Notes & Essays

Questioning Tony Meloto

Antonio Meloto once joked about the benefits of cappuccino children for the Philippines. Here, a Filipina-American cappuccino responds.
IMAGE Gawad Kalinga
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In my mid-20s, I traveled to Manila for a language immersion program, Tagalog On Site. I have a Filipina mom who never taught me Tagalog and a white American dad who never learned. As part of my education in 2007, I visited an Aeta village in Sapang Bato, Pampanga. That’s where I first learned about Gawad Kalinga.

My Fil-Am classmates and I tried out our awkward Tagalog with the village elders in a small cement church. The land was called Sitio Target because the Americans used the area for war games during World War II. In 2005, the Clark Corporation, the group now administering the former American air base, commissioned a local NGO to build housing for the Aeta community.

The Aeta leaders told us they were not consulted about this housing. Their homes are made of nipa leaves and walls of bamboo, according to Aeta customs. But the NGO had replaced several of these Aeta homes with tiny units built of cement walls and tin roofs.

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“What happens if you don’t want to live in these houses?” I asked one of the leaders. “Can’t you just say no?”

One man in his late 20s shook his head. I’ll call him Pastor. Our teacher, Susan Quimpo, translated Pastor for me: “In the area where Gawad Kalinga built, they tore the old nipa houses down. They didn’t listen to the villagers.”

Pastor said their community met Antonio Meloto only once, in 2005. He came with some light-skinned foreigners, made a speech, and shook some hands.


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I know how Mr. Meloto started the multi- billion-peso house-building NGO, Gawad Kalinga, in a low-income neighborhood of Cavite in the mid ’90s; how he flies around the world now, soliciting millions of dollars in donations; how his employees call him Tito Tony, a patriarchal honorific.

I haven’t been to every one of Gawad Kalinga’s 20,000 homes in the Philippines. I’m assuming not all of them were like Sitio Target’s. But I remembered Sitio Target on May 24, 2015, when the University of Hawaii’s Center for Philippine studies denounced what Mr. Meloto said at their annual fiesta:

“His belief that the greatest asset of the Philippines is our beautiful women, and that the future of our nations can be advanced by using them to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ men from the West and enticing them to invest in the Philippines, was outrageously sexist and deeply offensive to every- body in the audience, as well as patronizing and disrespectful to Filipino women in particular. Equally offensive, Mr. Meloto went on to share his views on the need for Filipino women and their white husbands to produce what Mr. Meloto (apparently humorously) called “cappuccinos” and appeared to present such a policy of seduction and reproduction as a solution to the problems of economic development in the Philippines.”

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The letter ignited a firestorm of Facebook fights. But Mr. Meloto’s sentiments were not new. In 2010, Meloto wrote for Global Balita:

“The image of the Global Filipino is taking shape and form in America, individually and collectively—showing the best of our breed. From personal experience, many second and third generation Filipino Americans are competitive, competent, and socially connected and curious about their Filipino roots. Superior lineage is emerging in new stock that is searching for its original cultural gene pool.”

My racial ingredients make me a cappuccino. I could perhaps enjoy Mr. Meloto’s theory that (the milk of) my American-ness, mixed with (the coffee of) my Filipino-ness, makes my lineage “superior.” Instead, I have the urge to interrupt Mr. Meloto’s remarks: Tito Tony, please stop.

Mr. Meloto defended himself against the UH’s criticism in 2015.

“I spoke candidly about bright foreigners nding the Philippines as the land of opportunity, hub for social entrepreneurs, and the most beautiful country in Asia, including our women. I cited two of my daughters who married foreigners, a Brit and a Fil-Am, who were volunteers in GK and left their countries to live in the Philippines. It would be ridiculous for a father like me to trivialize and insult my daughters, whom I love and respect, to lure foreigners to our country.”

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But if Mr. Meloto believes even jokingly that lighter-skinned cappuccino children are the future of the Philippines, what is his parallel belief about the darker-skinned indigenous peoples who originate from the Philippines’ past?

But if Mr. Meloto believes even jokingly that lighter-skinned cappuccino children are the future of the Philippines, what is his parallel belief about the darker-skinned indigenous peoples?

I interviewed Dr. Faith Kares soon after Mr. Meloto’s remarks tore across the transnational Internet. She began study- ing GK as an anthropology scholar in 2007. “The language interested me rst,” Dr. Kares, 34, told me in May 2015. “The language, the discourse, the way they’ve been able to frame housing development as more than just housing. They say, ‘We’re building a nation.’”

Dr. Kares spent nearly a decade researching GK. Her dissertation, “Packaging Care, Regulating Poverty: NGOs and New Modes of Neoliberal Governance,” focuses on GK’s efforts in Metro Manila, its advertising abroad, and its effects on the communities it enters.

Kares is also a cappuccino child whose single Filipina mother raised her in Chicago. “He was very kind,” she said of Mr. Meloto. “I believe that he genuinely believes that what he’s doing is a good thing. But in critical NGO studies, this is what we see. One can have good intentions, but how it’s actually executed and how it plays out is a different thing. The sentiments conveyed in Meloto’s speech are no anomaly; rather, this language is fundamental to Gawad Kalinga’s development discourse.”

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I returned to the Aeta community a second time in June 2015. I was curious to see how GK’s project had endured 10 years later. This time, Esquire editor Kara Ortiga accompanied me as translator in Pampanga.

We paused at one tiny GK house where a dark-skinned, curly-haired woman was carrying her infant while she hung laundry on a clothesline. We felt a blast of heat from within the doorway; the metal roof seemed to cook the concrete from within.

“Are you missionaries?” the young mother asked. We said no, and held up our magazines. “Ah, researchers,” she said, and beckoned us to follow her. I noticed that the village was more crowded with concrete structures now. In 2007, there had been more grass and trees.

The young mother stopped at a bigger house in the center of the village and called out a name. A man in his 30s emerged, wearing denim shorts and carrying a bolo. It was the man I called Pastor from my first meeting with the Aeta in 2007. He invited us to sit inside, at a kitchen table.

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Unlike the Gawad Kalinga homes, this home was cool and expansive, with electricity and running water. Six other Aeta members of the community, all women, gathered around the table with us. “We’re writing about Gawad Kalinga,” Kara said in Tagalog, “and we wanted to get your point of view.”

Pastor’s face tightened. “Ayoko ang GK,” he said. I don’t like GK. The Aeta women laughed with agreement.

Bakit?” Kara asked Pastor. Why?


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Pastor explained. When Gawad Kalinga entered with foreigners, cameras, and speeches in 2005, they began building houses without consulting with the villagers. GK also required that Aeta residents clear trees. This requirement caused the most disputes within Sitio Target. Trees were the life of the village, providing shade, fruit, and food protection. Half the villagers didn’t want to participate. But a few dozen residents did help GK. Pastor reasoned that these villagers didn’t want to turn away any assistance, since they were low-income farmers who sold vegetables and trinkets. The young mother with her own GK house agreed; she didn’t want to turn away charity. It was risky to tell the outsiders no.

Pastor said GK built the homes without planning for a canal. Now, with rain, floods rise waist-deep. “It’s like Manila now,” the young mother said.

Pastor nodded. He said, “Gusto naming simpleng buhay lang. Kubo. Hayop, nakatikim ka ng gulay. May buhay sa mga puno.” We just want a simple life. A bamboo house. Raising animals. Eating vegetables. There is life in the trees.

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I took out my notepad and wrote the sentences down. Pastor eyed me. “We don’t want trouble with GK,” he said in Tagalog. “Can we use your stories?” Kara asked.

“Without identifying you?” Pastor nodded his assent. I put my notebook and pen away. He relaxed.

“What does your community need the most, if not houses?” I asked.

Bolos,” Pastor said. “Kalabaw.” Water buffaloes and machetes. They needed irrigation for their homes and crops, instead of pumps. Their young ones needed help getting to the nearest high school, a two-hour walk each way. Often they dropped out, too tired and hungry to make the journey.

I wondered: on Mr. Meloto’s caffeinated, racial taxonomy, what would the Aeta be?

Tsokolate? Black coffee?

I asked Kara to translate a question.

“How does it feel to be Aeta when you’re around non-Aeta people? Do you think some outsiders discriminate against you?”

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The entire table erupted, from grandmother to the youngest woman.

“They think just because we’re kulot that we have nothing in our head,” the young mother said.

“The world is for unat,” a middle-aged woman said. The grandmother agreed. “No one hires the kulot.”

Pastor said GK built the homes without planning for a canal. Now, with rain, floods rise waist-deep. “It’s like Manila now,” the young mother said.

Their world was divided. A limited existence for their own, dark-skinned, kinky-haired community—the kulot—and a richer, more inclusive life for the lighter-skinned, straight-haired outsiders—the unat. UP Political Science Professor Alex Magno spoke to CNN about skin-based discrimination in the Philippines in 2012. “We long ago considered the Malayo-Polynesian tribes superior and the Negrito tribes inferior,” Magno said. “Hispanic culture merely reinforced that prejudice with its Eurocentric paradigm. Superimpose Hollywood. The standard of beauty is fair skin, tall, straight nose, straight hair.”

After asking permission, we took photos of some GK homes. The Aeta community did what they could, what they’d always done during incursions from outsiders and natural disasters alike. They adapted. They knocked out walls of the tiny houses and pieced together extensions. They hung hammocks outside for when the metal-roofed houses grew too sweltering. They kept their animals close, as they always had, in de ance of GK’s declaration that animals were dirty.

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Pastor told us he could not remember the exact date of GK’s last visit. It had been a long time.

After our visit to Sitio Target, Kara Ortiga and I sent over a dozen inquiries to various members of the current Gawad Kalinga leadership. We have yet to receive an official invitation. We decided to visit GK’s of ces in Mandaluyong unannounced. There, Paula Nierras of the marketing department agreed to a brief conversation.

We asked Ms. Nierras what the beneficiaries of Gawad Kalinga could do, if they did not agree with the building style of GK homes.

“Usually, hmm—I haven’t heard that,” Ms. Nierras said. I mentioned disagreements in one community, and she and referred us to “Kuya Jon.” Jon D. Ramos is the area coordinator for Central Luzon and North Manila. The Sitio Target village in Pampanga was under his purview as of July 2015.

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Ms. Nierras continued. “Of course, for the new houses, we do have standards, so we maintain the standards so we make sure that the area is secure. But I think with the maintenance of the houses, the main responsibility is with the homeowners.”

Was any there an official policy to handle residents who did not want to live in Gawad Kalinga communities?

“No official policy,” Ms. Nierras said. “I think the end goal is for them to be able to realize that at the end of the day, what we really want is for them to feel empowered and for them to have a sense of community.”

I wrote to Jon D. Ramos on July 7. He responded within an hour, and I replied immediately, eager to get feedback from the current leadership of GK itself. I asked several questions about Sitio Target, how it had changed since 2005, and whether the Aeta residents had any input regarding the architecture and the needs of their own community.

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My inquiry was met with silence. I sent my questions again. More silence.

In the Philippines, where family is paramount, powerful organizations might act like guardians of family secrets; to pry is to be rude. And in an organization like Gawad Kalinga, filled with noble intentions, Tito Tony is the inviolable patriarch. To confront him, to ask him difficult questions, is to be the spoiled young brat, the overeducated, academic outsider disregarding decades of dignified work.

In the Philippines, where family is paramount, powerful organizations might act like guardians of family secrets; to pry is to be rude. And in an organization like Gawad Kalinga, filled with noble intentions, Tito Tony is the inviolable patriarch.

And who hasn’t had a beloved uncle make off-color comments at the family meal? Does his loose tongue make him a bad person? If GK made mistakes in one community, does that invalidate their work in the rest of the country?

In his letter to the University of Hawaii, Mr. Meloto was aggrieved that academics had accused him of having a “colonial mentality.” He defended himself by reminding readers of his own racial identity: “On the contrary, I have been working for liberation from a colonial mentality by being proud of my being Filipino—and my brown color. I promote world-class Filipino brands and services through social entrepreneurship to create inclusive wealth in the Philippines that does not leave the poor behind.”

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The plight of cynicism and frustration are familiar to Filipinos who want the country to be better. As Antonio Meloto has repeated, it can be easy to be apathetic. GK’s latest operation is Walang Iwanan—no one left behind. It can also be easy to praise an organization for its work, its sincerely held beliefs, and its good intentions. It is perhaps far more difficult to confront the ways in which a well-intentioned organization may be keeping damaging power structures, and therefore class and racial differences, intact.

This confrontation can be as difficult as facing the daily ways in which we ourselves have created, and continue to create, the conditions of poverty that disturb us so deeply.

Mr. Meloto, this cappuccino child is ready for a conversation whenever you are. My questions remain, and I’ll leave this one here for you: Did Gawad Kalinga leave the Aeta villagers of Sitio Target behind?

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This article was originally posted in the December 2015 issue of Esquire Philippines.

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