From janitor to restaurant director: this former drug user overcame the hurdles of life to become successful and provide a bright future for his family in Barcelona.
Among Filipinos back home, there is a notion that life abroad is equivalent to prosperity, comfort, and to a great extent, happiness. After all, the steady flow of remittances makes life better, if not entirely prosperous, especially for the children growing up without one or both parents.
Giovanni Hidalgo, 36, assumed as much. His parents left to work in Spain when he was seven, leaving he and his sister Xiaoyin in the care of their grandmother in La Union. Unlike most of his classmates, no parents took or picked them up from school. But that void was filled with the monthly allowance that they received from Spain.
His parents promised to petition them after seven years, which dragged on for a decade, and when they were finally reunited, the reality of their parents´ life in Spain crushed his rosy idea of what expat life was.
We are in Rossinni, a popular Italian restaurant in Plaza Real, where Giovanni has been working for almost 13 years.
Despite the disappointment, he remained grateful. His family was complete, that for him was the most important. His father Artemio worked at the airport, his mother Letecia took care of them, and in addition, they finally got to meet their youngest brother, Kevin, who was born in Spain. Giovanni had a plan before he left, to work for a maximum of ten years, earn a lot of money and continue his life in the Philippines, maybe start a pig farm or a carinderia. He did not want to stay in Europe.
Searching for identity
Giovanni got on with his plan right away. He studied Spanish and at the same time worked as a cashier in an Asian store while waiting for his residence permit. When his papers finally got approved, he worked at the airport together with his father.
Meanwhile, his sister had a different plan. She went to school to finish secondary education despite not knowing a single word of Catalan. And even though it proved difficult, Giovanni commended his sister for plowing through. Xiaoyin went on to study pharmacy while Giovanni began to enjoy earning and spending his own money.
Like many young Filipinos uprooted from their homeland, Giovanni was searching for his identity as a Filipino in Spain. He found his tribe in the group of young Pinoys who frequented Plaza dels Angels and Plaza Terenci Moix near Museum of Contemporary Arts Barcelona (MACBA) located in Barrio Raval, where 4,000 of the 9,000 Filipinos in Barcelona live.
Under normal circumstances, his parents would have reprimanded Giovanni from using hard drugs. But this was not the case. He discovered that his parents were users themselves. In the beginning, he tried to convince them to give up their vices but eventually gave up. There was even a time when all of them would use drugs together.
Still, Giovanni pursued to make life better for his family. He bought a small house in Sant Antoni, so that the family could move out of their cramped one-room lodging. He eventually became the breadwinner, using a big chunk of his salary as a waiter to pay for their house.
Giovanni found himself falling in love with a co-worker at the same time falling deeper into his drug addiction. He used his money to buy drugs instead of paying the mortgage. His younger sister Xioayin extracted herself from the household situation and moved out. Giovanni also left to live with his new girlfriend.
“That was the worst decision of my life. I left my parents knowing that they were addicts, knowing that nobody would be paying the house. My sister left because she couldn´t support my parents either. My youngest brother was only ten at that time, and he was left with my parents. But I couldn’t blame myself either because I was starting a family of my own.”
During his monthly visits to bring grocery supplies to his parents, Giovanni would always find an empty fridge in their rat-infested house without electricity and water due to non-payment. His brother was becoming thinner by every visit and was obviously missing school. As if it were not enough, the unimaginable happened.
In 2010, his first child, Tristan Ezequiel, was born. He did not want his first born to have the kind of parent that he had. So he decided to change the course of his life and stopped using illegal drugs. The first six months was the hardest, but after a year, his body stopped craving it.
With his baby in tow, Giovanni would regularly visit Kevin at the youth facility. He could tell he was unhappy despite being surrounded by other young kids. A few months later, Kevin ran away from the facility, walked down to Barcelona city, where the police eventually found him and took him back to the facility.
Giovanni knew that he was the only one who could save his brother. He worked even harder. He needed a house that would satisfy the requirements of the government, a steady income to ensure that he could support his younger brother. But when he finally got his brother back, life threw him another curveball. He and his partner were having a major setback, and he was conflicted whether to keep his family intact for his son or leave an unhappy relationship.
Picking up the pieces
Giovanni decided to leave. He went back to Barrio Raval and rented a house in Joaquin Costa, where he lived together with his son, his brother Kevin, and eventually his sister. He was forced into debt when the bank forfeited the house where his parents lived, so he also took them in with him.
Did he not blame his parents for all the misfortunes that happened in their family?
“At times yes. I questioned why things happened the way they did? Why didn’t they save up money or buy a house? Why did they not think of the future of their children? They are parents, they were supposed to take care of us. Why did they become like that? But I couldn´t blame everything on them because I had faults myself. And I couldn´t keep on rebuking them for their mistake because I was afraid that if I pushed them too much, they would commit suicide,” he tearfully answers.
Her mother would regularly make a scene at Giovanni’s, his father’s, and his sister’s workplaces screaming outside if they didn’t come out. When his son was hospitalized and almost died due to pneumonia, his mother was also becoming worse. Giovanni recalled the time she was so high that she took a knife and wanted to kill her husband, but fell and broke her head. That was when he decided to send her mother for rehabilitation.
His mother spent three months at Hospital Clinic rehabilitation centre.
Single and at peace with his current life, Giovanni eventually met Chriza Rafanan, a young native of Ilocos Sur who migrated to Spain at 11. Chriza was fond of dancing, and Giovanni used to join dance competitions when he was a kid. As fate would have it, the dance studio where Chriza was volunteering was in the same building where Giovanni’s son Tristan was taking karate lessons. On the day that he walked in, the dance instructor wasn’t present, so Chriza was the one who taught him the first steps.
“There was not much going in my life than my house-work routine. So, I thought maybe I should try dancing again. That’s where I met Chriza but when in the beginning she refused my offer of a relationship,” Giovanni fondly recalls.
Giovanni was not discouraged. Giovanni asked her family, including her grandfather for permission to court her again. After one month, Chriza finally accepted Giovanni as his boyfriend.
“I told her who I am and what I did before. I wanted her to know everything about me before she said yes. I did not want her to find it from other people,” Giovanni proudly adds.
Chriza has played a very important role in Giovanni´s life. He has at last found his balance. Her calm demeanor helps him to cope up with his personal issues. Giovanni became focused and motivated. He even quit smoking because of her. Now that they are expecting their first child, he is looking forward to raising his growing family with her.
At last, the wind of change seemed to be finally blowing in his favour. After her rehabilitation, Giovanni sent his mother to the Philippines so that she could rest, and that she would knowingly be afraid to ever touch illegal drugs again under the Duterte presidency. He rented a much bigger house, in Sants Badal, in a quiet neighborhood away from the bustle and temptations of the city center, where his family, including Chriza, is sharing a four-bedroom apartment and the luxury of two bedrooms.
Eventhough he was not able to fully mend the relationship between his brother Kevin and his parents, he makes sure he is there for his baby brother.
“Kevin is still angry about what happened to him. Every time we have disagreements, he brings up the past. I try to reason out with him that we are aware of our mistakes and failures in the past. That’s why we try to make up for them now.”
Fortunately, his family had become whole again before his father passed away in 2019.
Becoming a successful Filipino in Barcelona
Like the rest of the world, Spain reeled from the Covid-19 pandemic that started in 2020. The hotel and restaurant industry took one of the biggest hits. When the restaurants finally opened, Giovanni´s boss asked him to become director, a role he hesitated to take because of the sheer weight of the responsibilities.
“I wanted to focus on Chriza and our children and I did not want to think of work too much anymore. Eventually, I accepted the promotion not because of the money or the position but because I wanted to learn more.”
Giovanni’s career in the restaurant industry is almost as long as his entire life in Spain. He started working in a coffee shop at El Prat airport, then as a waiter in Quatre Gats, one of the oldest and most popular bars and restaurants in Barcelona. Despite having some experience in waiting tables, he started as a janitor in Rossini. Moving up the career ladder at Rossini, he worked as a waiter, a bartender, then a manager, a supervisor and finally as a director. Currently,he manages almost 60 people and is responsible for all the operational headaches, from sick leaves to bad reviews on Trip Advisor.
“I’ve been working with Giovanni for 12 years. When he was still a waiter under my supervision, I was less friendly than how he is now to me as my boss. He is very kind. Our relationship as co-workers has remained good despite his current position,” says Elsie Nazarie, one of the managers at Rossini.
Giovanni did not study go to a hotel school, nor does he have a management or even a college degree. Yet he earned the full trust of his employer. Whenever there is a difficult situation in any branch that is part of their group of their restaurants, he is the one called to fix it. In fact, it was his team who recommended him to become their director.
“There are others who tried this position, carrying impressive educational background and experience, including working in five-star hotels. But here at Rossini, their management style falters. Because they would want to change everything, they wanted become boss instead of leaders. As a leader, you should show your team how things should be done, instead of just telling them what they should do,” expains Giovanni.
Living a healthy lifestyle
His father’s death in 2019 made Giovanni think of the future, especially his family.
“When you die, you’re gone, you’re free from hardships. But the family you are leaving behind will face these difficulties. When my father died, he left us with nothing. He didn’t have any insurance. We shouldered all the funeral expenses. I realized how important it is to save up for the future. And how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle.”
Giovanni started taking Usana supplements, a brand of nutritional and skin care products founded by scientist and entrepreneur Myron Wentz, listed as number 1931 in the 2021 Forbes’ list of billionaires, with a net worth of $1.6B. Usana is also a multi-level marketing company, operating under the same business model employed by Herbalife and Avon. Usana has recently become so popular that even Philippine weightlifting Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz is endorsing it on her Instagram account.
Giovanni only wanted to try the products in the beginning, but a business opportunity had presented itself because there was nobody selling Usana products in Barcelona. Barely two years after becoming a distributor, Giovanni has now more than 300 people in his team and is now earning a steady weekly income that was able to augment the loss of salary during the pandemic. He also became the first Usana Gold Director in Spain.
“Working in restaurant leaves you with probably 2-3 hours a day for your family. I do not want to continue the working cycle that my father went through, working too hard and not having enough time for my family. I do not want to wait until I am 67 years old to retire. Hopefully through Usana, I can build a passive income that will allow me more time and more freedom so that I can enjoy with my family.” Giovanni hopes that in the near future, he can finally build that small restaurant that he has been dreaming of.
Advice to the youth
Giovanni’s brush with addiction is not unique in Barcelona. In an article published El Diario in 2019 entitled “‘Shabú’, a drug to endure at work that causes havoc in the Philippine community of Barcelona”, Dr. Sandra Santuré, a doctor working at Raval Nord, claimed that he had seen many people in 2018 coming up to his clinic with health problems that resulted from using methampethamine, or shabu, a trend that she had not seen before 2018. It is a problem that is not only limited to Filipinos but to other immigrants who are clocking in between 12 to 16 hours of work, mostly those working in the restaurant industry.
In the same article, Ferran Soler, technical director of CECAS, a private, non-profit foundation dedicated on caring for people with drug addiction, emphasized that consumption of shabu among Filipinos is not higher than the consumption of cannabis or cocaine among the Spaniards.
A scathing study led by Dr. María Ángeles López-Vílchez, head of Pediatrics at Hospital del Mar Paediatric Service, reported the increase of shabu consumption in the Filipino community, and a staggering 6.8% prevalence of drug used was detected among Filipina women who gave birth in the hospital, or nine out of 131 mothers. It is very high compared to the average of the general population which is recorded at only 1%.
Giovanni has proven that a successful career is possible even without a diploma. “We have different personalities, so at work you should be the one to adjust with other people, not the other way around. Don’t steal nor step on other people’s toes. Nor use others for your own advantage. And most of all you have to love and be happy with your work.”
The young man who migrated to Spain to earn a lot of money and planned to only stay a decade decided to stay for good. He has become a successful Filipino in Barcelona. But his measure of success has changed. Because for as long as his family is happy and doesn´t go hungry, he feels successful even though he doesn’t have tons of money in the bank.
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Dheza Aguilar is the Managing Editor of The Filipino Expat Magazine. She was a former Netherlands correspondent for ABS-CBN, and freelance writer for other publications. She works for a supply company in Rotterdam and is eternally juggling passion and career. She also blogs at www.girlfromthebarrio.com.
Pepe Chavez is from Baler, Aurora and is currently one of Barcelona’s most sought-after professional photographers. He goes fishing and plays billiards in his free time. He is totally obsessed with aquariums.