Isko Moreno looked relaxed in a barong as he reclined on a sofa. But he turned up his nose, and he frowned as he looked at a reporter in the eye.
The reporter was asking about the Manila Mayor’s roots. It’s public knowledge that poverty pushed the young Moreno to pick food scraps from garbage, and he has always acknowledged his humble background.
Thinking that the question might have touched a raw nerve, the reporter rephrased it: “Mayor, is your father Spanish?”
Isko’s reply was blunt: “You know what, if you’re poor, you don’t have time to trace your roots. What you spend much of your time thinking is, if you’re lucky enough to eat lunch, from who knows what God’s hand you will get dinner. It’s the mindset of a typical poor family.”
At age 10, Moreno knew life was tough.
“I used to envy my friends who could afford Texas bubblegum and Mirinda while they huddled on the streets over cara y cruz,” he recalled. “I found out they were working at the scrap heap.”
He said he had a happy childhood, except that he didn’t have toys and nice clothes.
He drooled over his friends’ ‘privileges.’ He didn’t have new clothes for Christmas, and he was lucky if, on his birthday, he’d find an empty one-liter bottle of Coke that he could take to the sari-sari store and claim the “deposit.”
“If not, my mother would advise me to sleep, and my birthday would soon pass,” he said.
Every afternoon, he would take his dilapidated pushcart from Mang Nanding’s place at the side of the garbage heap to Tabora, Ilaya, Carmen Planas, Santo Cristo, and then further past the former Del Pan Bridge down to Palacio del Gobernador, Comelec and Banco Filipino condominium to look for junk.
He did this after attending school in the morning at Rosauro Almario Elementary and, later, at Tondo High School.
“In school, I had a crush,” he remembered. “The classrooms back in the day were divided into sections 1, 2, and 3 and so on. I was in Section 2. The girl was in Section 4.
“So, I had to pass by her room on my way to my classroom. My allowance was 50 centavos. You know what I’d do?”
After skipping a beat, he said he’d buy a sachet of Wella hair gel to style his hair into a pompadour to catch her attention.
Then somehow the talk shifted to underwear. In his youth, the popular brands were Warren and Carter.
“If you have the money, Bench,” said Isko. “But our underwear brand then was ‘wagar’ — walang garter (no garter). You buy them in Divisoria. They wore off easily. They would get so loose that they sometimes slip off by themselves.”
In his daily search for a means to have a free lunch, he would also volunteer to serve soup during funerals.
There was bread, liver spread, mayonnaise, Sunny Orange. “We would stay as long as there’s free food,” he said and then bit his lip.
If the family was poor, he would serve just black coffee and assorted biscuits. “Sometimes, munggo (mung bean soup).”
When it was his turn to eat, he would slurp the soup and see a few beans in the bowl. “At least there was taste,” he said.
Sometimes, he would mix rice and munggo in a plastic bag, punch a hole and suck the food.
It was while serving as a soup boy in funerals that he met Wowie Roxas, a talent scout, who asked if he would like to try out as an artista.
He felt it was rude to say no.
Back then, his knowledge of showbiz was limited to Dante Varona, an action star whose most famous exploit in the film Hari ng Stunt (King of Stunts) showed him jumping off the San Juanico Bridge into the San Juanico Strait that separated the provinces of Leyte and Samar.
Isko idolized Dante, whose other movies Isko watched on replay on TV. He was always short of cash, thus, unable to afford a ticket to the cinema.
But when he joined That’s Entertainment on TV and started earning money, he made sure to catch all the movies he wanted to see.
“On my first television guesting, I earned P1,500 which was quite a sum back then,” he said.
‘I wanted a diploma’
When Isko went into public service, his colleagues in government looked down on him for his lack of education.
“I couldn’t blame them,” he said. “So, I went back to school. I wanted a diploma.”
He attended the International Academy of Management and Economics in Makati, took law subjects at Arellano University, before enrolling in an executive program at the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration and Governance.
He was chosen by the US State Department and sent to Washington under the International Visitor Leadership Program.
He was accepted at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“And then I was told that Oxford University is the best in the world,” he said. ‘I took it as a challenge. I said, ‘What if?’ Who knows? So, I took the ‘what if.’”
He found himself at Oxford University’s Said Business School.
And then the reporter asked, rather naively: “Are you in a better place now?”
His forehead creases deepened once more, as he gazed into the distance.
“Life is simple,” he said. “For me, it all boils down to questions like, ‘Would I have a place to go home to after this?’ Would I have something to eat for dinner? Do I have money to pay the electricity bills? Would I be able to pay in case of an emergency?’ If the answer is yes, then we are in a better situation.”
At this point, he sensed that the subject of finding one’s roots fell into place: “He who doesn’t know how to look back, won’t get to his destination… I think that wherever I go, I won’t get lost.”