The Philippines is a nation comprising 7,000 islands and 109 million people. In the province of Laguna, about 20 miles south of its national capital, Manila, lies the city of Biñan. A regional center of commerce and education, Biñan is home to more than 330,000 people. It’s where Ernie Cerdena, president of the Medical Technology Management Institute of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was born and raised; a place where roots run deep and family is everything.
Cerdena describes Biñan as a city “of haves and have-nots.” Like his father, Cerdena was born in the city, making them Biñanenses, as locals are known in Tagalog. The seventh of eight children whose mother died when he was only 10 years old, Cerdena saw first-hand the necessity of hard work, the value of good education and the importance of family love.
“We were not rich,” he said. “My dad really worked the whole shift, night and day, to be able to support eight children, but the nice thing about that was the importance of valuing money and education and also being able to give back.”
To take some of the pressure off their father, Cerdena and his siblings were raised to be self-sufficient. The older children worked jobs while putting themselves through school, establishing a formula for success that prized scholarship as well as sweat equity. As a result, the family produced teachers, civil engineers, accountants, nurses, imaging professionals and loving parents – many of whom left the Pacific island nation to seek opportunities across the globe.
That includes Cerdena, who, after being supported to complete an associate’s degree as an X-ray technologist, was recruited to work in New York in 1989. At just 23 years old, he boarded a plane for the United States, with little command of English, a stout work ethic and a desire to carry on his family’s legacy of flourishing in a professional career.
The early days weren’t especially easy. Without a bachelor’s degree, Cerdena found himself the lowest-ranking member of his team, despite having the technical skill set and diligence required of the job. He hustled for eight years before deciding to press on with his studies while maintaining a full-time job.
“All the work is being pushed over to me,” he recalled. “I know for a fact that not only can I do that, but I can also do better, but I don’t have the tools to do it. That’s what motivated me to work during the day and then go to school at night and on Saturday.”
Cerdena earned his bachelor’s degree in 1999, and then continued on in pursuit of his master’s degree at Mercy College in New York. He attended classes for five hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening. In 2009, “I decided I can do more,” he said, and so at 43, while working full-time and raising his own children, Cerdena took up Ph.D. studies. He didn’t complete the program until he was nearly 50.
“I almost quit three times, but my wife said, ‘You already invested the time and the money; continue,’ ” Cerdena said. “I made sure my Sunday, this one day a week, I spent with my family. I would go to church, to lunch after and then my kids would play soccer, and I would never miss it.”
Cerdena credits his father and family upbringing with providing the motivation to start and finish his education, but in his early years in America, he also drew strength from a social group called Biñanenses of Eastern USA. Established to help uplift their fellow expatriates from the city of Biñan, the group is composed of native Filipinos living in the United States. In addition to gathering for social purposes and upholding native customs and traditions, Biñanenses of Eastern USA collects funds to cover the costs of education for young people back home.
“These folks don’t have the means to go to college, even high school,” Cerdena said. “We get together as a community on the East Coast, and collect contributions. It’s really nice seeing people of your origin being able to get an education.”
“I love education,” he said. “That’s why I went and continued with my Ph.D., because I’d like to be able to take back the maximum I can, and hopefully be able to inspire other people who are here or in the Philippines.”
Through the years, Cerdena rose through the ranks of the organization, eventually taking a turn as its president. Collecting even a few dollars here and there from its members, Biñanenses of Eastern USA has been able to support the high school and college educations of dozens of students in Biñan, provide them with laptops, and give them the platform they need to launch their professional careers. Even a few thousand dollars makes a big difference.
“We get together, we look at our mission statement, we look at what’s happening, do a SWOT analysis, and some of the things we pay attention to are preserving the culture for future generations,” Cerdena said. “I think that’s what every member of this association thinks: Even though we’re part of western culture, we still need to preserve how we grew up.”
Filipino values and traditions include solidarity and friendship, respect for the elderly, aspiration to service and leadership, Cerdena said. He hopes that the organization will continue to exemplify those virtues for the youngsters of today, so that they may carry them forward for the Biñanenses of tomorrow.
“I have a better life as compared to where I grew up, so I see that it’s so important to give back, and think on where you came from and what you can do to help them out,” Cerdena said.