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Queen of the Roast

By Raymund Magno GarlitosMay 21, 2017

Behind the prestige of a lechon house’s name is a woman’s story of struggle and triumph

 

It was a gamble worth 700 pesos. But to a struggling enterprising woman with a vision, that meant almost half a year’s worth of selling corn and fruits on the streets in the 1960s.

 

Antonina ‘Aling Nena’ Cesario, trusting her instincts, used that money to buy a whole pig, and she had a lechonero roast on a rotating bamboo pole over live coals for three hours. She sold it in front of a jampacked La Loma Cockpit Arena one weekend and not one morsel of meat was left over.

“You should be interviewing my mother. Siya ang nakakaalam ng buong istorya. Kuwento niya ito (She knows the entire story. This is her story),”

Milagros Cesario-Mendoza insists, as her mother was recovering from a recent illness. Despite this setback, Aling Nena is still very much healthy today.

 
She is, to this very day, the “Reyna ng La Loma”, high queen of the profitable lechon industry of La Loma. But more than 70 years ago, she was a girl selling tuyo on the dust roads of Quezon.

 

Corn-ey beginnings

As a young girl from Quezon, Mila recalled her mother being very poor, coming from a brood of seven. Her parents were fishermen who dried fish and sold them on the market. “Para magkapera, naglalako siya ng tuyo. Naglalakad siya ng maraming kilometro sa kalsada na walang tsinelas, bitbit ang tuyo (In order to make a living, she would be selling tuyo. She walked many kilometers on the dust roads with no sandals, carrying her dried fish on the side),” she says.

When Aling Nena reached 16, she left her hometown and went to Manila with the goal of helping her family. She chanced by the La Loma Cockpit, which in its heydays in the 1960s, was filled to the brim with many spectators and bettors.

 
“Kung saan may tao, may pera (Where there is a crowd, money flows),” Mila explains why her mother decided to put up a stall selling steamed corn and fruits.

 

“Talo man o panalo, kailangan may pasalubong ang galing sa sabungan (Win or lose, those who came out of the cockpit ought to have pasalubong to bring home),” she adds.

 

Risky undertakings

During that time, the spit-roast pig industry has already earned a niche in La Loma, thanks to Mang Tomas De los Reyes who started it all. There were already lechon stalls lining Calavite and Retiro streets. But for Aling Nena, trying a new hand in a business already filled with competitors was clearly a sign for her to try it out of luck.

“Nagmula siya sa 700 pesos. Noong time na iyon, malaking puhunan na iyon (She started with 700 pesos. At that time, it was a big startup capital for a small business),”

]Mila shares. Aling Nena bought a whole pig that she had had slaughtered, and commissioned a lechonero who roasted it for three hours. When she sold the lechon, cut up in pieces, in her stall in lieu of her usual corn and fruits, the meat was gone in less than an hour.

Aling Nena and Mang Serafin, Mila’s father, decided to take the lechon business seriously. Initially, it was named after their son Benjie.

“Pero di masyado nag-click eh. Kaya noong 1968, nang ipanganak ako, ipinangalan daw nila sa akin. Kaya Mila’s Lechon (But it did not became much of a hit. So in 1968, when I was born, they named it after me. Hence, the name.),” reveals Mila.

Mila remembered her mother justifying the change in name of business. “I was named Milagros. Maybe because in Spanish it meant ‘miracles’,” she jests. But it was no laughing matter when Mila’s Lechon sales boomed.

“Baka hiyang sa iyo ang negosyo (Maybe the trade was meant for you),” Aling Nena told her daughter.

 

Lifelong learnings

Like all businesses, Mila’s Lechon had its share of ups and downs. Mila recalled that due to a wrong judgment call, they would lose millions of pesos that almost forced the closure of their booming lechon business. By then Mila’s was already a known brand.

But with the help of her family, they were able to recover. It helped that people kept coming back looking for the taste of their lechon.

“Ang sikreto ay nasa aming mga pinapalaking baboy. Hindi lahat ng baboy ay lilitsonin (The secret is in the pigs we grow. Not all pigs can be roasted),” Mila explains. They already have a pig farm where select breeds of pigs are used. “Kailangan ang baboy ay hindi sobrang mataba at matanda na. Hindi lalagpas sa 4-5 months dapat. (The pig should not be very fat and too old, at most almost 4-5 months).”

Mila added that if the coconut was the tree of life, the pig was the animal of life. “Walang tapon sa baboy (not one part of a pig can be thrown away),” she says. The pig’s head and ears can be made into sisig. The lung, for bopis. The liver, for barbecue and lechon sauce. The intestines, chicharon bulaklak. According to Mila, even the hooves, when cleaned well, can be deep fried and eaten. The bones, of course, are good as dog or cat treats.

To this day, Aling Nena still helps run the branches of their business. While people often make the mistake calling her Aling Mila, it don’t matter to both mother and daughter. Mila, be it the founder or her daughter, still reigns supreme in every event and feast.