticed it and tried to shake him right away. “What is it?”

“That phony tale you shared with me a week or two ago, can you give me more details about it?”

The pupils of Father Revo’s eyes shrank as he moved his head to squarely face Father Andoy as rays of the morning light, deflected from a signboard atop a nearby building, bathed him. “Which one?” Father Revo sounded innocent.

Prompted by snippets of what Father Andoy went through this morning, Father Revo narrated once more his encounter with a panicky woman at the confessional. She told him she had just given birth to a son and was asking for forgiveness, as she planned to abandon him. He asked her about the baby’s father. She told him she had lost communication with him.

Father Revo advised her to see the social worker at the parish office or the Social Welfare Office of the city government.

“You see, the seal of the confessional does not apply here,” Father Revo ribbed Father Andoy, “because she was contrite for an offense that she was merely planning to commit.”

“I don’t know if the child she was talking about is the same child for whom somebody out there, just minutes ago, asked me to assume custody,” Father Andoy said, concern on his face still evident.

“Woohoo!” Father Revo could not contain his jubilation. “Cheer up, Father Andoy. What seems to be the problem? You are twenty-nine now, are you not? About time somebody calls you father, in addition to the multitude of souls that see you like one!”

Except for how he said it, Father Andoy could not find sarcasm in Father Revo’s words.

“Where is he? Let’s get him baptized ASAP. And let’s call him Anding!” Father Revo declared, laughing. By Anding, Father Revo meant the child was a small copy of Andoy. He then turned serious. “Father Andoy,” he said, “remember Mama Mary. She faced risks of public derision for bearing a child out of wedlock, but she said yes anyway.”

Hours later, Father Revo found himself in a meeting that would decide the fate of the child, at Father Andoy’s behest. Participants in that meeting included two social welfare officers from the city government, the woman in her forties who found the baby, the two priests, and the chief of the police station. They were huddled together inside the latter’s cramped office. About fifty to sixty onlookers, including a TV crew, were waiting for “news” outside.

Everybody in that meeting was upbeat, exchanging repartee and small talk. When the meeting turned serious, and after having introduced themselves to one another, Sylvia Monir, the finder-keeper, volunteered to open the discussion.

“Father Andoy here told me earlier he was taking custody of the child,” she said.

“We have discussed everything with the foster parents, so protecting the interests of the child should be in good hands,” Father Revo quickly added, sounding much like a lawyer for Father Andoy.

It had been a tribute to the enduring moral suasion among priests that people were ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, where no further questions needed to be asked, in a context that allowed a positively generous interpretation of whatever it was they had to say, even away from the pulpit. In this case, the social workers and the police understood Father Revo’s “manifestation” as suggesting that Father Andoy had filial interests in the child.

One Social Welfare officer whispered to the other, “How will I fill up the case-management form?”

 “Just copy what the reports say in similar cases.” The body language suggested their office overflowed with piles of similar cases, and counting, to the delight of the police chief.

The meeting ended the way it started. Everyone had a smile on their faces, except perhaps Father Andoy.     

The next day, one newspaper headline screamed: “Abandoned child fathered by a priest?” with a subheading: “Scandals continue to hound the Catholic Church.”

The report quoted a bystander who heard Father Andoy say he was taking custody of the child. Sylvia was also interviewed, who said the Social Welfare officer had made it known that one of the biological parents was taking custody of the child. There was no reference of who the priest was, except that “he could be one of the young and debonaire priests of Quiapo Church.”  

In the evening TV news (and now more or less all media networks had covered the story), more clips of interviews among witnesses were shown. One reporter also managed to elicit a few words from the parish office.

“Is it true that Father Andoy is the father of the child?”

“I’m sorry. Really do not know, you’ll have to ask Father Andoy himself.”      

Hours earlier, the Rector called his priests (all eleven of them) to a meeting to address what seemed to be a gathering firestorm of buzz bits. They agreed to gag themselves. Two days later, however, reportedly on “strong suggestion” by the archbishop, Father Andoy allowed himself to be briefly interviewed on TV. He denied fathering the child but voiced his decision to take custody of the child in the belief that his action would benefit the child.

The next day, about a thousand placard-bearing rallyists chanted “Down with liars and hypocrites!” and “Father Damaso!” in front of Quiapo Church. This, too, was featured in tabloid headlines.

Eight days after Father Andoy consented to be the child’s “father,” the Quiapo clergy baptized Anding. The official name on record was Leandro Deo Renato Moscavida. It was the result of a compromise among quibbling priests. The child’s surname was copied from a file of a maternity clinic where supposedly the child was born, based on results of a Father Andoy–led investigation.

Aside from Sylvia being the actual custodian of the child, part of her agreement with Father Andoy was to collaborate on establishing official records for the child. She, however, had nothing to contribute except a disposable baller which had something like “Moses Maternity Clinic” written on it. After an exhausting search, Father Andoy decided that no such clinic existed. But the search led him to “MMortal Maximilian Clinic” instead.

Father Revo suggested something like Martin Moscavida, which to him was apt to remember St. Martin de Porres by. The saint was born out of wedlock to a mixed-race couple, then went on to overcome prejudice and gained acceptance throughout his entire life simply by loving his neighbor and practicing humility. But the Rector suggested Deo Renato. And obedience was often a fact of priestly lives.  

“Deo Renato means Deo Regnat in Latin,” said Monsignor Hoben Ubanon, the Rector of Quiapo Church. He did not need to explain but said so anyway. “In English: God Reigns. Then ‘ad regnum’—to the reign, my personal motto—prays that every hand may help us lead our flock back to the reign.”

The baptismal rite was a show of force for the Quiapo clergy. The Rector presided over it, and all his priests stood as godfathers. In a way, Anding early in life reached a level of social prestige and standing only a few of the children of the super-rich could match: that of being ushered into God’s kingdom by a platoon of His worldly ministers.

But no one would have thought that the anointing would also usher in Anding’s early ascent to his calvary. The weeks that followed showed that Sylvia had little interest in protecting, much more in promoting, the interests of the child. She was secretly, unknown to Father Andoy, selling Anding to the highest bidder.

She made use of the priest to take possession of a commodity that she planned to profit from commercially. And Father Andoy seemed happy to be of service, until news broke out that Anding was nowhere to be found.

Before she took on the menial job as store attendant of a general merchandise store—the one that used to be owned by one among Octavio’s clan—in Watkasing Street, Sylvia Monir had a promising career in multi-level marketing, ostensibly selling home grooming products. However, a court case against the company for “pyramiding” halted her rise to fame and wealth.

Still, that did not stop her from getting ahead in life. The main competitor of the company hired her as a mid-level corporate executive. With bonuses from sales made by teams she helped grow exponentially, she became a self-made millionaire at age thirty-five. She was so good that her coworkers felt envious of her success.

One day, the owner of the company found that somebody had embezzled funds from the treasury. In an internal investigation that followed, two coworkers testified that Sylvia was behind several fraudulent transactions, complete with receipts that established the money trail. Turned out her skills in sales could not help her navigate through the maze of bureaucratic traps. She found herself lucky: the penalty of dismissal imposed on her could have been harsher.

Months later, egged on by a former coworker to question her unjust dismissal, Sylvia sued the company for unfair labor practice. She took the gamble partly because of personal pride that nagged her to redeem whatever was left of her reputation, as well as partly on a friend’s advice that everything she lost financially could be recouped. She eventually lost the case, after a series of appeals, along with much of her savings that she spent on legal services during litigation.

Her depression pushed her to the brink; her emotional swings—sometimes foregoing meals for days—taxed the patience and tolerance of people around her. Except for a few—her boyfriend of ten years had abandoned her—those who followed her in her heyday were mostly gone. Convinced that a world she once dazzled with her gift of gab had been lost, she sought and found refuge in illegal drugs. It was a matter of time before she showed signs of hitting the bonkers. In just a span of two years, hers was a free fall from the heights of self-confidence to the depths of despair, from millionaire to pauper, from a winsome talker to a wretched loner.

Fortunately for her, the core of her family was there to lift her from the pits. Against her will, family members deprived her of personal liberties. She could not hang out with anyone beyond the neighborhood unless she showed some healing in her emotional bruises. Alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs were totally and permanently banned.

After a year of arduous babysitting, Sylvia’s mother, frail at sixty-five, gradually allowed her to test the outside world again. Strangely, the city streets became a therapeutic home for her. Her outward appearance still pretty much suggested that she had lost her wits. On closer look, however, she was one who could wow a crowd with tales of her once happy life and, to the surprise of policemen and onlookers, she could speak fluent English.

Even more strangely, she found the slimy Quiapo neighborhood to be accommodating. The place where complete strangers met beckoned her to blend in. Although at times she marked herself as Catholic by the sign of the cross, members of the Muslim community in the area adopted her as one of their own. Fourteen months after her meltdown, she was on her way to a “miraculous” emotional recovery.

Wooed extravagantly, she went on to marry a Muslim trader. They separated three years later, however, although she decided to keep his family name. Her husband, who had children from several other women, complained that she was barren.

Her husband happened to have connections with a slew of policemen. Through an endorsement by one of them, she got the job as store attendant in the store where she found a carefully bundled child one early morning, just as dawn was breaking. She was sane enough, with an astute presence of mind, to quickly decide that this one was her passport to redemption. She had been planning to try her luck as an overseas contract worker, and she needed at least 70K pesos to get all the paperwork done. Once she started “earning” again, her personal vow to repay her mother for the troubles she caused her could finally be fulfilled.  

Sylvia guarded Anding like he was the Golden Buddha—one of those make-believe stories she once read from a pile of her favorite tabloids. So precious but hidden.

The first order of the day was to talk to Sir Dikomo. The policeman had the longest tenure in the Quiapo Police Precinct. While it was normal for everyone else to be reassigned to other precincts after two or three years, Sir Dikomo had been in Quiapo for more than ten years.

The Police Commission had found him guilty of at least three administrative charges in the past, meriting penalty of dismissal, only to be reinstated every time after each conviction. Not a few from among his ranks had expressed resentment for what appeared clearly to them as special treatment that was being accorded to him by higher authorities.

Not found in police records but known to practically all men in uniform was how Sir Dikomo, fresh from graduation at the military academy, had shot and killed two gangsters with whom a cousin of his had an altercation. Did he kill more? Nobody would know.

Certainly unknown to all—except to a select core of middlemen—was how, while hustling as a hired gun, he earned his reputation as one who left no trace of evidence that could implicate him, much less his patrons in all the murders he carried out for money. For this alone he could have been appointed to any position he wished, because one or two of those patrons were in control of government at any given time. 

Sir Dikomo preferred a low-profile standing in the police hierarchy; he was one who projected an image of being dedicated to his calling. He seemed bent on building an impeccable track record for arresting petty crimes in the neighborhood and establishing peace and order wherever his assignment took him. He wanted to remain labeled that way because while his professional stock before an adoring public steadily rose, none of his mistresses would suspect his bank accounts grew in proportion to the rise of his official rank. Even of greater concern was overexposing himself to public scrutiny that a high-profile stature normally attracted, because aside from being a hired gun whose price tag only the wealthy could afford, he dabbled in a shady Mafia-like organization that espoused foreign interests.   

Yet Sir Dikomo was perhaps the most beloved patrolman in all of Quiapo. Whenever he had his way, he did not tolerate abuse of ordinary people by persons in authority, and he was reciprocated with an abundance of respect. Regular devotees, vendors, tenants, among many others, deferred to him. During Friday masses, the Quiapo Parish turned to him—complementing the security force of the parish—to ensure that order within the surroundings of the church was maintained. For this extra service, the priests showered him and his fellow officers with gifts, either in kind or in cash.

Sylvia was indebted to Sir Dikomo for endorsing her to her employer. Excited at the prospect of being able to finally repay him, she sought him out for a chat. After a brief “yes-I-know-you” banter, they went down to business.

“I just sort of remember that orphanage kind of business you told me about…” she said.

“Yes. Have I told you about Sir Reg, our former chief?” The reference to his former boss was subtle. Sir Dikomo felt that Sylvia could be a kind of mole or spy within the organization, and so if she was referring to a side hustle that some people might find exploitative, there was the venerable Col. Regidor Makatigbas to either thank for or blame.

“No,” Sylvia replied. Of course, Sir Dikomo kept a secret like how Father Revo would guard the seal of the confessional. That meant disclosing but only stray and unrelated strands of the OXD agenda. That also meant being discreet about any scant mention of his Sir Reg.

“Well, he wanted to broaden his sources of information that feed a group of clients in need of orphanages,” Sir Dikomo mumbled, still trying to probe whatever the point it was that brought Sylvia to him. “That was probably the context for why you got the information regarding orphanages.”

“Yes, sir, I have information for you!” she exclaimed.

“I remember there were three cases in this area where sources of leads got hefty commissions for their referrals,” he said, sounding like he was more confident now in what Sylvia was trying to say.

“No, sir, I am not only the source of information, but I am also the custodian of an orphan myself,” she clarified, with matching body language that emphasized she was worth more than a commission.

OK, so this is a money transaction, Sir Dikomo thought, feeling more relaxed at this point. His reaction told Sylvia how pleasantly surprised he was.

It had been four long years since she felt this confident, and although the fleeting flashback triggered memories of hate and unbearable pain, she could not deny at this point that opportunity was teasing her. Hers was a vision of a door being opened for a realistic streak that could soon bring her back to a familiar self: being the one who was on top of her game.

“And from those three cases, I knew, sir, that babies who have no government records commanded bigger sums…” She paused, waiting for some kind of confirmation from the police officer.

Sir Dikomo nodded. “Yes, of course, depending on how seamless you can deliver the child to the boarding process.” 

The boarding process for the OXD Agenda, sometimes called the OXD (short for Operation Xing Dynasty) Project, had three long-term stratagems tracks. The first, called Subic Babies, sent orphans to designated families in the United States where they would stay long enough to be able to acquire American citizenship. Their Filipino parentage would qualify them to become dual citizens. As dual citizens, they could buy real estate properties, including huge tracts of land in the Philippines. In twenty or so years, the Subic Babies would be able to supply land, including quarry materials, for the OXD project.

Track two comprised the Panatag Babies, where orphans would be sent to OXD-affiliated families. One or two members of these families were likely to have military backgrounds. Like the Subic Babies, the Panatag orphans would be raised in a normal environment for kids, like going through grade and high school. In college, they would be enticed to enroll at the military academy. Their military training, as well as the progression of their respective military careers, should be seen as a natural process for them. In thirty to forty years, tens of military generals in active service would be expected to covertly support the OXD Project to the point that, where there would be any conflict, their oath of allegiance to their country could be sacrificed for what OXD’s ultimate mission demanded.

Track three comprised the rejects—orphans sent to either one of the two tracks who got derailed at some point became sources for the organ banks in mainland Qina. The OXD Secretariat decided on how or when they became donors. Often, they died from a motorcycle accident, or they could be casualties in a drug buy bust operation. 

Parallel lobbies supported legislation that aimed, among other things, to harmonize and ease the procedures for the grant of dual citizenships involving the US and other major countries of destination for Filipino migrants, revisit laws on orphanages and adoption, as well as on ownership of real estate properties by dual citizens. There were also specific interventions for each of the three tracks. For Subic Babies, OXD helped finance and nurture the election of selected puppets in key local government posts, especially in areas adjoining to the west Philippine Sea territories. Local officials who had potential to be groomed as Manchurian candidates at the national level were tabbed as “special projects.” For Panatag Babies, OXD worked covertly to help manage the careers of selected military and police officers. For the rejects, OXD established a network of affiliates among funeral and memorial services outfits.

OXD made it a policy to strictly follow Philippine laws on adoption of children from orphanages. But just the same, it assumed that after completion of each adoption process, nobody would be able to track either the identity or the whereabouts of the child, regardless of whether they were in the United States or in the Philippines. There had been complications, however, such as when a scam run by a foster care center became the subject of a congressional investigation, threatening to expose the heretofore invisible industry players like the OXD. Which was why preference was given, and bigger amounts were paid, to custodians of abandoned children, because no records of their identities existed. This also explained why OXD maintained a network of maternity and birth clinics in major urban centers throughout the country, although some of them existed only in paper.

After a discussion on how money would be split (Sylvia actually could do nothing but either agree or disagree), they decided to discuss the onboarding details at some future time and date. The whole transaction would amount, in peso terms, to 100K, 25K of which would be deducted and split among a matrix of brokers and/or affiliates. That meant Sylvia would net around 75K for her merchandise.

Before she kind of closed the deal with Sir Dikomo, Sylvia reached out to at least two more prospective buyers from a list (which she laboriously compiled for at least five days) of families that had filed applications to adopt a child. The list contained names and telephone numbers that she collected from Hospisyo ng Maynila and two other orphanages; with characteristic creativity, she also listed names of childless families that recently offered masses at the Quiapo Church that petitioned for divine intervention. Two from her list offered amounts that she rejected. One was even slightly higher than the one that was already on the table. She thought that she owed the policeman so much that it would take a much bigger take-home pay to turn him down.

The effort to auction off her precious find also led her to more discoveries about the orphanage business. She found out that there were several layers of distribution chains. Orphanages sourced their warm inventories not only from birth and maternity clinics, but also from custodial facilities for homeless street children. Then they either raised or farmed them out to foster homes, some of whom were unknown to government regulatory agencies. There were brokers and “bridge families.” Like auto service centers that groomed used cars before being offered for resale to command higher prices, outsourced foster families helped refine the manners of orphans (especially street children) to prepare them for adoption.

OXD had more or less the same business model, except that trying to hide was a default route. The less documented transactions were, the more secure the whole operation would be. Before Sylvia could get paid, she had to deliver the baby like he was contraband. Identities of agents involved had to be concealed; no records were to be signed; nothing had to change hands except the baby and wads of cash.

Sir Dikomo assured her that as long as she kept the code of silence, the deal would be completed just as they discussed it. One final detail in their verbal agreement: Sir Dikomo advised her to just “disappear into the night” as soon as she got paid.

This was not a problem for Sylvia. Her contract for overseas employment, facilitated by a recruitment agency that was partly owned by her former husband, and her travel arrangements were up for final approval; nothing but the full payment of corresponding recruitment fees stood in the way of her second lease in life.