Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Tribute to James, “The Cobrador of Arevalo”

The Small Town Lottery (STL) is the subject of much discussion in Iloilo nowadays. The Catholic Church headed by outspoken Jaro Archbishop Antonio Lagdameo and some cause-oriented groups led by lawyer Rex Rico have spoken out against the evils of gambling, claiming that STL is inherently immoral. On the other hand, the group of local businessmen and Barangay Chairmen who won the franchise to operate STL in Iloilo City are arguing that legalized gambling will stop illegal gambling (the ‘daily double’) and that STL will provide much-needed jobs for our less-privileged countrymen. The two contending parties, both believing absolutely that they are right, are putting forth valid and impassioned arguments for or against STL and their public debates have become quite heated.

But in the ongoing public debate on STL, I notice that one vital voice is conspicuously missing. And that is the voice of the cobradors or bet collectors. So I have decided to devote today’s column to James, the “Cobrador of Arevalo” to give a human face to the numbers game.

James was a sort of celebrity in our area and everyone knew who he was. I can still picture him clearly riding his stainless steel BMX bike wearing a tattered T-shirt and his battered belt-bag where he put all his ‘paraphernalia’ - a ballpen, slips of paper, “tip” sheets, and the winnings of his bettors. All day long, James would roam around the Sta. Filomena-Dulunan-Sta. Cruz area of Arevalo District collecting bets for ‘jai alai’ and subsequently for ‘daily double.’ People were always glad to see him and bettors would gather around him to ask for that day’s winning number, to place their bets or to hear about the latest gossip in town. Because aside from being a cobrador, James knew all the latest “tsismis” in our community.

I used to place bets in ‘jai alai’ almost daily when I was a teenager. I lost touch with James when I went to college in Manila and I eventually lost all interest (or addiction) in the numbers game. A couple of years back, I learned that James had passed away. A new person is now collecting bets for the illegal numbers game in Arevalo.

During James’s time, bet collectors received 10% of the bets they collect as their ‘salary.’ And, depending on the generosity of the winner, cobradors also get from 10% to 20% of the winnings as their ‘balato’. On the average, a cobrador could earn around P5,000 to P8,000 a month depending on how lucky and hard-working he is. Aside from the monetary reward, bet collectors also enjoy the ‘psychic reward’ of being famous (or infamous) members of the community. Cobradors are not college degree holders or skilled artisans. With no marketable skills and faced with limited employment prospects, they become bet collectors because that is only the job available to them. They all lead a hand-to-mouth existence marked by periods of uncertainty, especially when they get raided by the police or their “bank” (or “capitalista”) goes bankrupt.

I am in favor of STL mainly because it will provide employment to the “unemployable” members of society. STL will give jobs to those who need it most: the indigent and uneducated people of Iloilo City. Now, if you are a college or a high school graduate even, your chances of getting employed in one of the business establishments in the city might be good. But if you are an uneducated and poorly-skilled person with no political connections, your options for employment are practically nil. My only discomfort with STL is that it takes the little money that the poor have to supposedly “return” it back to them thru charity projects and the like. I would much rather see our local government devote its attention more to setting up a casino. That way, we take money from the rich and give it to the poor.

I did not know James “The Cobrador” that well (I don’t even know his last name) but I can see that he was poor and that he died poor. His family to this day is still poor and uneducated. I just hope that the STL would give our cobradores enough wages and benefits (like SSS, medical insurance, etc.) so that they can afford to live decently and send their children to school.

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