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How a Photographer’s Work Helped a Homeless Girl From Quiapo Finish College

In Quiapo, your dreams are valid
IMAGE Rick Rocamora
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On a Saturday morning inside the Quiapo Church, visitors pause to reach out their hands and touch the legs of the Black Nazarene, whose dark shins have been rubbed white from the constant groping. Someone halts me and a few other "tourists" from taking pictures of the crucifix, as Mass is ongoing. I hurry outside to Plaza Miranda to look for Rick Rocamora, the Filipino photojournalist whose book Blood, Sweat, Hope, and Quiapo, a photo essay on the people of Quiapo, brought to life the story of Rodallie Mosende, the homeless girl who graduated from college with a hospitality degree. Rocamora hadn’t seen her for a few months, and he wanted to check in with her before he flies back to the U.S., where he is based. 

When Rocamora showed his early photographs of Rodallie around, an anonymous benefactor offered to help pay for her college education at the Lyceum of the Philippines.


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Rodallie Mosende

Rodallie grew up sleeping on the streets, right beside her mother's stall/food cart while going to school during the day. She often had to beg or nick food from strangers just to eat. When Rocamora showed his early photographs of Rodallie around, an anonymous benefactor offered to help pay for her college education at the Lyceum of the Philippines. Each night, after a long day of classes, she would still watch the stall with her mom while she worked on her thesis. After graduation in 2016 (at which the alumnus Mayor Duterte was the guest speaker), Rodallie got a job in sales for a construction company, and was able to rent a small apartment in Quiapo for her family.

Hers is the kind of feel-good, inspirational story that people love reading about. A young woman who, despite the impoverished circumstances surrounding her, chose to stay optimistic and motivated. After the book came out, articles about Rodallie ran on various media outlets, revealing the background she had kept secret from most of her classmates, not because she was ashamed, but because she did not want to be treated differently.

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Hers is the kind of feel-good, inspirational story that people love reading about. A young woman who, despite the impoverished circumstances surrounding her, chose to stay optimistic and motivated.

Rocamora led me to Paterno Street where Rodallie's story began, stopping to say hi, how are your kids to the various characters he has met and photographed over the years—an old man who sells nothing but handkerchiefs, an elderly woman who has been reading fortunes since 1953, a young guy hawking Nazarene souvenir shirts. Rodallie's mom Rosalie still attends to the stall, which is parked semi-permanently in front of an optical shop.

It was a warm morning, and the streets were starting to come alive with commerce. Huge boxes were carted up and down the street, sleeping cots for rent were folded up. Rodallie's younger sister Ebonllie, five months pregnant, bathed her one-year-old son on the sidewalk while Rosalie sold softdrinks and rice meals to customers.


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El Salvador

These few square feet of concrete where they hunker down for the night is literally the Mosendes’ home—but you would be just as correct in saying that the whole of Quiapo is their home. They zig through the maze of vendors selling cellphone cases, colored chicks and pamparegla with the ease of someone who owns the place, because no property lines demarcate anything they own, owning nothing. We waited for Rodallie while listening to gossip about the latest Quiapo-eño who "disappeared." Her sister tells us that Rodallie wouldn't be coming this morning because she had to pick up lab results at the vet. Their 14-year-old dog Tina was seriously sick. Tina grew up on the streets as part of the family and through every hardship they ever experienced. (A week later, a heartbroken Rodallie would post on Facebook that her faithful companion had passed away.)  

The kids in her neighborhood were inspired to continue their elementary and high school studies. Sure enough, parents tried to introduce their promising kids to the photographer in the hopes he might find them a benefactor too.

As Rodallie’s story started making the rounds on social media, donations would come in, like some extra money to pay for her books, even a laptop. Both Rocamora and the benefactor’s liaison were incredibly proud to witness the young woman’s growth as a person. "During the book launch at the Filipinas Heritage Library, Rodallie delivered a powerful speech about her experiences and responded to questions with confidence and authority," Rocamora says. The kids in her neighborhood were inspired to continue their elementary and high school studies, and Rodallie started tutoring the Paterno street children. Sure enough, parents tried to introduce their promising kids to the photographer in the hopes he might find them a benefactor too.

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Even without meeting Rodallie, her story already challenges beliefs one may have about the homeless—that they are automatically derelicts and mendicants, or part of a syndicate—and this is one of the reasons she agreed to do the book. She is not unique, or different, and her achievements shouldn't be used to reinforce the commonly held notion that poor people are poor because they're lazy or don't try hard enough. "We as a nation must provide avenues for poor and deserving students the opportunity for a college education," Rocamora says. In Quiapo and beyond, there are many people like Rodallie who come from challenging backgrounds, and who work just as hard, and have just as much dignity.

 "We as a nation must provide avenues for poor and deserving students the opportunity for a college education," Rocamora says.

***

 

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February 26, 1986

Rick Rocamora, now 70, came to photojournalism after he retired from his corporate job of 18 years in the U.S. pharmaceutical industry. He had migrated to California when Martial Law was declared, but he continued to actively protest the dictatorship along with other Filipinos abroad, and as a fledgling photographer he contributed to Ang Katipunan, a leftist newsmagazine for the Filipino community.

A few years after the EDSA Revolution, Rocamora decided to dedicate himself full-time to his advocacies through documentary photography, and spent the next three decades covering diverse groups like Filipino veterans, the Japanese-Americans who were interned in camps, Muslim-Filipinos, and post-9/11 Muslim-Americans, calling attention to their struggles and the discrimination they face.

To Rocamora, Quiapo is a place that represents the best of the Filipino character—the ability to survive against tremendous odds.

"While anger is my biggest motivator to work on an issue, there is also the aspiration to change policy or advocate for change through reaching the widest portion of my target audience," he says. "The bigger challenge is how our work can make a difference to our subjects' lives, which is the core value of socially concerned photography. It does not happen all the time, but it feels so good when it happens." 

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In 2010, Rocamora was commissioned by retired Justice Roberto Abad to document the overcrowding of detention centers, in support of changing the Rules of Court to accelerate hearing schedules and reduce the number of pending and undecided cases in the court system. Though gaining access was difficult, Rocamora visited jails around Luzon and Visayas and saw that the situation was similar throughout. This year, he chose to concentrate on the impact of the government's Operation Tokhang on the jail system. What he found at the Navotas City Jail was that it is currently 2,278 percent over capacity.


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Human Wrongs

"The bigger challenge is how our work can make a difference to our subjects' lives, which is the core value of socially concerned photography. It does not happen all the time, but it feels so good when it happens." 

According to the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, the overall population in detention centers increased by 54 percent since 2010. There was also a 356 percent increase in drug-related violations in 2016 from the previous year. "These numbers are way about the UN prescribed standards. If this trend continues, our jail system, already bursting at the seams, may explode into a situation where inmates will riot and lives will be lost,” Rocamora warns. “No amount of expertise in penology can make changes and improve the welfare of prisoners, because the problem is institutional." The images he is compiling of jails are part of a long-term project he calls Human Wrongs.

Nobody knew about Xyza Cruz Bacani's street photography until she was featured in New York Times Lens blog in June 2014. Rocamora had contacted the NYT after seeing her photographs on his Facebook feed.

Helping younger Filipino photographers get a break is also part of Rocamora's way of paying forward the help and guidance he received from seasoned photographers when he started out. Nobody knew about Xyza Cruz Bacani's street photography until she was featured in New York Times Lens blog in June 2014. Rocamora had contacted the NYT after seeing her photographs on his Facebook feed. She was working as a nanny in Hong Kong at the time, and so he pegged her as a contemporary Vivian Maier, the American street photographer who also worked as a nanny. While a few critics found it an awkward comparison (Bacani herself included), the article undeniably opened many doors, getting her assignments, photo workshops, prizes and grants, a Fujifilm ambassadorship, and a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship for her work documenting immigrant domestic workers and labor-trafficked women.

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Children Behind Bars

"Xyza has proven to the naysayers that she is not a ningas cugon, and she deserves each recognition she has garnered in her very short career." Using Bacani as an example, Rocamora tried to encourage other talented Filipinos to compete in the global stage and not "limit themselves to their parochial grounds." To this, he was called an "imperialist pimp" by another Filipino photographer, and Rocamora did not take this slur lightly.

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"While I lived in America most of my adult life now, my political work, documentary projects, and the association I keep makes this label illogical and unfounded," he says. "Knowing the sensitivities of some from the local photography community for those like me who is from the outside, I try to share my knowledge, resources and other means to help in whatever way I can." Bacani was not the only one he extended a hand to, but there were a few who ignored his offers. Barbara Boero, the publisher of Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo, shares that nothing is too inconvenient for him to help a person’s talent grow—even if it is a stranger. "He'll do it no strings attached. He just wants you to commit to doing good work."  

"I hope that I will be remembered for the many stories I did passionately, that I took a stand on issues and never wavered on my worldview." –Rocamora

When Rocamora quit his corporate job, all he wanted was to prove that he made the right career change. In 1990, he was lucky enough to have an audience with the late photographer Gordon Parks, whom he showed his portfolio to. "He methodically went through the pages without saying a word and at the end he said, 'Follow your passion, work hard, and you will be alright.' And that is what I did for the last 36 years." At 70, Rocamora still hopes to find the time, energy and funding to finish his books on Muslim-Americans, Human Wrongs, as well as one on his beloved UP Sigma Rho fraternity.

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Rocamora

"I hope that I will be remembered for the many stories I did passionately, that I took a stand on issues and never wavered on my worldview," he replies when I ask about what he wanted to leave behind. As someone whose worldview was largely shaped by the injustices of the Marcos era, Rocamora never stopped trying to expose discrimination, inhumanity, and the struggle for freedom in the topics he would pursue over the course of his photographic career. Certainly, there will also be many individual stories about the man, one with a grounding sense of empathy and a great generosity of spirit, all evident in his portraits of Quiapo which exude hope, despite being rendered starkly in black and white. To him, Quiapo is a place that represents the best of the Filipino character—the ability to survive against tremendous odds.

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"He’ll want the truth,” Boero says. “Rick commits to his stories and to the people who hope the relationship they have forged will change their situation. He does not promise anything, except that he will do his best."

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Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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