MANILA -- Every year, the third Sunday of May is an oily, greasy yet tasty day for the people of La Loma in Quezon City as scores of lechon (roasted pig) and other pork dishes are given to tourists and residents taking part in the Lechon Festival.
"Isa kami sa mga lechoneros na nagluluto ng pakain sa lahat ng mga taong dumadayo dito sa piyesta. Mayroon kaming nilulutong kare-kare, dinuguan, bukod sa lechon at bilang pasasalamat namin sa lahat ng biyayang natatanggap namin (We are one of the lechoneros cooking pakain for all people attending the festival. We cook kare-kare, dinuguan, apart from the lechon and this is to show our gratitude for all the blessings we've received)," Aling Nelia of Aling Nelia's Lechon told the Philippine News Agency (PNA).
A tasty history
The first Lechon Festival happened in 2000 when Monchie Ferreros, former president of the La Loma Lechoneros Association (LLA) and owner of Monchie's Lechon launched the "Parada ng mga Lechon". Lechoneros participating in the parade dress their lechons in different costumes and place them in floats for everyone to see.
In support of Ferreros' initiative, former Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte Jr. declared La Loma as the Lechon Capital of the Philippines due to numerous establishments selling roasted pigs in the area.
The city government, under outgoing Mayor Herbert Bautista, also classified La Loma as a major tourist destination. In connection, the city councilors pushed for the creation of a centralized slaughterhouse for improved sanitation and increased tourism in the area.
In an earlier interview, current LLA president and owner of Ping Ping's Lechon William Chua said he sees that lechon business will stay in La Loma.
“It was lechon that has become a source of respectable livelihood for us here in La Loma," he said, adding that festivities nationwide would be incomplete without lechon.
A lechonero's livelihood
Aling Nelia echoed the same sentiment as she shared how her "comparatively small" business started in 1997.
"When we got here, there's already Mila's, Ping Ping, Mang Tomas, Bulacenas, Monchie's. So ako ang pinakabago sa kanila (I'm the newest). We're 22 years now," she said.
Remembering the challenges as a neophyte in the lechon business, Aling Nelia said strong will is needed to survive a cut-throat competition.
"They were all displaying 100 to 300 lechon at that time. Since I'm new, ang lechon ko pa-lima-lima, pa-sampu-sampu lang, pinakamataas ko na ang bente (I only have five, ten lechon, my highest is twenty [lechon])," she said.
Aling Nena recalled her lechon store started to pick up on its fifth year.
"I didn't earn during the one, two, three, four years. Magbabayad ang ibang customer ng tseke pero talbog, nagbayad ng dollars pero fake pala tapos binigyan ko pa sukli na cash at natangay nila ang anim na lechon ko, alam mo iniyakan ko 'yun (Some pay but with bouncing check, some paid fake dollars and I even gave a change in cash and they took six of my roasted pigs, you know I cried over it)," she said.
Stressing that at least 12 people work together to clean and roast the pigs properly, Aling Nena said maintaining a lechon business is expensive and "very difficult".
"Every store here has its own roasting area, I don't have one, nagbabayad lang ako ng 30,000 a month na renta sa lutuan (I only pay 30,000 rent a month for the use of the roasting area)," she said.
Her lechon vary in price according to their size which starts from small to jumbo.
"We have 16,000 pesos then the price goes down considering the size, the cheapest is 9,000 pesos but buyers still haggle," she said, adding that she often sells her lechon at a lower price to keep them from ending in the freezer.
Aling Nelia said she is able to sell the chopped and frozen lechon but she won't be able to make much money out of them anymore.
"There are caterers in Makati, in San Andres who buy them from us. Iyong canteen sa Senate, kumukuha sa amin ng (The canteen at the Senate, buy from us) 60 kilos twice a month," she said.
Since most Filipinos find lechon expensive, Aling Nelia said most lechoneros don't even hit break even from January to November.
"Nakaka-pick-up lang sales namin kapag December, simula iyan December 15 to 31, iyong lugi namin ng halos isang taon, nababawi namin sa loob ng 15 days lang, totoo iyan sa lahat sa amin dito (Our sales pick up come December, starting December 15 to 31, so our loss for almost a year, we're able to get it back in just 15 days, that's true for all of us here)," she said.
Being a David in a land of Goliath lechoneros, Aling Nelia makes sure that her lechon and sauce are beyond compare to those of the big names in the business.
"My roasted pigs and sauce have distinct taste because of my secret recipe which I only share with my family. Hindi totoo ang sinasabi ng iba na pare-pareho ang lasa ng lechon at sa sarsa lang nagkakaiba (It is not true what others say that all lechon taste the same and it's only the sauce that makes them taste differently)," she said.
Aling Nelia added she dedicates a lot of time and effort in managing her lechon store since it is her only source of income.
"Hands on ako dito, kasi dito ko napag-aral ang aking mga anak at apo, at naipagamot ang asawa ko na nagkasakit. Hindi ko pinapaubaya sa tauhan kaya sana tumagal pa ang tindahan ko hanggang kaya ko pa gumawa (I'm hands-on in managing this store, through this, my children and grandchildren finished school and supported my sick husband's medication. I don't let my employees manage this so I hope my store lasts until I'm able to work)," she said.
On May 19, La Loma celebrated its 19th Lechon Festival. Its a highlight was the Parada ng mga Lechon where roasted pigs in national costumes and firefighters' uniforms roamed the area on top of floats.
It was followed by the procession of La Loma's patron, Nuestra Señora de Salvacion, and other activities -- street dance competition, culinary competition, boodle fight, and fireworks display in the evening. (PNA)