MANILA, Philippines – Consistent with her work with the poor and neglected sectors, and her campaign promise of lifting those who at the “laylayan ng lipunan” (fringes of society), Vice President-elect Leni Robredo announced that she would take her oath of office before a village chief.
Rolando Coner is the chairman of Barangay Punta Tarawal – the smallest, farthest, and poorest barangay of the district that Robredo has served as congresswoman of Camarines Sur.
This has left a 51-year-old barangay leader in awe.
“Na-shocked ako. ’Di ko mawari na kung totoo ba ito o hindi,” Coner told Rappler in a phone interview. (I was shocked. I can’t figure out if it was true or not.)
Coner said all he wanted was to give back to Robredo, who had helped their barangay in the 3rd district during her term. The first-term congresswoman initiated the construction of a seawall and an evacuation center in Punta Tarawal, an island located 3 hours away from Naga City.
“’Di ko naisip na ganito ang karanasan na mararating namin, na kami ang napiling barangay na maging parte ng katungkulan ni Leni,” he said. (I have never imagined that we will experience this, that we will be part of Leni’s [assumption to] office.)
No stranger to poverty
Having been born in a far-flung area, Coner was not a stranger to living with dearth. He was a son of a fisherman. Fishing, aside from collecting and selling firewood, is a primary livelihood in the district until now.
Due to poverty, Coner was forced to drop out of high school and leave Bicol to find a job. He worked as a construction worker in Manila at age 17.
He did not stay too long in the country’s capital since his wage – P65 a day at the time – was not enough to live in the urban center. About 4 years later, he returned to the shores of his hometown.
26 years in government
Coner started working for government when he won as a barangay kagawad (councilor). He served for 6 years, from 1987 to 1993. He was also appointed barangay secretary afterwards and served the post from 1993 to 1996.
He took the leap and ran for barangay captain in 1996 because a lot of other residents in their area believed in him.
“Iyong mga una ko po kasing kalaban, hanggang elementary lang ang natapos. Ako hanggang second year high school,” he shared. (My earlier political opponents only finished grade school. I was the only one who reached up to second year high school.)
At the time, people living in Punta Tarawal were unable to finish school because of poverty and lack of access to a school. Residents would have to ride a boat to reach the nearest high school in the next town.
Coner won in 1996 and served for two terms until 2010. He lost the succeeding elections but regained his post in 2013. In all, he has served 26 years at the barangay level.
Heart in service
Asked how he has stayed that long in government, Coner answered in Filipino: “I want to accomplish things for my constituency. I want to render a memorable service to them.”
One project Coner was proud of was the construction of a decent health center for their barangay through their internal revenue allotment.
Running a poor and remote village is nothing close to easy, he said. Since their area requires a boat ride to business and government centers, it is sometimes hard for him to deliver what the residents need, especially when the weather is bad.
He is the first person that residents run to whenever they have problems, mostly financial in nature. He attends to them, sometimes at the expense of his relationship with his family.
One time, he recalled, he gave two families the rice that his children brought from Manila for him and their siblings. This made them feel bad. They told him to lessen his aid since he had given the people enough.
He defended his position, however: “I am a barangay captain, I hope you understand my job.”
For Coner, the best part of his job is to be able to bridge the service from the more endowed parties to the people living in a locality like theirs.
“Makahingi ka ng tulong sa ibang officials tapos ipamigay mo sa tao mo. Tapos [makapagbigay] ng ano ang pangangailangan nila,” he spoke of his favorite part of being the barangay captain. (To be able to ask for help from other officials and bring them to your people. And then provide whatever your constituents need.)
“’Pag naibigay mo ’yun sa kanila, [parang] nagawa mo ang layunin mo sa buhay mo,” he said. (If you are able to give it to them, it feels like you have fulfilled your purpose in life.) – Rappler.com