Image Description: A book cover of Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country against a blue crystalline background.
Image Description: A book cover of Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country against a blue crystalline background.

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Fractured Realities: Unveiling Struggles in a Third World Tapestry

Unveiling the captivating tapestry of Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? as Rogelio Braga's poignant stories navigate the struggles of labor, imperialism, and family in the Philippines.

A few years ago, I sat in front of the Jumex Museum in Mexico City at eight a.m. and just looked at people passing by, intrigued by the contrast between their jobs and actions. Employees in suits were walking with a Starbucks cup in hand when they entered their office complexes, while on the other side of the street, people who were working in the malls would get off the mini-buses after a two-hour journey from the outskirts of Mexico City. I can picture Rogelio Braga observing people going in and out of a Ministop, or just navigating the streets of Manila and the Philippines.
Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? is a collection of short stories by playwright, novelist, essayist, and political activist Rogelio Braga and translated by Kristine Ong Muslim. The book takes place in the Philippines and is composed of short stories that were written between 2000 and 2008, with the exception of one written in 2016, and were published in several journals in the Philippines and taught in schools in the country. It is Braga’s last book published in the Philippines before they had to flee to England in 2018. It is also their first book translated into English and published outside of the Philippines. As Eric Abalajon writes in the introduction, this book is a cartography of desire, migrations, and labor, each story vividly portrays a reality specific to the region, city, or streets in which the plot develops.
This thought-provoking collection of stories is a rough portrait of different stories that allude to the feeling of being deadlocked in the violent circumstances and realities of a country that is constantly at war, and with the negative legacies of imperialism and colonialism pervading the country. The economic role of nationals in the global scene observed was determined by capitalism and history, similarly to the consequences of modernity and capitalism in the contemporary scene. “Bona Bien”, the first short story of the book, is a sharp criticism of the inhumane economic trap created by capitalism, in which an individual is only valuable for as long as one can be productive.
The story presents Soledad, a fresh graduate who starts working at an insurance company in the middle of a strike, and who encounters microaggressions at her workplace, mainly from an older employee, Bona, who Soledad later becomes friends with outside of work. Due to Soledad being a recent graduate, she acquires a “fancy” job title, and becomes part of the company’s management as a supervisor. However, Bona, who has been at the company for more than 20 years, has only ever received a small salary increase. When she examined the details of her contract, Soledad realizes that her salary was actually not very different from Bona’s. When the company faces more serious financial problems, they introduce terms like “voluntary retirement” to Bona as her work can now be done by a machine. Shortly after, Soledad is offered a promotion and finds herself disgusted by the system offering her this opportunity while her friend is left unemployed. The terrifying aspects of this story are how easily it could be a story from any other country, how real the writing makes it feel, and how powerful the criticism of the political state of the country is.
“Piety in wartime” explores the horror of forgetting, or alternatively, the power of preserving memories, individual, sometimes uneventful, stories as a way of defending one’s culture against imperialism. “Happiness was not about being free, happiness was in fighting back, in the struggle…freedom could only be found in the place where Wanda was now, in being alone.” This story reminds us of how we stay alive even after we leave this world through the memories someone has of us. As seen through the quote, “My work is for the history of every person, of every important event in a person’s life. I use my hands to impart onto the cloth every event and people’s important experiences so that the next generation will know their ancestors. They will know their origins.”
In an interview for The Gazelle, Braga mentioned how their Political Science undergraduate degree shaped this story, as the notion of deterrence became present in the context of the U.S. and Chinese presence in the country, “in the Philippines we always viewed the U.S. as our protector, and the question of deterrence is who will protect us from what our protector? In a kind of environment where the relationship is between a colonizer and a colonized, and the minds, the consciousness of the colonized, and what is the holiness in the times of war that people are struggling with.”
The book also maps everyday violence within families. In “All the Quiet Sundays,” violence is both explained and understood through the lens of difficult, inhumane labor outside of the country. This once again criticizes the system that allows people to work under extreme conditions for years just to be fired at the end of it. It portrays people as not having a story or rights when they are no longer of use to the companies. The frustration behind this criticism or acknowledgement of a common reality of many Filipinos working abroad is what fuels violence that ends up being enforced in the individual’s closest nucleus, the family. The author discussed this idea by writing, “After smashing The Last Supper, he went after the plates in the kitchen, punched a hole in a cabinet that Nanay bought on an installment basis, and kicked the TV [...] And when there was nothing else for Porboy to smash, throw, or kick, he aimed his rage at Nanay.”
In the story “Beloved,” a form of deadlock is presented when the narrator asks his nephew not to direct his anger at his family, showing how domestic violence can become a dangerous cycle in which one can get trapped. Braga expressed how these stories came to existence as a result of their curiosity on the Labor export policy in the country that started in the 1970s. “Structurally, our country is sending people abroad. When you are young as a Filipino, you are conditioned and trained to be exported as a worker,” shared Braga. Curiosity to explore and understand the social costs of this policy, combined with times of transition at a global scale in the early 2000s, were Braga’s main preoccupations in his early twenties that shape each story in this collection. “Young people are highly educated but they cannot afford to buy a house,” said Braga. “I was curious because it’s a time of transition in the early 2000s so if you read the stories, it’s really transitioning, specially ‘Bona Bien’, so it is an exploration of the working class in a period of transition” continued the author.
Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? transports you to the intimacy of quotidian conversations without feeling like an intruder. Instead, it makes you empathize with each narrator, which is how Braga humanizes each of the characters. Braga is the old person portrayed in ‘Piety in wartime’. They write the stories you wouldn’t usually pay attention to when you are on the bus, or walking in an abandoned field at three a.m., or while you travel by land from one city to another. A pithy and powerful portrayal of how history, modernity, and even the international scene, all impact an individual's hopes, dreams, fears, lives. Each story makes you uncomfortable, hoping that you’ll turn that feeling into action to correct what is wrong with this world. With this translation, they aim to make the reader engage with political issues relevant to Filipino people. “My writing is centered around a specific political problem, I’m expecting a political response from my audience, a response that would lead to political action that changes the political system,” hopes the author. “The only way to change the world is not to write but to organize,” expressed the activist.
As Braga shared, the title of the collection itself is a political statement. Third world is a pejorative term to refer to developing countries. However, in the Philippines, it is used as a word that counters colonial discourse. It is how Filipinos assert themselves in the midst of a constant fight for independence, from the system, the context, and colonial legacies. Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? is more relevant than ever as activists call for better working conditions around the world, as more and more educated young people struggle to find a job or afford housing, as wars around the world continue to cause humanitarian crises, and as basic human rights are denied to multiple people around the world. Is There Rush Hour in a Third World Country? aims to raise awareness, but mainly, it is a call for action.
Scarlette Jimenez is News Editor. Email her at
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