Tatay Elmer Meralles Cordero was one of the jeepney drivers arrested during a protest action early in June 2020. They are collectively known as the Piston 6. The protest action was in response to the government-imposed lockdown that included a ban on the operations of all public transportation. The lockdown resulted not only to the crippling of mass transportation in the entire Luzon but likewise crippled the livelihood of thousands of jeepney drivers. This prompted them to literally beg on the streets for financial and food assistance. Tatay Elmer was one of those rendered jobless. Just like his fellow jeepney drivers, they were plunged into extreme economic difficulty and uncertainty.
Tatay Elmer is the typical stereotype of your Filipino lolo: a 72-year old with gray and white hair. His warm eyes and grandfatherly smile hide the economic difficulty that he and his family have been experiencing. Originally from San Agustin, Aroroy, Masbate, Tatay Elmer has been working since he was 17. Prior to becoming a driver, he worked as an electrician’s assistant. Tatay Elmer is married to Elvira Miguel Cordero, and while they do not have children of their own, they have taken it upon themselves to take care of a three-year old girl – the abandoned daughter of one of Tatay Elmer’s relatives.
“Lagi akong nag-aalala sa batang ‘yan. Tumatanda na kaming dalawa ni Elvira. Hindi namin mapigilang hindi mapalagay kung ano ang mangyayari sa kanya kung wala na kami,” Tatay Elmer said. (“I constantly worry about this child. My wife and I are both senior citizens. We are already old and getting older. We get anxious thinking about what will happen to her when we’re gone.”).
All three of them live in a cramped two-storey wooden house in an urban poor community in Caloocan. Instead of the usual four-walled structure, Tatay Elmer’s home had only three; their neighbor’s cemented wall serves as its fourth. Inside, it is is poorly-lit. It is difficult to imagine how more than three people could fit comfortably in such size. Still, everything appears clean. Only the most basic of household appliances are there – a boxy television set, two electric fans, and a gas stove. The wooden closets in the sleeping area old and rickety, but the kitchen is tidy. Repairing the house just to make it more structurally sound would cost at least PhP800,000.
While he is a Social Security System (SSS) member, Tatay Elmer has not been able to make regular contribution payments. He has also already taken a disability loan from the SSS. Like most PUV drivers, Tatay Elmer does not have retirement benefits and do not have receive pensions from the government. Drivers have to register and pay for themselves for social security membership or public health insurance – otherwise they get nothing when they finally decide to retire. This is the main reason why many jeepney drivers struggle to keep driving even after reaching the age of 60, and against the health challenges that come with age, and exacerbated by the difficulties of driving for hours on end.
But apart from driving his passenger jeepney, Tatay Elmer also dreams of owning and running a small sari-sari store. He also dreams of owning a second-hand, owner-type Jeep and use it to transport goods for the store.
His personal as well as decades-long experiences of being a jeepney driver made Tatay Elmer learn and realize the difficulties and the plight of others like him. Given the lack of or the difficulty accessing government services and subsidy that would benefit elderly and sickly drivers like him, he dreams of helping them out in any way he can. After all, this – helping others – is a practice long embedded in the culture of Filipino jeepney drivers. So, whatever Tatay Elmer has, no matter the value, he is always willing to share it with others. This do not pertain to material things alone. He is also willing to share with other fellow drivers what he has learned on the importance of asserting their rights to social welfare assistance, among others.
People closest to him say that Tatay Elmer is compassionate and always willing to help others. He himself is used to hard work, but he also understands how social injustice and inequalities make it impossible even for those who work hard to improve their own lives and that of their own families. This is why he is always willing to share whatever he has – including the support donations he and other members of the Piston 6 received when they were incarcerated.
When asked if he was willing to give some of the donations to the families of other drivers who have been rendered unemployed because of the jeepney ban, Tatay Elmer was quick to agree and even insisted on being part of the activities to help other drivers. So strong is his willingness to share what assistance he has received that Piston organizers have to keep reminding him to save money for his and his family’s own needs.
“If I could, I would also like to help my fellow drivers get assistance because I know very well how hard life has been and continues to be since the lockdown started. It’s important to work together to press for what we all need to survive this pandemic. Everything is up to us now: to survive this crisis, we have to rely on our collective unity and collective assertion. This government will not help Filipinos willingly – we have to demand and fight for the help we justly deserve,” he said.