NORTH STAR: Rich Woman, Poor Woman

The rich are different from you and me

I was in high school when the great Armida Siguion Reyna portrayed the role of a lifetime – the wealthy woman who was the tormentor of the atsay (housemaid) played by, who else, but by the iconic Nora Aunor. Tita Midz was in her element, kicking the housemaid down the stairs and then using the atsay’s face to wipe the floor clean.

It was only a fortnight ago when I was surfing from channel to channel when I saw Gretchen Barretto playing a rich woman who attends a party. Loud and calling attention to herself (the role, not the actress), she brandished a piece of jewelry for all her similarly wealthy friends to ohhh and ahhh after.

Between these two poles – a time-frame of 30 years – lies our stereotypes of the rich, and the way movies and television portray them. All to a person, the rich are seen as ruthless, corrupt and number-one violators of human rights, whether in the hacienda, the factory, or the mansion in the gated village. Aside from being loud and boisterous, they are portrayed as crass members of the nouveaux riche (new rich).

And what are the stereotypes of the poor? They are always seen as short, dark-skinned and clumsy whether with their kitchen or bedside manners. Those inclined to sociology or cultural studies will go on a limb and see this as a throwback to the colonial regime, when the Spanish and the mestizos (the ancestors of today’s rich Filipinos) humiliated servants and flogged the indios who couldn’t pay their taxes.

But we are now in the 21st century, and what has changed in the landscape of class relations?

Well, the few rich Spanish mestizos are still there, but now the rich Chinoys (Chinese Filipinos) now outnumber them all. Just look at the society pages, especially the spread every Sunday. Not only do they monopolize the retail trade, as they have done for centuries, they are now into condominiums and property development – into land! Land used to be the main source of wealth of the Spanish mestizos, but now it has been parceled into small spaces for condominiums that cater to the new middle class.

And who are these new middle classes? The OFWs, for one. I have only seen a few films dealing with the OFWs that showed the complexity of their experience. Melodrama aside, I am sure the talented Filipino filmmakers can do something more? Dubai, Milan, Caregiver and In My Life are good starting points, but they’re so few. Where are the rest?

A new job in a new land with decent salaries is enough to open the eyes of Filipinos abroad to the possibility of hope. With two jobs, or even three, they save and slave for hours not to make ends meet, for now they do, but to earn enough for the small business back home, or the new vehicle for Totoy, or why not, that condo at Rockwell!

I am amused no end by stories of their new neighbors coming from my friends who live in the enclaves of the rich. In this ritzy cluster of condominiums, every Sunday the swimming pool is filled with tenants and visiting relatives of OFWs who have bought not one, but even two, units there. In their sandos and long shorts, they gleefully jump into the blue water, seemingly thumbing their noses at the old and not-so-old rich in their midst.

Or this family that bought a medium-sized house in a gated village, which forthwith proceeded to paint the bamboo paneling of the walls a hot pink. Like the former MMDA hotshot Bayani Fernando, they must have thought pink is the color of good health, as in the pink of health!

Or in humid Currimao, Ilocos Norte, where I stayed at Dr. Joven Cuanang’s lovely Sitio Remedios, my jaws dropped when I saw Mediterranean villas in the middle of rice fields! Who owns these yellow-painted villas, and why amidst the rice stalks? Well, they are owned by Ilocanas who now live in Italy and have saved enough to demolish the nipa hut and build a mansion with colors enough to stun the sun.

The OFW dream is the great equalizer, the phenomenon that will level the playing field in a country where the senyoras use the faces of their housemaids to clean the floor, and where the so-called rich blabber about the size and hue of their Mikimoto pearls.

Let me end with a true story I got from the head of PR and advertising of a big agency in Kuala Lumpur. I now live there, and one of my Malaysian friends asked me if I knew __________ (name of Filipino actress). Not personally, I said, why do you ask?

It turned out that our actress landed a plum modeling job in KL to endorse a shampoo or soap, I don’t remember now. But upon arriving at the beautiful KL airport, she was dismayed to find out that she would only take a Toyota Altis from the airport to the hotel.

“Where’s my service BMW? Or my Benz?” she asked, her eyes widening, and said she would never set foot inside a “mere” Altis, even if it was new.

I just told my friend, “Well, perhaps, she thought she was still playing the role of a rich woman in the Philippines, stereotype and all. Or maybe,” I added, I’m sure with a wicked gleam in my eye, “she’s just showing you how nouveaux riche she really is.”

Professor Danton Remoto taught at Ateneo de Manila University for 30 years and he has published 15 books.Comments can be sent to [email protected]