By Sammy Bonasso, ’20
I keep on asking students, ‘Have you found corn in corned beef?’ They say, ‘I haven’t found any corn in corned beef.’ Because corn, in Irish Gaelic, is salt. So, it’s actually salted beef. Their crop is called maize. Maize was first cultivated by the Mayans. That’s the Mexicans’ contribution to the world of agriculture.”
When students speak with Herminio “Hermy” Cuenca, the 70-year-old Filipino UAHS custodian, they discover his knowledge of the world’s cultures and nations. Although Hermy comes from afar, he still gifts wisdom and trivia to receptive students and learns from them in turn.
Hermy, born the oldest of seven children who now live in America and France, said his family was like a tribe due to its size. Growing up, Hermy learned many lessons from his elders.
These lessons focused on differentiating reality from fantasy, treating others with respect and reading “between the lines.” For instance, Hermy said people must recognize bias in all writing and try to interpret information objectively.
After college, Hermy worked at a Manila electrical power plant as an instruments and controls technician until he came to the U.S. in 2004. He worked as a bus aide for the UA School District before becoming a high school custodian in 2005.
“[I came to America] to support my family and have a job,” Hermy said. “Back home, we got privatized, and we were given early retirements.”
However, Hermy will leave soon after his daughter immigrates to the United States. He must first wait for her to receive permission from the United States to move here, and will then support her for three months while she finds employment.
Hermy said he plans to move back because if he receives his retirement pension in America, he will be taxed and have to spend in dollars, but if in the Philippines, it will not be taxed and his money will be worth more in Philippine pesos.
Once in the Philippines, Hermy said he will volunteer in some organization like a marching band or drum corps.
“I used to play the drums [in high school],” Hermy said.
Though Hermy may soon leave, he said he has many fond stories in his time at UA.
For instance, Hermy appreciates the differences he sees at UAHS compared to high schools in the Philippines, notably the lack of uniforms, different discipline system and diversity within students.
“This is a multicultural society,” Hermy said. “Although I experience it a lot in the Philippines, it’s only about the language, the dialect. There’s about 130 major dialects in the Philippines. But here, I see a lot of diversity. Aside from skin color, you see [it] even in religion: people are different. In the Philippines, you’re going to talk to mostly Catholics.”
Remembering his experiences at the high school, Hermy recalls one misuse of a Filipino word at the high school.
“I heard a bunch of girls telling a girl in their group, ‘I’m so gaga with that boy.’ I approached them and told them about [the word]. If you say gaga, that means stupid,” Hermy said.
Hermy would like to be remembered as the “smart janitor” when he leaves, due to the trivia and general knowledge he has given students. He finds this important because not as many people respect their elders as in the Philippines.
But, although Hermy wishes to leave an imprint on the high school’s students, he recognizes students’ impact on him.
“I also learn from them,” Hermy said. “Even though I’m old, I can still learn from them. I can learn from young people, from old people. I can even discern something that is inside them.”