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Sarong Marinero sa kada pamilyang Bicolano

Every Saturday at 10:30 a.m., DWNX RadyoMan Elmer Abad would dish out the oft-repeated “Sarong Marinero sa Kada pamilyang Bicolano” promotional ad that has for years become a popular catchword to listeners in the 45-minute program, “Buhay Marinero”. Nap Mangente, his co-anchor, would echo this powerful mantra to inspire the listeners to enroll and study at Mariners Polytechnic Colleges/Foundation, in its three campuses - Naga City, Canaman, Camarines Sur, and Rawis, Legazpi City in Albay.

The veteran radio announcer knows by heart from where he speaks of. Elmer is a devoted broadcast journalist by profession. On the side, he has been the corporate media affairs of Mariners for over a decade now. He would know that if we go by addition, Mariners has graduated already about 70,000 young men and women whose lives along with their families have changed dramatically over time in 40 years. Where there is a house of concrete in a barangay, there most likely lives a family of a seaman, a licensed second mate, marine engineer, a ship officer, or a hotelier graduate of Mariners. After graduation, they somehow made good in working abroad or in some fancy commercial establishment. Seamen and most OFWs earn comparatively higher pay than most others working in this country that has remained poor, agricultural, backward, and beset with the perennial problem of joblessness.

Last March 4, the Mariners system commemorated its 48th Foundation Day and the 63rd birth anniversary of Boboy Jimenez with a face-to-face cum online program at the Canaman campus. Fr. Felix Penetrante, a new parish priest, celebrated the commemorative Mass, his first, in the school. Then, in all their brilliant glory of white and blue uniforms and white face masks, the snappy ROTC Cadet Corps marched forcefully sans the bugle corps, in unison with a merry jingle. Spectators from the top of the buildings and along the lines on the main campus ground cheered the batch of Majorettes who happily danced and tossed their batons up in mid-air. Finally, capping the morning event the community let loose white and blue balloons up in the skies for peace in Ukraine. The whole spectacle of marching cadets brought nostalgic memories of military parades during the Peñafrancia Fiesta every September. Messages from the Board of Trustees and industry partners lauded the anniversary theme of “Honoring the Past and Embracing the Digital Transformation during the Pandemic and Beyond”. It signaled the eagerness of everyone that “we’re back!” and raring to set sail for a more meaningful journey of Mariners, hopefully in a post-pandemic world.

At the program, I emphasized Jaime Chavez Jimenez - the Founder’s vision and motivation to set up a school accessible for the poor Bicolano youth, to acquire the knowledge and skills and make them economically productive, and confident in hurdling challenges. In broad strokes, I traced back the years leading to the founding of the Mariners in 1974 - the Founder’s “dream” long ago.

Who would ever know that he kept this dream deep in the recesses of his unconscious mind? Jaime (“Aming”) was born to poor farming parents in the coastal municipality of Libmanan, the biggest in Camarines Sur, one of the country’s poorest provinces. In his personal narrative, he remembered how he would sit by the riverside across the family’s nipa house, watch passenger boats called lantsa and balsa of various sizes, pass by each morning ferrying passengers and goods along the Libmanan River, which is the longest stretch of the famous Bicol River. He remembered one boatman called “Kapitan,” and told himself he would someday be a “Kapitan” when he grew up, but of a bigger vessel.

A self-supporting student, “Aming” sold pandesal around barangay San Vicente at dawn and scrubbed floors for a well-to-do uncle nearby. He walked the dirt road barefoot to school in elementary and wore worn-out slippers and hand-me-down shoes in high school. A product of public schools, he excelled in science, geometry, the arts, and trade. During World War II, he fought with the resistance movement as a Tangcong Vaca Guerilla Unit member around Libmanan and Camarines Sur. Imbued with the fire to serve, he later joined the Philippine Navy, became an officer and “Jimmy” to his colleagues. The Navy was his training ground in scuba diving, rescue and deep-sea salvaging, shipbuilding in the US, among others. Because of his outstanding marine skills, he became part of the naval core, which manned the Philippine Flagship Destroyer RPS Rajah Soliman (D-66), the biggest ship in the Philippine Fleet from 1964-66. He married Eliza Dela Torre Lazaro, a colegiala from Naga City, an expert stenographer with the Department of Justice, and raised seven children. Retiring from the Navy in 1966 he became a faculty and Dean of Maritime Engineering at the FEATI University. Soon, he was working as the general manager of one of the country’s biggest shipyards, the Engineering Equipment, Inc. or EEI, where he built and launched a ship from the mountains of coastal Batangas.

The declaration of martial law in 1971 was a turning point. The period was economically and politically challenging with increasing uncertainty of the future: soaring prices of oil and all commodities, insecurity, joblessness, demonstrations with labor, students, and the restless youth often out in the streets to vent their ire on misgovernance. The same year, Congress passed the Labor Export Law, which began the exodus of the first overseas contract workers (OCWs), later called OFWs across the world, to help cushion the impact of the economic crises during the martial law regime. The Founder anticipated the effect of all these on families everywhere.

With his wife and children, he ventured out to face the biggest decision in his life: leave the city and go back to his native Bicol for good. In 1974, armed with his acquired set of knowledge, skills, experience, and confidence, not to mention his life savings and government pension, he put up the first maritime school in Bicol. His first school trainees were from his own family: Dante, a Navy lieutenant who later became the school president, and Boboy, his junior, one of the country’s first Naval Architects who became the school’s vice president for academics. He encouraged community service in disaster response, safety, environment care, and conservation with his leadership as a co-founder and twice president of the Philippine Association of Maritime Institutions (PAMI), the Philippine Marine Environment Protection Association (PhilMEPA).

Now at 48, the school’s journey continues with the Pandemic. Maritime remains indispensable and a critical need for the Philippines as a strategic archipelagic country in the Pacific and worldwide. I am optimistic that every barangay will continue to have more Marineros and Mariners proudly contributing to their development as a community.

“Aming” would have been the first to answer the long-term call for a well-developed Filipino maritime industry capped by a shipping industry that can catapult the Philippines – a nation built by seafarers - to the world league of cargo and passenger ships. It is sad that this vision has found little support from government.


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