fish vendor

Manny Villar’s Tondo roots were ‘definitely middle class’

Manny Villar’s Tondo roots were ‘definitely middle class’
By HOWIE SEVERINO and PIA FAUSTINO
GMANews.TV

In 1961, when Liberal Party standard-bearer Diosdado Macapagal was in the midst of a victorious presidential campaign, today’s presidential aspirant Manny Villar Jr. was 11 years old and living with his large extended family in a rented three-story corner house along Tondo’s main tree-lined boulevard, Moriones Street.

Villar’s father, Manuel Sr., was a US-educated Philippine government budget officer and his mother was an enterprising fish dealer, one of a privileged few with a choice stall in Divisoria market, one of Manila’s busiest.

By that year, Evelyn Villar, Manny’s aunt and Manuel Sr.’s sister, had already been a leading lady in movies produced by the major studio LVN. Evelyn hung out with Rosa Rosal, Delia Razon and other LVN stars at the time, and would occasionally sleep over in the Moriones house.

It was also a time when, candidate Manny Villar would like voters to believe, his family was almost desperately poor, judging from the songs, rhetoric and political ads that have formed the main narrative of his political campaign.

“Ako, noong first 11 years of my life, talagang squatter kami noong araw. Lahat, dinaanan ko yan,” the senator said last week.

In 1962, as Villar was turning 13, his younger brother Danny, then three, died of leukemia, after his family had already transferred from Moriones to the upscale San Rafael Village in North Balut, Tondo (San Rafael village spans the border between Tondo and Navotas).

But in a political ad that has stopped airing, Villar claimed that his family was so poor then that they couldn’t buy the medicines that could have saved his brother’s life.

A studio photograph taken of the Villar family when the future senator, standing right back row, was in college. Manny Villar graduated from college in 1966. The young child in the front is actually the deceased Daniel Villar, who was not alive when the original photo was taken. It was only recently that the Villar family had the photo digitally altered to include Danny's image. Danny died before the age of four in 1962.

His critics and political opponents have since challenged the veracity of his claims to childhood destitution, leading Villar and his allies to back track a bit and halt some of the more questionable ads proclaiming his pauper roots, including the now famous music ad about swimming in a sea of garbage and spending Christmas on the streets, as if Villar and his siblings were urchins caroling to motorists.

The argument about the Villar family’s true economic status has become one of the bitterest bones of contention in this overheated political season, and has led to spirited exchanges in the media and on the web about what constituted real poverty in the early 1960s.

GMANews.TV has spent the past month trying to get to the bottom of Villar’s childhood poverty claims, interviewing neighbors, family members, and retired and active fish vendors who used to source their fish from Manny’s mother, Curing. She was acknowledged by both family members and her fellow-fish dealers as the entrepreneur in the family, and whom the candidate credits for teaching him the rudiments of business.

Manuel Villar Sr.’s government income

We also obtained from government archives the partial government employment records of Manuel Villar Sr. from 1938 to 1961 (his records beyond that year have not yet been found). Together with accounts from Curing’s fellow vendors of how much she was probably earning at the time, a fairly accurate picture has emerged for the first time of the Villar family’s income and what it could be worth in today’s money.

According to Manuel Villar Sr.’s salary record in 1961 as a rising official in the then-Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, he was earning P448 a month or P5376 a year. It does not sound like much but the value of money was much different then. The minimum wage was four pesos a day, and an eight-ounce soft drink was 10 centavos or less. The elder Villar was earning an average of P22 a day.

Significantly, according to a household income survey in 1961 conducted by the National Statistics Office, the average annual individual income in that year was only P1,105. In other words, Manny Villar’s father was earning nearly five times the average income at the time.

Using the consumer price index from both 1961 and 2009 available on the National Statistics Office web site, we calculated the equivalent of P448 in 1961 to be P35,392 in today’s money, Manuel Villar Sr.’s monthly salary when adjusted for inflation. His rank in the civil service then was Budget Officer III.

Even in 1957, when the candidate says the family was much poorer, his father was earning P3960 a year at a time when the average individual income was P924 per annum.

Manuel Villar Sr. had started out in the government service in 1938 as a laboratory helper and became a junior fish warden during World War II. According to his employment records, Manuel Sr. studied fisheries in the United States as a “pensionado” or government scholar in 1948-49. When he returned to the Philippines, he was soon made a section chief and he continued to rise in both rank and salary.

Being a government employee was a relatively comfortable situation in the 1950s and 60s, especially for the rare one who had studied abroad on a scholarship like the elder Villar. Government officials were much better paid in those days and, without the reputation for corruption attached to government service today, they enjoyed greater prestige in the community.

“They were definitely middle class,” said Dr. Cielito Habito, an economist at Ateneo de Manila University and a former head of the National Economic and Development Authority, or NEDA, who helped GMANews.TV convert the Villar family income to today’s money.

A double income family

But the father’s regular salary was just one income in the Villars’ double-income family. The main breadwinner was actually Manny’s now famous mother Curing. According to several fish market vendors and their children who worked alongside the Villars in the Divisoria market in the 1960s, Curing earned no less than P80 a day and could have averaged as much as P600 a day after building up a steady customer base that included restaurants and nearby offices to whom she delivered fresh fish.

Using the factor of 79, based on the Consumer Price Index, that’s the equivalent of P6,320 to P47,400 a day in 2010. The lower figure was recalled by Eduardo Artures, 69, who worked in the same market in his teens and who knew the Villars.

The higher figure was cited by retired fish vendor Lelet Buenviaje, 68, who worked in Divisoria for nearly 40 years and sold shrimp just a few stalls a way from Curing. She recalls Manny Jr. as a hard-working son who often assisted his mother.

She vividly remembers Curing being one of the most successful Divisoria seafood wholesalers during the 1960s. She herself would buy seafood from Aling Curing on a nearly daily basis, which she would then retail.

“Kasi kung minsan tinatanghali ako, wala na kong aabutan sa labas eh,” recalls Lelet. “Minsan kumukuha ako 20 kilos, hanggang 30 (kilos). Pinakamababa 10 kilos ang kuha ko sa kanya. Napapautang niya kami. Kinabukasan ang bayad. Mabait si Aling Curing.”

Lelet remembers most of Aling Curing’s customers being seafood vendors themselves as well, not ordinary consumers.

“Halimbawa may naligaw na buyer na bibili ng tingi, nagbebenta din siya. Pero mas marami siyang suki sa mga nagtitinda,” remembers Lelet.

However, Senator Villar has insisted that his mother was never a wholesaler. “We were not in wholesaling. We were ordinary vendors selling shrimps in public markets, which I’ve been saying for so many times,” he has said. “Tatlong banyera lamang ang tinda namin. Noong bandang huli, noong ako ay nasa college na, medyo dumadami-dami na yung tinda namin.

Mrs. Villar and her sisters don’t recall their income in those days, a time of low food prices and national optimism when the elder Macapagal, incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s father, was promising to lead a frugal and honest administration.

But Curing Villar and three of her daughters, who met GMANews.TV in an exclusive group interview in the family home in Las Piñas, were one in insisting that they were poor. They recall how during their years in Moriones, they had to forego luxuries such as new clothes and expensive food just to help their parents support their large family.

Minsan, lalagyan lang namin ng patis ang kanin. Minsan, saging na may bagoong, mantika na may asin. Kung wala kaming ulam, kanin lang, okay na sa amin ‘yun sa araw-araw. ‘Pag may natira sa tinda (ni Nanay), yung mga hipon na nagkadurog-durog na ‘yung ulo, sisipsipin pa namin,” says Gloria “Baby” Villar-Benedicto, one of Manny Villar’s three younger sisters. Baby is one year younger than the senator.

‘No way they were poor’

Manny Villar during his first communion
The Villar family’s conviction about their own poverty in the 1950s and 1960s could simply highlight the different definitions people have of being poor. Having nine children, with one dying of disease, could have left an imprint of hardship on their memories.

But according to researchers who have worked in Tondo, the Villars were clearly much better off than many residents at the time.

Dr. Mary Racelis, an urban anthropologist who did poverty studies in Tondo in the 1960s, says poverty cannot be measured by income alone. “Housing is a very strong indicator of poverty,” she told GMANews.TV. “They (the Villars) were renters of a home made of strong materials. That does not make them poor.”

“The really poor in Tondo lived in ramshackle homes of nipa and straw,” Racelis added.

The Villar family lived in this rented house on Moriones street in Tondo, Manila from the late 1940s until around 1961. The Villar family shared this house with the families of Curita Villar's two older sisters.
According to the poor themselves, she continued, “the poverty threshold is having three regular meals a day. That’s the threshold in Tondo to this day.”

“The Villars had a double income, the father was a regular wage earner, they eventually owned a piece of land. They were in the formal sector, they could have been in the upper 10 percent,” Racelis said. “There was no way they were poor in Tondo.”

Moreover, according to Angelito Nunag, a UP-educated historian specializing in Tondo history, “Moriones was central to all activities, and near the church, market and pier. Kung may tirahan ka diyan, kahit rental, may sinasabi ka.”

While recalling that they grew up without luxuries and a lot of clothes, the Villar children have never claimed they were hungry, admitting they always had three meals a day, thanks to their hardworking parents.

When asked how difficult it was back then to feed nine children, Nanay Curing recalls: “Hindi naman mahirap. Simple lang naman ang kinakain namin eh. ‘Yun lang mga isda na putol ang ulo, putol ang buntot, ang inuuwi ko. Hindi naman ‘yung mamahalin.”

With a double income much higher than the nation’s average, the Villar couple could easily afford to feed their children.

Their fish dealer-mother had easy access to unsold fish and shrimp from the market, which she often brought home for her family’s dinner.

Nanay Curing’s humble origins

Despite Curing Villar’s success, she never forgot where she came from.

While candidate Villar’s rags-to-riches narrative is debatable, his mother’s origins featured a major disaster that left her family with nothing.

Curita “Curing” Bamba grew up in the fishing town of Orani, Bataan where according to her own description, her father worked as an “influence peddler” at the municipio. But a cataclysmic fire before World War II nearly wiped out the town, including her family’s home, forcing her parents and two older sisters to migrate to Manila.

The Bamba sisters and their mother started out sewing dresses at the Hollywood shirt factory near Tondo’s Santo Nino church, a factory that still exists. But she recalls that shortly before the war, she found her opportunity to set up a small business when there was a public raffle for stall spaces at the Divisoria Market.

“Nung nakabunot ako sa Divisoria, nakakuha ako ng pwesto 2245,” she recalls. Her future husband, Manuel “Maning” Villar Sr., was a war-time government fish inspector she met when he was ordered by Japanese soldiers to confiscate her fish to feed the troops. She persuaded him to bring the fish to his family rather than to the enemy.

That was the start of an entrepreneurial life that provided the seeds for her son’s rise to wealth and power. Manny has frequently called his mother “the original Mrs. Sipag at Tiyaga.”

Lelet Buenviaje says that when she became a fish vendor in 1960, Curing Villar was already a wholesaler who supplied mostly shrimp from her native Bataan to retailers. “Maraming suki yan,” Lelet recalls. “Laging walang natitira sa tinda. Ubos na ubos.”

As the family breadwinner, Buenviaje says she earned as much as P300 net income on a good day, or P23,700 in today’s money, enabling her to buy a house in Tondo. She says Curing made at least twice as much as she did.

Even when Curing was already earning the equivalent of tens of thousands per day, Curing was not known to splurge on fancy dresses and worked on every holiday except for Good Friday, her only rest day of the year. Manny, as the second child and oldest son, was often at her side assisting her before he went to school.

Even up until Manny was in college, he would help his mother sell seafood. Curing recalls how a teen-aged Manny negotiated a business deal that marked her entrance into big-time seafood dealership.

“Kaya ako nakapagrasyon noon, kasi naging kaklase ni Manny noon ang anak ng namamahala sa William Lines. Sabi ni Manny sa kaklase niya, ‘Baka naman puwedeng magrasyon ng isda ang nanay ko sa inyo,’” says Curing. During the 1960s, William Lines was one of the largest shipping lines in the country.

Villar family moves to upscale neighborhood

Curing’s earnings, coupled with her husband’s regular salary, enabled the couple to buy property in the exclusive Tondo subdivision of San Rafael. According to the Tondo historian Nunag, San Rafael was a community built by Americans during the Commonwealth period to house the newly wealthy of Tondo.

A photograph of Moriones Street in the 1950s.

When they left the Moriones house, the less well-off Bamba sisters remained there with their children and their parents, Manny’s grandparents.

By that time, Manny and most of his siblings were enrolled in the then-Tondo Parochial School run by the church, which charged a modest tuition fee. Their cousins continued in the nearby public school Isabelo delos Reyes Elementary School, where Manny and his older sister Odette began their education before transferring to the private school.

In San Rafael, the Villars lived among the upwardly mobile of Tondo. The house still stands along quiet Bernardo Street, but is now owned by a Jun Borres who uses the structure to house workers employed by his company Jumbo Fisheries. The village has apparently seen its best days and vehicles can enter without a security check. Warehouses dominate the area, and the rainy season still brings floods. The newly wealthy would probably not live there any more.

But that is where Manny moved as a teen-ager and lived at a time when he claimed his family was too poor to save the life of his brother Danny, who got sick and died of leukemia after their transfer to San Rafael.

The Senator and his siblings explain that by that time their family moved to San Rafael, they had already begun to rise above the poverty they experienced when living in Moriones.

Cecile Villar-Fernalino, the senator’s youngest sibling, explains:“Kasi si Ate Odette tumutulong nang magpaaral sa amin. May katuwang si Nanay. Tuition fee, siya ang nagbabayad sa high school namin. May mga tumutulong na. Si Kuya (Manny) tumutulong na din.” Odette was the eldest among the Villar siblings.

“Nagkataon na noong nagkasakit ang kapatid ko si Danny, kalilipat lang namin. Transition period ‘yun. Sabi nga sa (kanta), umahon kami. Unti-unti kaming umunlad. Ang Moriones at ang Balut, magkaiba. Ang sinasabing mahirap kami, sa Moriones ‘yun,” says Manny Villar’s sister, Baby.

Whatever the true circumstances of Danny’s death, Manny Villar’s parents certainly had enough to give their oldest son a better education and upbringing than many in Tondo at the time, setting the stage for building a business empire and in 2010, a run at the presidency. – GMANews.TV