pope family

Son of migrants Lolo Kiko: Pope Francis in the eyes of the Filipino

Exactly 86 years before the Pope flies to the Philippines, his family ended a life-changing voyage by sea – eventually producing the first Pope who, in his own words, came “from the ends of the earth.”

It was January 1929. The Bergoglios arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after fleeing the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy.

The Bergoglios came from Portacomaro village in an Italian region called Piedmont, a name based on medieval Latin words that mean, “at the foot of the mountains.”

In his biography, El Jesuita (The Jesuit), the Pope described the Bergoglios as neither rich nor poor. In fact his grandparents owned a café. Still, the elder Bergoglios “wanted to go to Argentina in order to be near their siblings,” who had lived there since 1922.

The Bergoglios had another, more pressing reason to leave Italy: “the advent of fascism,” according to the Pope’s sister, Maria Elena, in an interview quoted by La Stampa.

Their grandmother, Rosa, strongly rejected fascism. Maria Elena told Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli: “Grandmother Rosa was a heroine for us, a very brave lady. I’ll never forget when she told us how in her town, in Italy, she took the pulpit in church to condemn the dictatorship, Mussolini, fascism.”

POPE’S PARENTS. The Pope’s father, Mario Jose, married Regina Maria Sivori – ‘the daughter of a Piedmontese woman and an Argentine descended from Genoese people,’ according to El Jesuita – in 1935. Mario Jose and Regina Maria met at a Mass in 1934. Photo courtesy of Sergio Rubin/Clarin/AFP

In contrast, Argentina “held the promise of seemingly untold job opportunities, better pay, the chance of an education for all, and considerable social mobility….a land of peace and progress,” authors Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti wrote in El Jesuita.

Political and economic turmoil loomed in Argentina, however. The Great Depression damaged the country’s economy, and its military launched a coup in 1930.

Against this backdrop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – born on December 17, 1936 – grew up in a family of 5 children. His father, Mario, worked as an accountant in a railway company, while his mother, Regina Savori, stayed home to raise the Pope and his siblings.

In an interview quoted by author Paul Vallely, the Pope said the Bergoglios “had nothing to spare, no car, and didn’t go away on holiday over the summer…but still never wanted for anything.”
MIGRANTS’ CHILD. A young Jorge Mario Bergoglio (R) poses with unidentified schoolmates in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Sergio Rubin/Clarin/AFP

Like the Pope’s family, around 2.97 million Italians migrated to Argentina for various reasons from 1857 to 1940 alone. Italians made up around two-fifths of the immigrants to Argentina during this period.

At around the same time, thousands of Filipinos also began to leave the Philippines for a better life abroad. More than 100,000 Filipinos fled to the United States, mostly in Hawaii, from 1906 to 1934, according to the Center for Migrant Advocacy. The Filipinos in Hawaii mostly worked as plantation workers and farmers, as the Philippines remained an American colony.

The Philippine government, as of 2012, pegs the number of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) at 10.49 million.

The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, said the plight of migrant workers “brings Pope Francis close to Filipinos.”

The Bergoglios “know the meaning of being separated from the family, being uprooted from your own country, in order to seek greener pastures,” Villegas told Rappler. “That’s really very Filipino, right? Our OFW culture is really in the Bergoglio line.”

LEAVING HOMELAND. Families from southern Philippines sail to Sabah in search of a better life. Photo by AFP

Eight decades after his family fled Italy, OFWs can take comfort in the words of the first Latin American pontiff, who considers the care for migrants a hallmark of his papacy.

“Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity,” Francis said in a message in 2013. “Dear migrants and refugees! Never lose the hope that you too are facing a more secure future, that on your journey you will encounter an outstretched hand, and that you can experience fraternal solidarity and the warmth of friendship!”

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