In the 1990s, a team of University of the Philippines Diliman and Cebu teachers conducting cultural research at Barangay Pasil in Cebu City found out how the “poor” respond to the “poverty” lens through which many outsiders, from academics to politicians, scrutinize their lives.

Wandering among and mingling with residents, the researchers discovered beyond the “urban poor” label a community of fish catchers and sellers, “puso” makers, “sari-sari” store owners, street food vendors, port workers, and informal settlers.

Decades before this became a feature in restaurant menus, “tuslob buwa” was a breakfast mainstay for mothers with too many children and no money yet so early in the day to prepare the traditional Filipino fried breakfast. For P1 only, a harried mother bought a small “puso (rice in a packet made of woven coconut frond),” which she dipped (“tuslob”) into a street seller’s pan of seething (“buwa”) oil from deepfried pork brains and fat.

Toddlers and other children took turns biting the “puso” that their mother dipped without limit and without extra charge into the simmering pork fat. While P1 then could buy a piece of hot pan de sal, the salty-fatty “tuslob buwa” was deemed to be more filling than a small, hollow piece of bread that cannot quiet the hunger pangs of a child, let alone an adult.

The researchers also visited the “modernized” Pasil wet market and fish port, which a grant from the Belgian Government to the Cebu City Government upgraded from the nipa-and-wood structure erected in the 1960s.

Equipped with high ceiling, concrete floor, and cemented stalls, the Pasil market had modern communal toilets. The Belgian grant augmented the port with an ice-making facility, a seawall, and water treatment facility.

Curious that the facility was abandoned except for dogs taking a respite from the sun on the cool concrete, the visitors asked their guides, who said that the port is active from midnight to dawn, when out-of-town fishing boats and wholesale sellers converge with local buyers for fish trading.

Long before midmorning, the Pasil Market and Fish Port becomes deserted, with local sellers and buyers shifting to makeshift stalls mushrooming across the nearby San Nicolas de Tolentino Parish Church. The Pasil Market actually stands on the grounds of Barangay Suba, not Barangay Pasil, the residents told the academics.

Walking along the seawall in the late afternoon, the visitors saw plastic bags festooning the perimeter. Instead of fishing boats that docked to unload fish only at night, some children were facing the sea while using the seawall as a communal toilet.

“Wrap and throw” is a phrase not connected at all to fish trading. Due to the lack of toilets in homes and the lack of flowing water in the modern Pasil Market toilets, some residents preferred to take their business to the sea, more efficient at waste disposal.

Infrastructure—or access to services and facilities—is just one of the objective factors determining people’s perceptions about the quality of their life. According to the Oxford University Press, liveability is also set by climate, environmental quality, safety and stability, and access to health care and education.

The trajectory of development becomes skewered when it takes off from a master plan that reduces the community to a mere beneficiary or target of a dole-out. Yet, despite the awry fit of technocrat’s vision to ground realities, people demonstrate will and agency to survive and thrive.

Sitting with the dogs in that deserted Pasil Market, the researchers listened as their local hosts recalled the past when fishermen in Pasil, Suba, and Sawang-Calero trapped fish with moss gathered from a “lumotan,” the green-covered banks of a creek in Suba (“river” in Cebuano).

In the march towards progress, the creek was covered up, lost in the maze of the sewage system. More tenacious than moss, humans persist, chasing fish, creating a life, coping with “development.”