Kiddo Cosio can’t keep the smile off his face when he talks about La Union. When he shows me a photo of an old Spanish house he once passed somewhere in San Fernando, its brown capiz windows crowded out by yellow bell flowers, his excitement is palpable, even across the screen.
“I have other photos I can share with you,” he tells me. “I’m always pleasantly surprised whenever I find these rare gems, it’s like La Union is a gift that keeps on giving.”
The story of how Kiddo and his wife Amy ended up living in La Union is, you could say, a real-life example of how fortune favors the bold. In their early 20s, the pair grew obsessed with surfing, and frequently traveled to La Union from Metro Manila to unwind. Bright-eyed and hungry for life, Kiddo and Amy made new friends, forged milestones, and slowly fell in love with the culture and community in surf town. For four years it was their home away from home, until one day, they decided to pack their bags and never look back.
“La Union really just said, ‘come on in, stay here!’” Kiddo says.
The Cosios moved shortly after their daughter Cadence was born. It was 2012—five years before the tourism boom. Life in La Union was pleasant; their days filled with as many trips to the beach as possible, sans the crowds to compete with. They had two more children, Dylan and Adam, and opened El Union Coffee, not knowing that three years later, it would become one of the most beloved specialty coffee shops in the country.
Things began to change in 2017; suddenly everyone was eager to come and visit La Union, mostly people looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila. Their intention to slow down was cut short by an influx of travelers.
From then on, life for the Cosios was running one big vacation after the other: Every weekend meant having a new batch of friends to hang out with, and every day a new group of patrons to serve.
All this while Kiddo and Amy also juggled being full-time parents to their three kids. “El Union was where we’d live our lives and spend our days and make ourselves comfortable,” Amy says. It was where the kids would have their lessons or hang out with their friends—their workplace, classroom, and household all rolled into one.
Then the pandemic hit, changing everything and nothing at the same time.
These days, the Cosio household moves a little slower. Kiddo and Amy are no longer rushing to get the entire brood out the door to make it to the opening time, and their days start 30 minutes later than usual. There’s still room for surfing, of course, as well as regular visits to the café. But there’s also more time to nurse other hobbies: tend to a garden, read books, watch movies with the family. The kids have picked up new skills courtesy of their local sports club, from playing football to learning jiu-jitsu.
Life has become a lot more rhythmic, and in essence a lot more human, as Kiddo tells me. After years of being pulled along by the current of tourism, the past year pushed them to come up for air—and the Cosios count themselves lucky.
Kiddo takes their wins and rediscoveries with a measured reality check, always aware of how much loss the last year has seen. But he says it anyway, because it’s important: they’ve rediscovered La Union as a hometown, as a neighborhood first and foremost.
“The rural migration from the city to La Union [brought] a lot of new residents in town, and that’s really changed the face of our small coffee business,” he says. Where droves of tourists used to come through their doors week after week, El Union these days feels more like a neighborhood corner store, with more regulars crossing over the threshold to say hi. There’s a stronger sense of community, and even the long-distance delivery drivers know them by name.
Their needs are just as important and urgent as ours. If parents say, ‘we need to work,’ kids will also say, ‘I need to play, I need to do something fun.’<callout-alt-author>Amy Cosio<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Kiddo appreciates this pace, and suspects it’s what the neighborhood likes, too. They lost it for a while because of the tourism boom; and though they’d be the last ones to complain about its benefits, getting a feel of their old life back was not completely unwelcome.
“The main thing is, we liked ourselves when we were in La Union,” says Amy, looking back at the last nine years. Like a parent to a child, La Union has been their teacher; helping them discover qualities and abilities they never thought they had, or perhaps had long forgotten. Kiddo, a self-confessed extrovert, says the woods taught him to the enjoy moments of solitude, while the usually quiet Amy learned to open herself up to more people.
But their favorite is one that speaks into the heart of La Union itself: the art of leaning in. Like the surfer who shifts forward to find the balance between her body and board; or the swimmer who just dives right into an incoming wave—sometimes, Kiddo says, all you need to do is give in and enjoy where the water brings you. “That’s an analogy for our life here,” he says, referring to an outlook that’s prominent and unique to the town itself. In a year filled with unexpected turns, it’s what has kept them afloat.
Hi Kiddo and Amy! How has the past year been like for your family? Has it been difficult to juggle work and parenting?
Kiddo: Yes and no—I would say we’re definitely in each other’s faces more. The kids normally have a school group that takes up three or four hours of their day, but in the past year [or so], the school group hasn’t been gathering, so we’ve had a few months where we were personally doing what would pass of as “academics.” It’s been harder in that we have to find ways to occupy the kids—we do let them use gadgets and watch things and play games—but it’s also easier because we’re less busy.
Speaking of, how does school look like for your kids nowadays?
Amy: With their schooling, we’ve always approached it in a way that their education is not separate from our daily life as a family, so it’s not only that there’s a set time and place where they’re learning and outside of that is just milling around. We see it as them existing with us in the shop and seeing what other grown-ups do; that’s part of their learning.
Kiddo: We’ve been kinder on ourselves on what you’d call the academic or classroom-y stuff, but there was a bit of time when Amy and I would alternate from Monday through Thursday doing an activity with them. Like there was a month we talked about architecture with them. Aside from going to the beach, we head up to [our farm property in] the hills; we read books, go mountain biking with the kids.
Amy: We do a lot of mountain biking with the kids.
Kiddo: Yeah this year was a lot of biking. [Cadence and Dylan have] built enough confidence where they can bike with me to work—we live about less than five km up the road—so they’ve done that a couple of times. It’s a bit stressful to be honest, biking with kids up the main highway!
For sure. But it’s also incredible how you’re both working and yet still find the time to play and teach your kids—all without domestic help!
Amy: The work of taking care of our kids has always been visible, and we always talk about how they’re included in our daily life. Their needs are just as important and urgent as ours. If parents say ‘we need to work,’ kids will also say, ‘I need to play, I need to do something fun.’
I feel like accommodating their needs already sets up the atmosphere for them to feel like throughout the day it’s not just tailored to what the grownups need to do; it’s also time for them to think about what they want to do. Sometimes that’ll be them asking to go to their friend’s house to bleach their hair—which they did…
Kiddo: Yeah, they’re all blonde now.
Amy: And there are times when they make their own plans and we end up having to drive them.
Kiddo: Their cousins moved here from Manila; during the pandemic my brother moved his family here and it’s been quite fun to have their cousins as new residents in San Juan. Just a few kids—not a big group—but they have a lot of good, clean, positive fun, whether that’s biking or surfing.
I don’t think people realize how hard this pandemic has been on children, especially in the city, where they’re not always allowed to go out and play or meet with their friends. Would you count your kids lucky at having retained a semblance of normalcy?
Kiddo: Yeah, I’d count my kids privileged during this pandemic, just because they are in a provincial, low-density, largely outdoor setting. We’re very grateful; we don’t take that for granted at all. And part of how we express that gratitude is by making the most out of it and spending as much time as we can together and outdoors.
It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time when my brother moved here and my niece Summer got out of the car after being indoors for a year, or at least within our family compound in Manila. The tears just fell from her face. I said, “Oh no what’s wrong? Did something happen in the car?” And she said, “I’m just so happy to see my cousins again. To be at the beach.” Her tears fell and my tears fell; I’m kind of tearing up thinking about it because that’s the story of a lot of kids. That was one of the bookmarks in this pandemic that reminded me that we should really be grateful for some of the choices we made, and for this community and neighborhood we live in where we can actually have a relatively normal life.
Amy: I think, specifically with the mental health of kids during the pandemic, that’s also why we’ve been easier on ourselves about [our kids’] schooling and all that academic stuff. I feel like this is one big learning experience that no generation before has experienced and just to be able to still be a kid in spite of everything—that’s already enough, right? You don’t need to be worrying about passing papers or being graded by someone through Zoom. Not that it’s bad, but we should really take it easy on ourselves and the kids because all these benchmarks for learning and progress—I feel like we impose it on ourselves because that’s what everybody is expected to do. But nobody expected a pandemic, right? So if kids just want to play and not stare at a screen and go back to sleep because their online class is boring, I think that’s totally valid.
To remain a kid in these crazy times—the fear is real, even grownups are anxious and panicking—and for them to still be laughing, wanting a new toy or [being] excited to see people, that’s such a big achievement.
El Union these days feels more like a neighborhood corner store, with more regulars crossing over the threshold to say hi.
When you first moved to La Union nearly ten years ago, did you expect that your life here would turn out the way it has?
Amy: In terms of expectations, a big part was not so much about the outcome but how we could grow together. I knew we wanted to be adaptable, that if we were going to do something we wanted to be elbows-deep into [it], whether that’s parenting, or running a coffee shop. We wanted to know it inside out, sweating it out with people. I guess it’s just knowing, or picking the hard things you want in life because you know that the lessons will be worth it.
Kiddo: We picked our handicaps early; we got married when she was 23, I was 27. I always say that we knew what we wanted, but you’ll never be truly prepared for the good things, even the bad things. You can’t predict how you’ll feel. How you feel in that moment is unique to that moment—I couldn’t have set myself up for how I’m going to feel when my daughter is entering her pre-teen stage…
Amy: Oh no, puberty.
Kiddo: Yeah my daughter, she’s an early bloomer; she’s a woke little ten-year-old and she questions every decision we make. And my son is as argumentative as his father. You could never have been prepared for those kinds of things; you could never have managed your expectations for your children’s coming of age and coming into reason and coming into their own sense of logic. But as with everything, we lean into it. We are what we practice, and if there’s anything we practice, it’s that time with our family.
What’s the next chapter for you and your family? Is the setting still in La Union?
Kiddo: This year we did make a way for ourselves to acquire a bit of property here; we’d been renting for the longest time and we thought, maybe this is the year we pursued some financing for it. That’s kind of the next chapter for us, building a home informed by this last decade of experience. That keeps me excited about La Union. The children are gonna become teenagers here, a lot of their firsts in life are lined up right ahead of them.
And even the story of La Union as a neighborhood has evolved in the last year. I was observing and having chats with friends who were literally born and raised here—some of them are moving to quieter parts of town, and that’s gonna change the face of La Union. I think it’s potentially gonna be positive [as] it’s gonna open up other neighborhoods; we’re actually moving a few barangays north of Urbiztondo, probably by next year. It’s still a place we can see ourselves being creative in, more than ever. I’ve never felt this amount of creative energy and excitement about living a provincial life.
I don’t see myself moving back to Manila; I never say never, but at the same time the decisions we’re making are even more firmly rooting ourselves here, and we’re hoping we can contribute positively to the story of La Union as a family. We don’t have grand expectations—we just have to make it good for five people, and the extended family of our company as well. And that is enough.