Hundred-year-old Filipino expat Modesto Aguirre shared his journey going back to work in Canada after his retirement in the Philippines.
A smiling Modesto Aguirre or Papang greets me as soon as he gets connected for our interview via Zoom. Cool, cheerful and gentle, he is the kind of lolo everyone wants to have. The interview, a mix of Tagalog, English and Hiligaynon, displays how sharp Papang´s memory still is and boy, his sense of humor is infectious. Papang later confesses that laughter and vegetables are two important ingredients of his long life.
The middle child of five siblings, Papang was born in Sicaba, Cadiz City on 15 June 1921, a year after the end of the Spanish flu pandemic. He spent his childhood in Cadiz and one of his fondest memories growing up was the time he spent fishing with his mother.
Papang met the love of his life, Vivencia or Mamang in a chance encounter in 1942. He was smitten right away and wasted no time in courting the young lady. On 2 March 1946, the two tied the knot. The union later gave them 11 children. “I had several girlfriends before her, but I chose her. There was even an ex-girlfriend at the wedding…” Papang doesn’t have the chance to finish his line because we all burst into laughter.
During the second world war, Papang joined the underground guerrilla movement. Unfortunately, he was captured by the Japanese, but lucky for him, he was spared from the brutal tortures that the Japanese soldiers were known for. “I was only beaten with a dos por dos,” Papang recounts with a giggle. On the 13th day of his detention, he was released with the help of the town mayor.
After the war, Papang became a clerk at the Philippine Army Signal in 1948. He then worked for the ASAC (Anti-Smuggling Centre) of the Philippine government as a radio operator until he retired.
The idea of migrating to Canada came after Papang´s oldest daughter Bernice´s move to Winnepeg to work as a nurse in 1979. She petitioned her family to follow suit. On 28 October 1982, Papang and Mamang, together with four of their children, left the Philippines to start a new life in a new country. The rest of their children would join them several years later.
Papang´s unforgettable memory of his first days in Canada was the first time he saw snow. “I was amazed. We went to the mountain to cut a pine tree to make it a Christmas tree.”
Despite being in his 60s, Papang adjusted well to his new home. Only three months after he arrived, a friend called him with a job offer. It was to clean apartments eight hours a day, for six Canadian dollars per hour; to which he gladly accepted.
“It was not too hard to do. I was still strong that time.”
As if working eight hours a day was not enough, Papang took on a second job, as a dishwasher in a steakhouse restaurant. For ten years, he would clean the apartment from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon and run to the steakhouse restaurant to wash the dishes from six in the evening to one in the morning.
Being a war veteran, it was not hard for Papang to find his place in the Filipino community. He was the secretary of the Filipino Veterans Association in Winnepeg from 1982 to 2000 and at Philippine Independence Day celebrations, he and his mates would oversee raising the Philippine flag at the city hall.
A retiree again
From Winnepeg, he moved to Brampton two years after he stopped working. A decision that gave him the chance to spend time with Mamang visiting their children who were now based in different parts of the world. Mamang was Papang´s constant travel buddy until her death in October 2013. In Papang´s colourful life, he considers 1 July 1946 as the most memorable day of his life. It was when Mamang moved to Manila from Cadiz to finally join him. That sweet day when he was standing by the pier waiting for the ship bearing Mamang to dock.
Asked how he is as a father, Papang says that he was a cool father when his kids were growing up, but he also set some rules in the house. “When my kids were small, when I said, it´s time to wake up, it´s time to wake up. If not, they would wake up with a pail of water splashed at them.” Florence, who is sitting beside Papang laughs so hard as a sign of agreement. She claims that they had a schedule for the daily house chores.
In 2008, Papang was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) but soon recovered from this ailment. This year, he has an oxygen tank on standby, but he can manage without one. During the pandemic, Papang´s daughters, Florence and Bernice took turns taking care of him. His lockdown days were spent relaxing in his garden and watching Korean dramas.
Turning a new leaf
Last June, Papang turned 100 in the middle of the pandemic. His family, strictly following safety measures, saw to it that it would be an unforgettable day for the celebrant. And it was.
Making it extra special was the greetings that Papang received from the mayor of Brampton Patrick Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and yes, the Queen Elizabeth. Papang proved to be a real trooper by staying up until one in the morning.
At 100, Papang is still in good shape. His memory is as sharp as a razor. He can recite important dates, birthdays and anniversaries with ease. He even has a Facebook account and loves listening to his favorite Filipino radio programs with his I-pad.
For Papang, hard work and patience are two most important ingredients to survive life abroad. Coming to a foreign country as a retiree and deciding to work again for another 10 years did not deter Papang´s outlook in life. His determination to give his family a bright future was his anchor to beat the odds. Despite his age, he continues to exude positivity and inspiration to the people around him.
“All my dreams have been fulfilled. I cant´ask for anything more. I am extremely grateful to God. No regrets at all. To the young ones, never be enslaved by money. Money is evil. It can destroy your family. Work hard, because you can prosper and of course, finish your studies. No one can steal your education from you.”
This article was first published in the 2021 Autumn/Winter Issue of The Filipino Expat Magazine. Papang passed away in 2021 after the publication of this article.
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Nats Sisma Villaluna has been serving the Filipino community in Spain for more than 13 years. His volunteer works include teaching Spanish to Filipinos, and as artistic director of the Coro Kudyapi, a group of musically inclined young Filipinos in Barcelona. His passion to serve the Filipino community now extends to other countries in his role as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the new The Filipino Expat Magazine.