Photo courtesy of Charles Lemeric
‘Manong Mario’
Jude Vincent Parcon (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2018 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The name Mario may seem ordinary to most Filipinos, but, at times, it can also be unique – one in a million as they say.

Manong Mario Jimena, 52, from Iloilo City starts his day at around 9 or 10 in the morning. He preps himself for his daily grind of which will end typically around 7 in the evening – just as when most of the people or students in most days are no longer at school. Yes, Manong Mario is your typical guy who wears a worn out shirt and shorts and worn out slippers. He can be seen regularly beside the gates of a state university in Lapaz, Iloilo City tending over his fish ball stand. Of course, students, during free time, or just as when they are about to go to their classes or to their homes in the afternoon, would flock his fish ball stand to partake in, not just fish balls but either kwek-kwek  (fried hard-boiled eggs covered in flour), kikiam, squid balls, fried chicken skin, french fries, tempura, or lumpia.

Occasionally, he would look at the array of fried food and ensure that these never run out. Otherwise, he would immediately grab a container that contains a prepared batter, scoop a portion and drop such in a frying pan, shortly; his stand is once again teeming with freshly fried fish balls.

But, more than the seemingly common scenario and the usual routine of Manong Mario everyday as one would see, who would ever thought that he is a proud father of 4 girls, 3 of whom are college graduates already and 1 more in third year college? Remarkably, he is one determined father who made sure that his 4 girls will never follow the same path that he tread early in his life.

He got married at a young age of 18. Poverty got the most of him and his wife that he was left with no option but to start selling ice scramble (that yummy ice dessert with sago) just so he could be able to feed his growing family. His usual area is Lapaz where he would be seen outside the gates of a public high school selling these treats to children. He also tried his luck selling popcorn, still, along the streets of Lapaz and peddling his treats from one school to another. Just as he was having children already, he promised to himself that he would give them a life and a childhood that is not brought about by the slums in Jaro.

Perhaps, his luck never ran out as his kids back then strived hard as they made it to good schools. But Manong Mario never stopped, in fact, he was hired as an assistant cook in the canteen of a public high school and at the same time, his wife would tend over their carinderia. This would go on for more than 11 years. Just as his eldest daughter is in college, Manong Mario started to make and sell fish balls. This may not be enough to make both ends meet for his family, but at least, with his carinderia and his fish ball stand, it can give his family something in their stomachs and in the pockets of his daughters. Surely, anyone can attest to how difficult it is to send even just one child to school, so much more if they are four, right?

But more than the luck, it is the relentless perseverance of everyone in the family that ensured that they could all weather all the problems and challenges that come their way. His wife would be in the carinderia, him in his fish ball stand peddling from one school to another, and even his daughters. He quipped that for his daughters, sometimes, after school, even if they were still in their school uniforms, they would help him sell fish balls – they were never ashamed. In fact, they took pride in what they have been doing.

He keeps on telling them not to have boyfriends back in high school and in college. He amusingly recalled how he would fetch his daughter from school once he learned that someone is trying to court her. He was smiling when he narrated how he would tell his daughters, “paano kamo mag boyfriend kay wala kamo ubra? (how can you get a boyfriend if you don’t have a stable job?)” Then his daughters would remind him again, asking for permission if it is already fine for him to have a boyfriend as they already have work. But he will be quick to respond, “may ubra kamo pero wala man kamo balay (you have a job, but you don’t own a house)”. His daughters, after making sure that their house would no longer be in the slums of Jaro or in a portion of their carinderia, but in an upscale subdivision already, would tell him again that they do have a nice house already. But, again, he would respond in jest, “teh, wala man kamo salakyan (but you don’t have cars).” And after those long years that these exchanges have happened – father and daughters, the daughters answered – “you have a car.”

Indeed, Manong Mario, beaming with pride, would say that he has three daughters already working in Norway and one more, soon to graduate from a prestigious university in Iloilo. His unceasing reminder to his daughters to work hard and study hard and strive hard has eventually come into fruition.

But despite all these successes, he still remained in his fish ball stand, beside the gates of a state university in Lapaz. He would still prep himself and work from 9 in the morning until 7 in the evening. He would still happily scoop a portion of the batter that is already prepared so that he can start frying the fish balls. As tempting as it sounds, especially to Filipinos, upon hearing Norway or any other country outside of the Philippines, he is steadfast in declaring that he will not go and leave his fish ball stand. Let them come home here in Iloilo, he would say.

At 52 years old, he can afford to retire and enjoy a relaxing life, with his wife and daughters and a grandchild, or perhaps, at the age of 60, a typical retirement age for most of the Filipinos. But then again, he simply smiled and said that he will never see himself retiring at all. Maybe, nothing can stop him from doing what he like most – apart from death, he said.

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