Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

A MAN WITH NO DEMANDS: Edited Reprint from TATAK-UPLB

26 February 2022

He lost his father when he was four years old; helped his mother catch mudfish to sell in the wet market; wanted to be a teacher so he could buy a pair of shoes. 

Abelardo, called Bandong, was born and lived in San Isidro, Nueva Ecija, until he graduated valedictorian from sixth grade. His mother Maria then sent him to Cabanatuan for high school, where he stayed with relatives. His fondest memory was of his half-sister Ate Luz who, with her earnings teaching piano, supported and guided him throughout his secondary school years.

During his long, weekly commute between San Isidro and Cabanatuan, he wove and sold baskets, sharing the proceeds with his mother. He finished high school in three years, graduating class valedictorian in 1929. Not able to afford a pair of long pants everyone wore for the graduation ceremony, he marched up the stage to deliver his valedictory address wearing short pants he had bought from his savings. 

Ate Luz encouraged him to whet his intellectual curiousity by pursuing higher education. However, he lost this solid rock of support with her premature death, and he knew that without a scholarship, there was no way for him to go to university. Opportunities did come, including initial qualifications to be a “pensionado” (scholar) at the Annapolis Naval Academy in the US. However, instead of going through a further screening, he accepted the Baylon de la Rama scholarship for sugar technology at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB). He would forever be grateful to De la Rama for this gift, regularly visiting his grave.

University years were happy years. He loved dancing and enjoyed the camaraderie of three close friends. After graduation in 1934, he pursued a master’s degree in chemistry, initially enrolling in UP Diliman, continuing through self-study, and finally passing the board exam to become a registered chemist in 1955.

When Bandong graduated from the Sugar Technology Program at UPLB, only six of them were in the country. Armed with a prestigious degree, he quickly landed a job at the Philippine Sugar Administration (later renamed Sugar Quota Office). As permit agent, he ensured that sugar traded did not exceed the assigned quotas for both domestic and export markets.

This job brought him to the sugar-producing province of Negros where he met Remedios (Idiong) Palanca, whom he married in 1939. Idiong was one of the eldest in a large family of twelve brothers and sisters and seven orphaned cousins.  Recognising his competence, Bandong's father-in-law, then gravely ill, asked him to manage some 500 hectares of Sugarland meant to support the needs of the large, extended family.

Consequently, in 1941, Bandong resigned from his job and took over the management of his in-laws’ farm, Hda. Salome. However, war broke out before he could harvest the year’s produce. After evacuating the family to the nearby island of Guimaras, he returned to find that Hda. Salome’s population had meantime swelled due to the influx of evacuees from other regions. He therefore proceeded to organize the production of food crops, and in time, the farm became the rice granary of the area. Along with rice, the people planted corn, sweet potatoes, cassava and other crops that were then bartered for necessities such as dried fish, clothing, and oil.

When the tides of war turned, Bandong displayed his keen foresight. The sugar mills would be operating again, he thought, but they would need canes to mill. To the amusement of friends, he started planting several hectares of sugarcane, but instead of harvesting the cash crop after twelve months, he harvested after six, saving only the cane points, which he then replanted in ever-wider fields. When the war ended in 1945, the scarce cane points rocketed in price. Impressed, Victorias Milling Company asked him to manage its large sugar plantations, but Bandong had promises to his in-laws that he had to keep.

When the youngest sibling of Idiong's family graduated from medical school, he finally felt he had kept his promise to his father-in-law.  He handed over the farm management to one of the elder brothers and now turned his attention to the needs of his own nuclear family. By then, he had six growing children: Abelardo Jr, Betty, Armita, Victoria, Reynaldo, and Cynthia. He only had a small saving from a side business of sugar trading, although much more importantly, he also had a reputation for honesty and enjoyed an excellent credit record from the bank.

Finally, he and Idiong bought their first farm. It was 1956--he was in his mid-40s--he and Idiong stood before the 39-hectare piece of land with spindly rice stalks, scrawny sugar canes, and fat cogon grass. But Hda Clarita also came with only a small downpayment, with the rest to be paid in assumable bank loans. Moreover, the farm proved profitable and provided them with additional funds to take advantage of the opportunities that were soon to come.

His keen foresight was to serve him again in the early 1960s. Two events created a boom in the sugar industry. The first was the devaluation of the Philippine currency from Php2.00 per USD1.00 to Php3.90 per USD1.00. This made bank loans denominated in Philippine currency almost twice as advantageous to exporters who earned in USDollars. The second event was the increasing hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States and the corresponding deteriorating relationship between the United States and Cuba. Perhaps earlier than most, Bandong was prepared when the United States declared a trade embargo on Cuban products. He had positioned himself by seeking farms for sale with large assumable loans. Investing everything he had, he bought a large farm with standing crops, and it paid for itself within a year.

The late 60s and the 70s was a period of stabilization and diversification: from sugar to lime mining and production, prawn farming, alcohol manufacturing, and other allied businesses. He also became active in the University of the Philippines Alumni Association, The Luzonians in Negros, and the Rotary Club.

An introverted and naturally taciturn man, he would quote truisms to guide his children. “Do unto others as you would others do unto you”. He hated gossip, “If you cannot say anything good about somebody, don’t say anything at all”. When one child seemed to acquire overly expensive habits, “I am a simple man—rice and fish, ok na ako”. On a questionable dealing, “Do not build your fortune on the misfortune of others”.  He turned down an invitation to a lucrative and powerful position because it entailed that he compromise his principles.

By 1980, Bandong had increasingly delegated his business responsibilities to his children. He now wanted to indulge himself in the practice of more scientific farming without its corresponding pressures for financial profitability. But he became actively involved in operations again during the crisis of 1983-86, caused by the near-collapse of the sugar industry. This was due to market prices that at times were lower than production costs, over-borrowing on the part of the farmers, and the government’s acquisition of the sole right to market the farmers’ produce with its failure, however, to promptly pay a fair price for them.

As lands were being foreclosed or left idle by their owners, massive lay-offs and starvation ensued in many parts of Negros.  Bandong decided that he would not stop sugarcane production or delay payments for labor wages. He explained his decision to his family thus, “I have lived a poor man’s life, and I know what it is like to be poor”. Resources from other businesses were pooled to cover the deficits in the farm or to advance delayed payments from the government. In so doing, these businesses were sacrificed. In time, he started dipping into his “pension fund”, a previously untouchable amount he had reserved for his needs in old age. When he was down to his last three months of payroll with the government disbursement nowhere in sight, he summoned his managers for a touching meeting. He encouraged them to plant anything edible. Fortunately, the government liquidation came before the months were up. Hence, until the day he died, he managed to live up to his commitments.

At the time of his sudden death, he was negotiating for the purchase of land where squatters in Idiong's town could be relocated. It is today called Bandong Village. He was also an active supporter of Idiong’s program on delivering health services to the poor, now an NGO called Ikaayong Lawas. He donated several hectares of land to be managed by the Don Bosco Brothers, now a training center for orphaned boys called Boys Home. He endowed scholarship funds to deserving but impoverished students at UPLB.

The 1965 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of the Philippines reads in part:

Starting auspiciously as a private sugar technologist, he helped rebuild the family fortune, established industrial enterprises that are eminently successful, and attained a successful business career through hard work and recognized integrity. . . .

In a life well-lived, Bandong, in return, made demands on no one.