Filipino-Canadian in Focus: Lixmila Serrano

By , on September 30, 2013

Photo from Lixmila Serrano on Google+
Photo from Lixmila Serrano on Google+

It would be fitting to call someone a “superwoman” if she can successfully juggle five businesses, organizing events and concerts, being an active community member, and having a family. But for Lixmila Serrano, it’s a normal day.

Lixmila’s life is nothing short of a typical Pinoy teleserye, the only difference is, she lived—and lives it—everyday.

Turning to a swan

Lixmila grew up with foster parents in the Philippines. In fact her unique name, Lixmila, is a combination of her foster parents’ names: Felix and Milagros.

According to her foster parents’ stories, her biological parents gave her up when she was only eight months old because she was, let’s say, not as visually appealing as one might have hoped their child to be.

“I was given away kasi pangit daw [ako] (I was ugly),” Lixmila shared. “My foster mother used to pull my lower lip and say they really thank God that I was born ugly. What if I was beautiful?” The unsaid was that they would probably not have her in their lives, and she turned out to be such a blessing.

“It’s those things that [got] stuck in my head… It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes my inferiority complex kicks in because of the way I was brought up,” she explained.

But it was in fact that derision which gave her the courage to try her wings. “I decided to go to a place where I can find someone who will love me,” she said.

Blessed beyond belief

Lixmila saw before her the footsteps of the numerous Filipino graduates who chose to work overseas. Despite having an Agriculture degree from West Visayas State University in Iloilo, she chose to follow those footsteps to see where they will lead her. It led her to Hongkong and to the first family she thought loved and accepted her.

There in Hong Kong, she was a nanny to two kids. It was also there that she discovered she had a facility for language. She became fluent in Cantonese, and this proved to be useful in a future life.

After four years of loyal service, her employers helped her immigrate to Canada. They facilitated her application as a live-in caregiver and funded the cost of her airfare to what was to be her new home.

Lixmila produced the successful 'Anne-bisyosa' concert. Photo from Lixmila's Facebook page.
Lixmila produced the successful ‘Anne-bisyosa’ concert. Photo from Lixmila’s Facebook page.
The Great White North

She landed in Edmonton in January 1989 as a caregiver for an 82-year-old retired nurse. Like many before her, the weather came as a shock. But Lixmila had fire and perseverance. While working, she took up free courses at MacEwan University.

But some good thing must end at some point. The old woman’s family decided to collect their inheritance in advance and sold the house, leaving her unemployed and without a home.

She wept in the middle of the street, clutching her belongings which were in a garbage bag.

Until a neighbour took pity on her.

“This lady who was Polish saw me crying and she understood fully that I had nowhere to go. She gave me shelter until I found a job,” she explained.

Days rolled to a few months, until Lixmila learned Polish and was ready to go back on her feet.

“I applied as a dishwasher, as a caregiver or housekeeper, nobody approved my application. So I tried my luck at the Canada Employment Center and there was a posting for office work. I tried that, not knowing it was the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce. And believe it or not, that same day, I received a phone call, ‘can you come for an interview?’”

Those computer and accounting classes paid off and before she knew it, she had the job right in the bag.

And there was no stopping her.

“Filipinos have been laughing at me that I was in school studying every weekend, they can’t believe my luck,” she said.

She worked for seven years for the Membership Department of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, organizing big events for and with the upper echelon of economic and community leaders. “I started to know the lawyers, I started to know the presidents of the companies. In the membership department, my contacts were the top executives of the different member-corporations,” she said.

She currently works for the Edmonton Real Estate Board (now called the Realtors Association of Edmonton).

But her valuable contacts in that first real break (and her accumulated scruples) proved to be stepping stones to Lixmila, the entrepreneur.

Humble, humbling

It was cans that bought her half her house, the house that brought into her life a business, which in turn brought her several other businesses. But that is getting the cart before the horse.

Before being green was in, Lixmila was already living that life—and profiting from it. She collected cans, brought them from her office, dragged it to the bus.

And it was the savings from those cans that bought her half her house.

One day, as husband and wife looked out from their small house (Lixmila likes that her house is small because it does not make strangers of her and her family), her husband joked that he wanted a Filipino store in that commercial building being constructed in front of them.

Lixmila considered this seriously. She promised she will make it happen.

She had no savings, but she had guts.

“I went to the bank and told them ‘I promise you, my business will be different from other business'”. Her sheer guts bought a $45,000 loan (which she immediately paid off) and 5 businesses.

“The first business we had was in year 2000, when we opened the Filipino store. It’s called the 3J Variety Store… It stands for Juanito, my husband, my eldest son Johnny, and my youngest son Joseph.

“We then opened a restaurant in 2011. It’s called Summerside Grill. It’s authentic Filipino. We offer the best Filipino food in Edmonton.

“Last year, we opened Manila Forwarder, which is now called 3J PhilBoxes.

“The fourth [fruit] of 3J is 3J Condo Rentals,” she says. 3J Condo Rentals manages some condo units in Manila and in Iloilo. These are near airports, business districts, and even a beach, and she rents it out to expats who are going to the Philippines.

Her boys are raring to learn what their mother is eager to teach them. She is immensely proud of her eldest son who is an accomplished percussionist and working at the clinic at the University of Alberta at the tender age of 17; and of her youngest son, whom she says is smart. Both, with her husband and some relatives, help out in the business.

Those two boys, however, are “greatest achievements” of Lixmila, also one of this year’s recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal.

Lixmila was one of the recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubille Medal on Feb 20, 2013. Photo from
Lixmila was one of the recipients of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubille Medal on Feb 20, 2013. Photo from
The Filipino Canadian Gala

The fifth business was 3J Events Services, which manages and runs the Filipino Canadian Gala.

“My dream was this… There should be one big event that is not representing any organization or any provincial association, but just identifying yourself as a Filipino,” she says.

“This gives [the awareness] to politicians and policy makers that Filipinos are not just simply contract workers; Filipinos are engineers, [medical experts], lawyers… We help boost the economy. That’s the purpose of the FCG,” she explained.

The Filipino Canadian Gala was well received by the Edmonton community. In 2011, there were 750 people who attended it. On its second year, it became really popular even to non-Filipinos and was supported by the Deputy Minister and the Mayor of Edmonton, as well as the Philippine Ambassador to Canada.

“This year, ang project ng 3J is to bring Anne Curtis to Edmonton, so I produced ‘Anne-bisyosa.’ We were able to fill the auditorium of over 1000 people. The ‘Anne-bisyosa’ concert was the best concert ever,” she said.

Not immune to criticism and the crab mentality that plagues some of her countrymen, she says,”Everybody’s expecting me to fall, pero I can tell you right now, kung pure ang puso mo, may awa ang Panginoon (if you have a pure heart, the Lord is merciful).”

The proceeds of the gala and her projects go to local charities. She explains, “I want the Canadian community to know that Filipinos are willing to help the organizations here [in Canada], too; that Filipinos are also generous to our adoptive country.”

Words of wisdom

To would-be entrepreneurs who want to follow her path, Lixmila has this message: “Hanapin nila (look for) where their hearts and their dreams [are],” she said.

“When you open a business, for the first five years, hindi mo suswelduhan ang sarili mo (you don’t pay yourself).

“Do not give up on it right away.

“Find someone you can trust with your whole heart.

“If you start doing good things to one person, they will most probably end up being loyal to you.

“Always ask God for guidance.

“We’re not aiming to climb the mountain too high. We’re just happy enough to see the good view of the mountain,” she ends.

Phone interview and editing by Melissa Remulla-Briones, editor-in-chief, Philippine Canadian Inquirer.
Article written by Ching Dee, correspondent, Philippine Canadian Inquirer.