Nerissa Gallo, a vegetable vendor, gave birth to 16 children, four of whom died even before they could walk. She lost a daughter who left their house nine years ago.
Yet, despite the difficulties, Nerissa, now 47, considers her children a blessing.
“Hindi ko pinagsisihan,” she said.
The Gallo family is way above the national average household size of 4.6 and reflects the country’s struggle to control population growth.
Since giving birth to her eldest son Edwin at the age of 15, Nerissa admitted being a subject of gossips among their neighbors.
“Anong pakialam ko sa kanila?” she asked.
The family lives in a single-story 42-square meter home made of bricks, plywood and steel roof inside the densely-populated Baseco compound in Tondo.
The area is about a tenth of the size of a basketball court.
With only one window, the heat is stifling especially during summer. The lone electric fan is of little help. A bulky television set serves as the family’s valuable possession.
Aside from Edwin, now 30, Nerissa’s other children ate Elizer, 29; Elena, 28, Jimmy Junior 27; Jenessa, 22; Joel, 19; Jay, 13; Jiyji, 11; twins Almer and Elmer, 9; Baby James, 6; and Lorraine, 4. Four other children – Gerald, Joel, Janice and Jennifer – were barely one year old when they died.
Three older siblings have gone to build their own families while Elena’s whereabouts remain unknown since leaving their home at the age of 19.
That leaves Nerissa with seven children and a jobless husband to fend for.
Nerissa left her hometown in Iligan City to work as a maid in 1984. But after getting abused by her employer’s son, Nerissa left and ended up in Manila’s port area where she met her future husband Jimmy.
Life was hard for the couple who figured in many fights. Nerissa would leave for Iligan City only to return to her husband.
Nerissa, assisted by sons Edwin and Elizer, earned a small fortune selling vegetables in Divisoria, but lost all of it in 2002 following a fire that destroyed their home.
“Naging mahirap ang buhay namin nun, lahat ng napundar namin, nawala,” she said.
They were force to rent a room also in Baseco.
One day, a man approached Nerissa’s husband and asked him if he could buy his kidney for P120,000.
Desperate for money, Jimmy accepted the offer and soon was on the operating table at St. Luke’s Medical Center.
Before the operation, Nerissa recounted that her husband held her hand and said: “Huwag mo akong iiwan.”
Fortunately, the family was granted a new plot of land in Baseco and used part of the money to buy materials for their current home. The couple decided to rent part of the lot for P2,000 a month for additional income.
Nerissa went back to selling vegetables in a nearby market until she decided to build a sari-sari store at home. Her husband now works as a welder while her older sons have found jobs in the fishport.
She hopes that her young children will be able to finish schooling.
“Sigurado tutulong ang mga anak ko, pagkatapos nila. Maiaahon nila yung buhay namin sa kahirapan,” she said.
Nerissa said Elena, then 19, left their house after unable to go to school due to extreme poverty. Neighbors say Elena may have been recruited by two decent looking women who frequented their place.
Before Christmas in 2007, Elena left without a trace.
“Siguro, maganda na ang naging buhay nya. Naniniwala ako, na babalik uli sya sa amin,” Nerissa said.
Indeed, despite having gone through the hardship and difficulties, Nerissa has remained hopeful of the future ahead.
“Kahit ganito kami karami at kahirap, masaya kami. Alam ko magkakaroon din kami ng oportunidad na umangat,” she said.
(ANALOU DE VERA)