A Canto Star

by Juan L. Mercado


The tiny star lantern swayed on the stained string looped to a parking lot’s fence. The cord’s other end was hooked to  a canvas sheet. That’s roof for the street corner “home” of Berto, Cora and 3-year old Tina (not their real names) on  Christmas Eve 2012.

“We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage,”  travel-weary men of regal bearing  told  the paranoid Herod.  They were “magi from the east,” who arrived in Jerusalem, we read. They  asked: “‘Where is the newborn king?’ ”.

A bright nova, plus a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, did appear in the Pisces constellation in year 5 B.C. “Chinese astronomers recorded this unusually bright star that blazed in the eastern sky for 70 days”.

“It was a rare sight,”  agree Dr. Peter Andrews of University of Cambridge and Robert Massey of the Royal Observatory, in Greenwich.  The “more likely” explanation is a “comet, nova  or variable star.”

Berto has the hang-dog features of the perennially jobless. Cora limps from arthritis.  Both wouldn’t know what to make of what the scientists  say. Life for such families is nasty, brutal —  and short, Inquirer’s Ceres Doyo notes. Many  huddle under a bridge or bus stops.  Women give birth near slimy esteros. Some copulate in pushcarts.

This family hang up that star because Christmas eases their grinding  needs. Misa de Gallo masses bring food they  rarely have. Indifferent passerbys dip into wallets.  In 1843, author Charles Dickens, put his finger on Cora and  Berto’s  experience:

“Christmas is the only time when men and women seem, by one consent, to open their shut-up hearts freely,”  Dickens  wrote. They see “people below them, as if they were really fellow passengers to the grave, not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Cora and Berto never made it to Grade 6. Poverty forced them into the city — and short rations. They huddle in a canto “home”, come lashing rain or blistering sun. A barangay tanod, now and then, shoos them away.   “We move a couple of blocks up,” shrugs Cora. “when he turns his back,  we return.”  

Like them, their child sleeps on discarded cardboard, laid atop sidewalk concrete. Is this a sidewalk Christmas crib? “They laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn”.

They’re the face of dry-as-dust statistics. One out of four scrounge below national poverty lines. The top 10 percent, in exclusive subdivisions, consume 37 centavos out of  every peso. The Bertos and Coras make do with three centavos.

Penury in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao is quadruple that of Metro Manila. Children from the poorest, like Tina, risk dying before age 5. A child born in Tawi-Tawi today has a life expectancy of 54 years. In La Union, they live to 74 years.  Over 5.6 million kids, between the ages of six to 15 never enrolled or dropped out from school.

“Like relay runners, generations pass on the torch of life,” Lucretius wrote. They also hand on  frailties. Chronic hunger, for example,  unleashes anemia among pregnant and breast-feeding mothers.  Lack of Vitamin A, iron and iodine, in mothers, sap intelligence quotients of babies in wombs or suckling at their breasts.

IQs of poorly nourished children can be whittled down by 10 to 14 percent,  Asian Development Bank notes. “Reduced mental capacity”  blights a tenth 10 of stunted  kids.  Worse, IQ crippling is irreversible. Rarely visible, it  doesn’t  trigger alarm bells.  But doors in the future slam shut for children whose  “elevators  will never run all the way to the top floor.”

Christmas today comes, as it did 2000 years ago, to a society where children are still cut down by hunger as by centurions swords in Bethlehem.  “If you know how rich you are, you are not rich,” Imelda Marcos once boasted. “But me, I am not aware of the extent of my wealth. That’s how rich we are.”      

Today’s elite  seek only to conserve their loot. Yesterday’s  Herod  or Tiberius Caesar are today’s Ferdinand, Erap or Gloria.  Few see that the poor have as much right to what is available. They act as if sharing with the less fortunate is, as Scrooge insisted “humbug”.

Even fewer share their creativity, time and possessions to enable those of skimpy means and confined horizons to rise to “sunlit plains” of humane lives. If we “open our shut-up hearts freely,” we’ll discover they’re “hard as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire —- secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” Jonathan Powers wrote.

In anguish, man always asked  why this  suffering?, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff  of  Brazil   writes.. “At Christmas, God does not ask questions but lives out answers. Instead, He is born a child and shares our sufferings. He is humiliated too, wounded and broken like us. This is the why of our sorrows, afflicted  with infirmity.

God enters into human history and makes it his own. The Child of Bethlehem tells us that everything has a meaning, so deep, God made it his own.  It is worthwhile to be a man, to share life of men, because God chose to be a man like us.

(Christmas) shows that God himself lives like this.” Born in a manger, He had nowhere to lay his head on in life. In death, he was buried in  a borrowed tomb. Like Berto, Cora and Tina?.

That “tiny  star lantern swaying on a stained string”, over the canto crib, reminds both beggars and millionaires that  “the star went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the Child was with Mary His mother.”

(Email: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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