Growing up with Wowowee, the Villar family as my backyard neighbors, MMK, and the 6/55 Lotto.
Every Saturday afternoon, I’d poke a pencil into the broken buttons of a Sony CRT, flipping from Cartoon Network to channel two. The whole household would crowd into my room, impatiently waiting for Willie Revillame to start spinning across the screen, surrounded by women in heels and miniskirts—the Wowowee dancers clapping and twirling in front of a studio audience of hundreds from all across the nation. “Sa Luzon, sa Visayas, at sa Mindanao, saan man sulok ng mundo makakasama nyo!” every line from the theme song flashing at the bottom of the screen, practically unneeded, the room clapping along. From Luzon, from Visayas, and from Mindanao, wherever in the world you are, come join in! To any outsider, he would seem like a generic, unassuming Filipino-Chinese man, but to this country, he was a savior. Everyone in the audience arrived at Manila by boat or plane or eleven-hour bus ride, all with dreams to hear his theme song, almost synonymous with reinvention. In a smile, he could give you the money to turn your life around. My yayas, the household help that my frequently-absent parents employed to keep the family together, lived for these noontime showings. They’d convene every weekday and Saturday before getting back to folding clothes or cleaning the plastic dining table with baby wipes. I’d sit next to them and learn the way Willie worked: joking about politicians and the weather to factory workers and housewives in his audience, my yayas laughing along as if on cue. He’d pry open their story, the town they came from and how they found their way to Wowowee before handing them a thousand peso bill. When Willie lifted the mic to them for their fifteen-second story 1, it was always one of resilience.
My yayas would yell answers at the screen as Willie spun the Willie of Fortune, contestants with their broken teeth and hand towels draped over their shoulders struggling to sing the lyrics to the chosen radio tune. “House and lot! House and lot!” he’d dangle the rewards in front of them them, a nation tuned in to see them walk away with nothing or everything. “Sayang,” I’d watch my closest yaya exclaim, in clear defeat before backing up from the screen. “Alam ko ‘yun.” What a waste, I knew that. Yaya always swore that she’d be on that stage one day. Dancing along, or in a glass box with cash blowing around filling her pockets with all she could keep. I envisioned her sobbing out her life story with cameras and lights, Willie’s sympathetic hand on her back and a thousand bill slipped into her hands. I wished I could give her that.
For several years, our family never bought groceries from the supermarket, or many things at all. I remember asking my father for a 70 peso magazine for my eighth birthday and being rejected, but for some reason we always made exceptions.
In those times, I frequently accompanied my mother to work at the maternity hospital2 our family owned in Tondo, Manila. I was born in that hospital (delivered by my grandmother) and was raised in that district for the early part of my life, before my parents had enough to buy our own home and settle two hours down south. Tondo is one of the world’s most densely populated areas and is Manila’s largest city, where an estimated 4 million people live in the slums, many live on just $1.25 a day.34
After my my mother’s work5, we’d squeeze into a tricycle6 to the Tondo public market. Stall after stall in a warehouse, water dripping from the ceiling with the merged smell of every imaginable produce. This was no supermarket. My mom would buy us Coke poured into plastic bags, a straw poking out before we waded through to buy our groceries for the week. On some of these trips, my mother would ask to make another stop by our first family home7, some blocks away from the hospital. It was a crude house built of corrugated tin and thin wood, one wall of unfinished concrete blocks and a rotting door, a large 2001 calendar covering an unfinished hole. Outside, the street sung, neighbors crowded around a small television playing chimes and commercials, the sound of rancorous laughter and kids chasing dogs. We’d walk across the old street, the scent of burning trash and sampaguita8, and stop by a stall to buy a ticket for the 6/55 Lottery. In order to win the 6/55 prize, you have to hit all six numbers in any order. “Your dad was so excited, the jackpot was 30 million last Monday,” she tells me. She would always ask me for a number.
In 2010 they introduced to us the concept of the government, just in time for the Presidential Elections. I was fresh out of third grade in April and witnessed the last push of campaign season, where I was almost certain that commercial blocks ran longer than actual shows did. My parents even helped our two yayas register to vote and offered to carpool to the same precinct. Every day, our heads would be filled with presidentiables, from their songs and words on television to their posters and banners fluttering across billboards, buses, and rice sacks. Nakaligo ka na ba sa dagat ng basura? Nagpasko ka na ba sa gitna ng kalsada? My yayas garnered all they knew about the electoral process from their friends across the village and from television. They swooned over a new man—a presidential candidate named Manny Villar. They held frequent debates over who had a better theme song. (Yaya still remained loyal to Willie.) Villar ran one of the most memorable campaigns in Philippine history. The newscaster reported of his upbringing in our shared birthplace of Tondo, selling shrimp and fish in the same market. The radio gossip talked of defiance, graduating from the country’s most prestigious university with his promise to lead the Filipino to the same path. He had his miracle story. Have you ever swam in a sea of trash? Have you ever celebrated Christmas in the middle of a road? His commercial ran over and over, filled with street children amidst Tondo—the murky Pasig River in the background. They could chime in so perfectly, “Si Manny Villar ang magtatapos ng ating kahirapan.” Manny Villar will end our hardships.
In election summer, we watched the morning news give election spiels and success stories. I learned to cook spam for lunch right before Willie’s usual skits and games. In the afternoon, my yayas paused and prayed to the 3 o’clock prayer––devotion synced across every Filipino channel while I watched them. In the evenings, we’d wait for MMK at 9 after all the dishes have been washed. We listened and cried to stories of common people and their lives turned from slums to comfort, never without struggle. One night, yaya turned to me and asked me if my parents were voting for Manny. I shrugged, but I knew the answer.
Manny Villar lived in the house behind mine. His backyard spanned over two times the space our home took up. He had (had) a pool with bridges that I could peer over from my parent’s bedroom. I would sometimes catch both my parents, dead-tired from a shift peeking over their curtains to gaze at the Villar’s backyard. “One day,” my parents exchanged. I’d join my yayas in cleaning my parent’s room and stare over at them, as they’d whisper about the extravagance of the house’s interior—details picked up from neighbors. All our drives from our village back to Tondo were plastered with Manny, him being a new face for hope. From Tondo to billionaire businessman. Once, in a traffic jam on the way home, a child knocks on the driver’s seat window begging for spare change with a “Nothing is Impossible with Manny” slogan on his shirt, the signature orange of his campaign draped across.
I remember asking my mother what it took for us to move to our home several times that summer. She never gave a clear response. Instead, she always promised us larger things: that one day, we’ll move and find home, have a garden, more bathrooms, and a washing machine. She referenced the high-rises glittering across the Manila Skyway with their exorbitant toll fees—but beautiful either way. “Maybe Makati, or at least Alabang so it won’t take you two hours to get to school from this house every day.”
Manny didn’t win. When I went back to school in June the boys mocked the song, “Si Manny Villar ay ang dahilan ng ating kahirapan.” Swaying along like all the children in rags. The jingle left primetime commercial slots, but it never really left people’s minds. Manny Villar is the reason for our hardships. I could still see the brown and murky river, the children smiling and some even swimming across as they mocked it.
Wowowee was cancelled in July. Willie had a feud with one of the showrunners. A day later, the weekday slot was replaced by Pilipinas Win Na Win, co-hosted by the sister of our newly-elected President.
I often wonder if we ever truly achieve the Filipino dream.
If not Willie, if not Manny, someone else will always step in. In 2016 our family closed in to the television as they swore in someone with an iron fist, who promised to end corruption and poverty and who swore away all men who would defy him—swore to kill.9 He touts his harsh upbringing, lifting Davao out of poverty and promising to save the Filipino people. Yaya watches the television, swayed by his words. “Siya na,” I watch her tell herself. This is the one.
My family never moved out. My mother still works at the same place, so we still visit Tondo every now and then. Last summer, we went by the same booth to pick up a 6/55, my parents ticking the same numbers they’ve ticked for years. All this with the street still alive with blasting karaoke, the same stalls and regional television. The block crowded around a screen, cheering and talking against the same cracking pavement and crammed homes, drinking soda from plastic bags. The ballot, the promises, the hope—all ever constant for reasons I still have yet to swallow.
I wrote this essay for a class in my Freshman Spring at Yale. Some parts are fictionalized/overblown. I have long tried to articulate how warped my view of life is from growing up with malls, gameshows, and no trust of government.