When I was a boy, my Nanay would always impress upon my young mind that to escape poverty I had to study hard or else I might end up being a “kubetero”.
One recent morning when I was having a coffee chat with Reggie in his home in Chicago, he’s the husband of my sister-in-law, I told him about that kubetero story and how my Mom would always prod me to focus on my studies with the accompanying “or else” warning.
I immediately sensed Reggie could not understand what was I was talking about and before I could say anything, he asked, “ what’s a kubetero? “
Since both of us were in front of our laptop computers, my first reaction was to search for the word kubetero in the Internet but I couldn’t find one. I thought that maybe the best way was to surf any entry on the word kubeta (Tagalog term for toilet) at Google so I could easily explain to him the meaning of the word Kubetero.
Well, I found nothing so I thought it would be a good idea to type the “ waste management”, maybe somewhere from that article, I might either come across the word kubetero or any explanation about that word.
Finally, I gave up searching the Internet; I simply told Reggie why being a kubetero was the lowliest kind of job back home in the 50s.
I said “ since most of the people in Manila at that time didn’t have septic tanks, so the way to “go” was with the use of kubeta, a flat wood with a hole cut out in the middle of it that served as a toilet bowl—and under it was a wooden pail.
And after a few days, the kubetero would collect and carry these pails with the use of a piece of wood placed on his shoulder, balancing the two pails at both ends of wood.
Then, he would load down and store them in a warehouse near a public toilet. A few days later, a big truck would collect all these wooden pails.
In this public toilet, there were some concrete toilet bowls with water flushes and a septic tank; it had two sections—for men and women— without any dividers separating these toilet bowls; therefore, the people using these public washroom didn’t have any privacy at all.
Being a kubetero was a degrading job because when people would see this man carrying his load, they would keep a comfortable distance away from him to avoid the bad smell that emanated from these pails.
I’m not sure how many residents in Manila had used the septic tank for waste management in the late 50s in Manila; however, a number of our neighbors in Sampaloc district had wooden kubeta in their homes.
While in Chicago, I went to the bookstore and while I was browsing some books, I chanced upon a Spanish-English dictionary and I looked up the word cubeta and found its meaning as “ bucket, pail, keg. “ So definitely that’s where we Pinoys got the word Kubetero, its root word comes from Spanish word cubeta.
Well, my wife, Lilia whose age is almost the same as mine, when asked what a kubetero is, she was able to explain it; this is understandable because she’s a baby boomer like me -- and this baby boomers’ generation has seen how our kubeta evolved as part of the country’s waste management system.
However, Reggie and his wife, Cora don’t have any slightest idea what a kubetero is because they are only in their early 50s and Reggie himself grew up in the province.
“ In Quezon province where I grew up, we just dug up a hole in the ground and that was it”, he said.
While on the way home after my bookstore’s visit, I was still discussing the kubetero topic with my sister-in-law, when my wife cut me off, saying, “ you stop discussing that. It’s kadiri to death”.
Now, I know why this word kubetero is a dead word because in the first place this kind of job is non-existent-- and maybe most of our kababayans would find it weird even to discuss it.
But one thing is certain, whether we like it or not, the word kubetero is a part and parcel of our culture.
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