by KRISTY ANNE TOPACIO-MANALAYSAY (intern)
IMUS, Cavite–FORMER seafarer Rolando Sarno is riding on a new wave: that of the daily realities of managing a business.
Using a scoop from galvanized iron, Sarno pours rice into a plastic bag, his fingers deftly tying a knot to seal the top and keep the grains from falling.
Another happy customer leaves his wholesale and retail business here which he put up after leaving a job tying sheep-shank and other types of knots on a ship in 1989.
“I had some money saved. It grew after five years so I had to choose between staying on a ship or running my own ship,” Sarno, now 53, said.
“I decided to stay in the country and start our business.”
The elderly Sarno is just one of the many overseas Filipino workers –called modern-day heroes because of their remittances– who now live lives they call “ordinary” in this province of heroes.
This province would be dashed into the center of commemoration rituals for the national heroes’ day next week, November 30, but most of its denizens wouldn’t be aware of the international day of migrants in the week before Christmas or on December 18.
The municipal government even has no program “specifically intended for OFWs,” according to Mayor Homer Saquilayan, himself a former migrant worker.
But former OFWs like Valentine Veleña doesn’t care.
“I’m not aware of [what] the [local] government [does]; I’m not that concerned [anyway],” Veleña, a seaman for two decades, said.
“What I care about the most is myself and my family.”
That, for him, is being “heroic”: performing a daily duty to his loved ones.
Thus reveals the heritage of this municipality in the southern province of Cavite that is traced to its people’s defeat of Spanish colonial army and the unfurling of the Philippine flag. The latter signaled the birth of this Republic whose eight million citizens a century later are in 190 other countries.
TODAY, Filipinos like Veleña, who commandered a ship as captain before retiring six years ago, provide the bridge to that heritage amidst the boom propelled by money sent by their modern counterparts.
The municipality hosts shopping centers, banks, an industrial zone, and other icons of commerce side by side the property sector’s rush to sell themed-houses and real estate projects.
“Things are different now, especially with the present situation in the Philippines,” Veleña said. “Before, we could live off even a small amount of money. Now, that’s not possible. Our standard of living is unbelievably higher, but I think OFWs like me have learned to adapt.”
The Veleñas live in a subdivision in Imus, where they had their three-door apartment constructed. They also own a grocery store, which Veleña said is for “something to get us through.”
Like Veleña, Judy Constantino is also captain of a business born out of saving her husband’s income as a seaman since 1976.
“He has been thinking of setting up a business for years now,” Constantino said adding that she agreed saying having a business instead of letting her husband continue working abroad has its advantages.
However, with today’s ballooning unemployment rate and stiff market competition, Constantino could not help but think of the risks involved, especially now that they are paying their daughter’s way through college.
“If he continues with his job as a seaman, we would be assured financially, but he would be away for at least eight months a year,” Constantino told the OFW Journalism Consortium in a separate interview.
Should her husband decide to venture into business, they could stay together as a family, but with no sense of security that the business with prosper.
“It’s quite risky to venture into business with today’s political and economic situation,” she said echoing Veleña’s concerns.
ACCORDING to Saquilayan, Imus’s proximity to Manila is the main attraction for the municipality’s business environment.
“A lot of people, including OFWs, have chosen to start their businesses here mainly because of [that] and the booming population, not to mention that a lot of Imuseños are highly qualified, prospective employees,” Saquilayan said.
He added that the municipality –one of the province’s twenty– is “the breeding ground for political, economic and business leaders.”
When asked why there’s no specific program to attract more OFWs to return, Saquilayan said the local government is “open to help or assist them, just like what we are doing to other sectors of the society.”
Saquilayan said he is no stranger to the plight of OFWs, having left the country and his job as government employee in 1985 to work in Saudi Arabia.
He said he returned after a two-year contract and worked as the municipal engineer for a decade.
In the 2001 local elections, he gained the votes needed for the mayoral post.
I never missed overseas work, Saquilayan said adding he didn’t go into business since, he said, he’s “not a business-inclined person.”
Other former OFWs who went into politics include Rodolfo del Rosario, who worked as a mess man aboard international ships, and Napolen Monzon, who worked in construction projects in Saudi Arabia.
Both gained the votes needed to lead their respective barangay or village.
“Naliitan ako sa sweldo [I deigned the meager salary as a construction worker in Saudi Arabia],” Monzon told the OFW Journalism Consortium.
“I thought that it would be better for me to stay. Pareho lang naman [It’s just the same],” Monzon said of his decision to return in 1986.
All three consider Imus, once a battlefield for the country’s heroes in the 1896 Philippine Revolution, is now the sanctuary for “modern-day heroes” deeming reintegration, return, or retirement.
According to researcher Roberto de Vera, they are members of an estimated 93,620 OFW households in this province.
Government agency Philippine Overseas Employment Administration cited number constitutes some 9.5 percent of the overall deployment of 981,677 last year.
However, government has no data available either for those who returned more than two years or OFWs who went into business or sought political positions like Saquilayan, Del Rosario or Monzon.
RETURNING OFWs’ option to go into business rather than politics is seen as a natural path, surmised Antonio Valeriano.
Antonio Valeriano is the 68-year-old proprietor of a small restaurant that has been operating for 24 years now.
“I guess that business is becoming a path for OFWs,” Valeriano said adding: “It’s like a form of retirement.”
Valeriano came home in 1982 and put up the restaurant after working as a secretary in Becthel Co. in Jubail.
He told the OFW Journalism Consortium he was able to establish a business with the money he earned abroad.
Valeriano’s restaurant first became famous when it was still situated at the Imus public market, which, through the years, has undergone renovations under different municipal mayors.
Near Valeriano’s business is Sarno’s stall.
Sarno believes that he made the right decision and thinks that his present “job” is more rewarding than his work abroad, in more ways than one.
“I earn more and, at the same time, I am with my family,” he said.
Both credit their success in reintegration to themselves rather than to the absence or presence of an OFW-focused local government project.
Veleña added: “Should they [the local government] create programs for us, then that would be very welcome, especially if it concerns medical assistance.”
Nonetheless, Veleña said OFWs should consider the timing whether they want to go into business or enter the highly-charged politics of Imus, Cavite.
“Also, save first. That’s the most important thing.”
Indeed, according to them, saving is the most heroic thing they have done in their daily lives as migrant workers.
OFW Journalism Consortium