See her: Small and gaunt with bloodshot eyes, sitting on a wooden stool. Her graying hair is tied to the back. Her clothes are old and rugged. Her feet are covered with veins and callouses, at first glance you'd doubt she repairs shoes for a living.
This is Lilia Abuso, 72 years old from Negros Oriental. More than 20 years in VSU, she has easily become one of the most recognizable faces in the campus. Amid the bustling crowds and honking of horns, you’d find her stationed in one corner of the market surrounded by broken shoes and umbrellas.
On weekends, she would roam the university’s departments, dormitories and nearby barangays, tugging along a big bag with all her thread and equipment inside, looking for anyone with a broken footwear. She would charge customers at P50 per repair, sometimes more, depending on the damage.
Her usual market were students who screamed at the price and haggle to have it lowered to P30, sometimes P25 if they were flat out broke. At first, Nanay Lilia argued, she was old and alone with mouths to feed of teens who weren’t even her own, but students would change their mind, say they’d rather bring their business elsewhere.
So Lilia eventually agreed, stitching the cuts, gluing the open soles, sewing the day away, driven by the goal of making ends meet.
“Kinahanglan gyud ko magtrabaho kay wa may mu-supporta nahu. Wa koy anak ug pamilya. Ang ahu kita usahay dili paigo para makakaon ko katulo sa usa ka adlaw.”
[I have to work because nobody will support me. I do not have a child or a family. Often times, my earning isn’t even enough to feed me three times in one day.]
Lilia grew up off a farm in Negros, where she was made aware by how utterly poor they were. They were so poor, says Lilia, she didn’t any have dreams or aspirations. They were, but rather fleeting concepts for people who had the luxury of being able to eat three times a day.
Both her parents were farmers. They owned and manned their own lands but scraped barely enough money to live by for their seven children.
Her mother eventually fell sick and died. She was in the elementary grade. She recounts skipping classes for a month or two just so she could watch over her.
The reality of the situation was hard, she says. So she gave up on education, dropped out on fourth grade and decided instead to devote her time to serving her creator.
“Wala nako mangandoy mag-eskwela. Mag-ampo nalang ko kay ang Ginoo ang tag-iya sa akong kinabuhi.”
[I never dreamed of going to school. I would rather pray to God, after all he owns my life.]
It was her friend, ‘Mommy’ as she fondly called her, that encouraged her to travel outside the boundaries of Negros Oriental to become a full-time servant of the Lord.
She didn’t want to, she said.
Mommy, however, was insistent, saying it was the Lord’s calling that she go on the spiritual mission with her. The only condition was that Lilia live an upright life, still from the world’s temptations.
“Wala koy mahimo gikuyog naman ko niya, gikuyugan nalang nako. Panawag ana niya sa iya mission sauna, panabang sa mga sakiton.”
[I couldn’t do anything because she already took me in, so I just went with her. Her mission was to help the sick.]
So off they traveled from Mindanao to Luzon, answering calls from the sick, until they found Visca and settled for good, in a cramped house off Barangay Patag.
Two years later, she got married.
Lilia learned the art of repairing shoes through her husband. A tall gangly man who was 10 years younger than her.
“Akong bana na napartner nako, kabalo man manahi. Gitudluan ko niya. Dili ko ganahan, kay di man siya trabaho sa bayi. Pero patun-an man ko niya para kuno maka-mao ko. Iya patrabahuon nako, magrugby ug sapatos.”
[My husband knew how to sew shoes. He taught me how although I didn’t want to because it’s not a woman’s work. He insisted that I learn how to do it. He’d leave me in-charge of gluing the shoes.]
Life is hard, her husband used to say. You may need this someday.
And she did.
Lilia’s marriage to her husband became short-lived. Her husband died, six years into their marriage, after he was hit by a truck while driving a pedicab. He was travelling back home after buying food for his nephew to celebrate his birthday.
It wasn’t much of a tragedy for Lilia, though, as others liked to believe it was. She didn’t love him. Like many other incidents in her life, her marriage was forced to her, anchored on Mommy’s fear that at 40 years of age, she still hasn’t married.
“Ila man gud ko gipugos kay nag-worry sila, matiguwang ko wala koy bana, usa ra ko.”
[They forced me to get married because they were worried I would grow old alone and without a husband.]
So she got married. To a man she barely liked, much less loved.
“Naminyo ko diri. Dili ko gusto maminyo pero kay ila man sad ko gipartneran. Gituman nalang. Kay ang ako gusto, magminyo man gani ko, ako gihigugma. Bisag unsay porma sa tawo, basta mahigugma ko.”
[I got married here. I didn’t want to, but they chose a partner for me. So I just followed their advice. I wanted to get married to a man I truly loved. It didn’t matter what he looked like, as long as I love the person that would be enough.]
Alone and jobless, Lilia turned to the only trade she knew would help her survive: repairing shoes.
She made use of what was left of her husband’s equipment, strolled the streets of VSU campus, offered her service to anyone who may be interested. The guards, however, contested from letting her enter the campus, and if she insisted, would forcely drag her out.
“Ila ko giingnan mga mukuha ug permit P50 kadabuwan. Puno na pud sa gasto, pero kinahanglan man jud nahu ang permit para makapadayon ko sa ahung trabaho diri.”
[They told me to get a permit worth P50 every month. That’s another one of my expenses, but I have to so I can continue working here.]
VSU is paradise
Lilia, now lives alone, an old frail woman still working, her faith as strong as ever.
Mommy, who was the closest to a family she ever had, soon followed suit her husband’s trail. So did her father and two other siblings. Mommy’s children are left in Lilia’s care. One in second year high school, the other in sixth grade, they face the same struggle Lilia had in their age.
She wants them to continue attending school, she says. The struggle is finding the money for them to do so. Her earnings barely cover enough to feed herself for one day.
“Mo-eskwela man unta na sila og sige. Pero unsaon man nako ang pagpa-eskwela kay gagmay raman ang atong kita. Mao nang luoy. Wala na ang mama ug papa, ako na lang ang nagpakaon.”
[They’re supposed to continue studying. But what can I do, I have very small earnings. It’s pitiful. They don’t have a mother and a father, I am the only one feeding them.]
The children are the reason why despite strong longing to travel back to Negros, she decides to stay in VSU. Nobody would look after the kids.
“Maghuna-huna ko mouli, pero maikog ko kay kinsa may mag-atiman ana nga mga bata?”
[I keep on thinking of going home. But I’m hesitatant because who will take care of these kids?]
Lilia is not hopeless though.
“Bisan tigulang na ko ug wa koy pamilya, pero wa ko mu-surrender. Lisud man ahung kinabuhi karun pero kinahanglan ko magpadayon sa ahung kinabuhi kay grasya kini.”
[Even though I’m old and have no family, I didn’t surrender. My life right now may be hard, but I have to continue because this is still grace.]
So she stays, in a place she calls paradise, waiting for her own redemption to happen.
Editor's Note: This was featured in the 2018-2019 magazine