Frayed, faded, and barely clinging to the rusty nails that attach it to the wooden skeleton of the stall, a tarpaulin which is commonly seen along the Ateneo Roxas Gate sports the smiling face of a balding, fair-skinned man with his hands raised in a thumbs-up. The man stands against the backdrop of green carabao mangoes, in sharp contrast to the dull and sketchy tattoo of the same fruits that are embedded on his right arm.
This is Arnel Iladera, 46, the Ateneans’ ‘Kuya Mangga’ and the tarpaulin is his life— one that lies along the blurred lines between contentment and a thirst for more, between joy and an underlying emptiness that roots from the very depth of his humanity.
Arnel started selling mangoes at the early age of eight to help his impoverished family. While schooling, the young Arnel was taken in by their neighbor, a harvester of mangoes, who also sold them individually as sliced, often unripe, and drizzled in shrimp paste or soy sauce and sugar.
“Kadtong silingan namo, murag naluoy siya sa ako. Mao to nga uban-uban ko sa iya, ako tighakot sa mangga. Nakita nako ba nga maayo man diay ni ug kita nga negosyo, mao to nahuna-huna nako nga maninda nalang siguro ko’g mangga kontra sa manarbaho ko,” he commented.
Eventually, Arnel stopped schooling at age 11 and devoted all his time to selling mangoes. To him, what was more important was that he was earning.
Eventually, Arnel stopped schooling at age 11 and devoted all his time to selling mangoes. To him, what was more important was that he was earning. In 1991, he decided to have his own kariton and to try his luck along the former Queens theater located in Bonifacio Street. Out of a desire to earn more, he left his spot at Queens to test the waters in AdDU Jacinto campus by the year 2003. Since then, he was convinced that AdDU was his jackpot spot.
“Mas kusog gyud ang halin nako diri sa Ateneo. Aside sa mas dako akong ginansya, mas dali pa gyud mahalin akong tinda,” he claimed.
Having the Ateneans as regular customers also made it inevitable for Arnel to feel a sense of closeness with them, and vice versa. Students would ‘hang out’ around his stall while eating his mangoes and while chatting or joking with him. Car owners would also be assisted by him as they park near his stall. At some point, patrons would leave their belongings to him for safekeeping.
In as much as the Ateneans have become essential to Arnel’s everyday life and business, the same can also be said for how he has become part of the students’ college experience. As his patrons like to phrase it, “You are not a certified Atenean, unless you have tasted Kuya Arnel’s mangoes.” He is the Ateneans’ freelance clown, chismis buddy, and friend. In this way, Arnel does live up to the man with a cheery smile as he is seen in his tarpaulin— he may be frayed and faded on the outside, yet his inner self speaks of so much life and color.
For the 27 years that Arnel has been profiting sufficiently from selling mangoes, one would expect that he would have at least been able to save up for himself. Instead of channeling his earnings to build a life for himself, however, he chose to use his income for the benefit of his extended family. Occasionally, when he has some extra funds, he would purchase appliances and other necessities for the home he shares with his grandparents or he would lend allowances to his nieces and nephews. When a family member gets hospitalized, he would be the first one to answer to their call for financial assistance. Arnel is basically his family’s very own Superman— all it takes is one call and he’d be there to save the day.
“Ang mga napundar nako tungod sa pagbaligya’s mangga, sama sa washing machine ug ubang gamit, wala sa ako napadulong. Naa sa akong manghud, kay pamilyado naman siya, unya nakita man nako nga mas kinahanglan man niya kaysa sa ako. Kana pung mga inipon nako, gina-gasto gyud nako para sa tambal sa akong lola,” he said.
There is no mistaking that Arnel’s devotion to his family stems from a genuine desire to help, but behind these good deeds also exists an insatiable need to pursue things for himself— among them, his wish to finish college and his longing to be loved. A bachelor for 46 years, he still hopes to be able to marry someone whom he could share his burdens with and who could give him more reason to sell mangoes every day.
“Okay lang man sa ako nga ulitawo ko. Pero mas mayo gyud unta nang maka minyo ko puhon, kay mas maayo man nang naay ta’y masaligan ug masandigan sa mga panahong maglisod ta,” he expressed.
Through the years, Arnel has been convincing himself that he is contented with his life as a mango vendor. Waking up at four in the morning, setting up his stall at nine, and leaving his spot at six has been so routine that he cannot imagine himself living a totally different life. However, beneath all the layers of the Ateneans’ trustworthy and friendly mango vendor, lies a man who has his own musings in life— those which even he himself has trouble admitting.
“Wa man koy problema ani nga kinabuhi. Okay lang man ning mamaligya tag mangga kay daghan ta’g makaila, pero mao lang lagi na, tao raman gihapun ta— wala man tay kasiguraduhan nga ingon ani lang hangtod sa hangtod.”
The Ateneans have yet to hear of their Kuya Mangga pursuing his aspirations in life. Until then, we will have to play our part in erasing the sharp contrast between the frayed and faded tarpaulin and the smiling fair-skinned man, and the backdrop of green carabao mangoes and his dull tattoo. After all, Arnel is only one of those people who, despite living a simple life, still manage to dream.