It’s 1991 in the modest town of Moncada, Tarlac. Her husband just died. Her father followed shortly after. She’s 30 years old, a mother of two — the youngest just 6 months old.
And up until that moment, she has not worked a day in her life.
She could take over the family business — a small news stand at the town market. She could make good of her Communication degree. She could become a teacher like her older sisters. Maybe she could go to Manila to find her fate. Or she could fly overseas to clean bathrooms and sweep floors.
She chose to do the last, as many Filipinos would from 1991, beyond that, and the years after.
That year there were 615,019 Overseas Filipino Workers or OFWs.
My mother, Lorina, became one of them.
Her story is one of the better ones. I have heard of men who, in local slang, tumalon sa barko or who took on a European cruise to jump off at the port in their country of choice, living undocumented lives until they become legal.
I have heard of men hopping onto small boats watching sharks swim the Pacific Ocean, wishing there is a pot of gold at the other side. Women who go to the Middle East, applying as helpers to rich families, waiting for them to take a vacation to Europe, and upon getting there, leaving their hotel room with everything they can take in their bag, wandering the city and hoping to God they will find something, or something will find them.
My mother found a local fixer in Manila, paid her a little over P100,000 for a one way ticket and her sneaky skills. She got three tries. She first applied for Australia and Canada, for which she got rejected by both embassies. United Kingdom was her last shot.
The fixer found out that an International Club delegation from Manila was going to Scotland for a conference. My mom had to take seminars and in the end, her oath as a club member to make it all look legitimate.
They faked a business permit in Taguig completely set up with phone numbers, so a person would answer to confirm she is indeed a wealthy businesswoman attending a conference, and not a poor single mother from the province looking to enter the UK. Her tourist visa was approved, so she flew to Scotland, hung around the delegation’s hotel for a day, packed her bags and took the train to London.
Helpers and caregivers of the world
The rest was history. She did what she had set out to do: sweep the floors of London mansions, clean bathrooms, take care of British children.
And she didn’t do it in just one household. She did it in two, sometimes three, or how many her time would allow her.
She would find kind employers along the way, one a famous restaurateur in London, and they would help her obtain a work visa.
Eventually she would meet my stepfather, marry him, and become a British citizen.
It is a story heard many times around the world, a story said in codes, to avoid the judgment of neighbors who would raise eyebrows at the idea of being a yaya.
But it is a story I am proud to tell.
It was around 2001 when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair boosted the UK’s National Health Service or NHS, opening the doors to thousands of Filipino nurses and caregivers. From being a helper, my mother would join the NHS, and so would a lot of other mothers and fathers, allowing them to raise their families and build a life in England, and giving birth to second generation British-Filipinos — a generation I would have belonged to had I stayed when my mother petitioned me.
So many movies have been made to tell this story. Ever since I turned 18, I have wanted to tell a different version. One with less crying, less drama, compared, for example, with the Sharon Cuneta starrer in 2008; one that truthfully and accurately tells the story of Filipinos who became caregivers, like my Mother.
It’s not such a bad thing. Through it my sister and I were able to live good lives, the kind of life that did not require either of us to do what she did for work.
It’s clear now why she had to labor for over 20 years in a foreign land. It was to give us a choice.
Migration of the Young
It is also the new emerging demographic for the 2.2 million OFWs today — young people with a choice.
In 2011, 23.6% or the biggest cut of the OFWs were people aged 25 to 29. Why are these young people still choosing to migrate?
I met 25-year-old Abys Maureen Delicano through the Internet. We were connected by a friend because she apparently read my essay on why I chose to stay in Manila rather than live in London.
She is an accountant in a Shipping and Cargo Company in Sharjah, UAE, and she has been there for already two years:
“I never wanted to become an OFW. OFW na ang Tatay ko, alam ko kung gaano kahirap na lumaki nang walang magulang.”
(I never wanted to become and OFW. My father was an OFW and I know how difficult it is to grow up without a parent.)
But her father had reached the end of his contract in UAE and was set to come home for good, her mother is a housewife, and one sibling is still in High School:
“‘Yung P15,000 na suweldo ko sa Pinas, nagiging P12,000 na lang dahil sa tax, hindi na kasya,” says the CPA from Mexico, Pampanga.
(My P15,000 monthly income would be cut down to P12,000 because of tax, and we could no longer live with just that.)
So at 23, Abys put herself up for the responsibility. She applied for jobs in UAE and when an opportunity came, she packed her bags and left.
“Now I’m the official breadwinner,” Abys said, “I look at my batch mates’ Facebook photos and I see how they’re enjoying their youth, working for just themselves, traveling, feeling ko parang nagmadali ata ako.” (I felt like I rushed through my life)
At that point in our conversation, I felt like she was talking about me, someone who’s enjoying her youth, working for just herself, traveling, and taking her time.
I asked her what drew her to my essay.
“You had the guts to choose a life in the Philippines over a good life in London, at sana may sapat din akong lakas ng loob para gawin yun.” (I hope I’m also brave enough to do what you did.)
But between the two of us, she’s the brave one.
I relish the comforts of Manila thinking about nothing but making my dreams come true.
Like a game of Eat Bulaga’s Laban o Bawi, she chose to fight, leaving everything that was familiar and safe, not just for her dreams but for the dreams of her entire family.
Beside her I am a coward.
The Price you Pay for Leaving
As young Filipinos become more and more empowered, there is this rhetoric about nationalism that demands the young ones to stay and contribute. I respect that rhetoric; I am part of that rhetoric.
But Abys represents a side of the conversation that is important to discuss.
My mother didn’t have a choice but to clean bathroom floors. Abys has a choice and she chose to pursue her profession in UAE rather than pour all her talent here.
There is a changing of contexts, but the root problem remains the same: as a country, we still struggle to provide quality lives to our people.
A problem that is so deep-rooted even the most educated, most talented young people don’t find the opportunities here sufficient enough to stay.
A problem so deep-rooted that the talented young photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani would work years as a helper in Hong Kong before the world could notice her haunting images.
A problem so deep-rooted that Abys’ father who worked abroad so his children wouldn’t have to, still ended up seeing her off to the airport to follow the same path he did, even when he had given her a college degree and that thing that my mother gave me: a choice.
When Pope Francis visited the Philippines last week, he made several mentions of OFWs, calling their contribution “neglected” in front of the President himself and all his Cabinet Secretaries when he delivered a speech at the Malacañang Palace.
Later that day, he would face families at the MOA Arena, with a core message of Humanae Vitae and the Sanctity of Marriage, but still remembering to pay tribute to the “families who had to be separated by migration, their search for employment, and financial problems straining their households.”
I ask Abys of this strain. She said her mother never fails to call or message her everyday, even if it’s just to say Good night or I love you. She did, however, lose a boyfriend because of the long distance.
The strain is the most difficult part to tell in our family’s story. Over the years we have grown so much apart that it’s easier to love each other now from a distance. My sister and I will admit that it will be challenging for us to live together again. My mother and I can barely last a week under the same roof.
It’s a dysfunctional kind of relationship, but one that has weathered so many storms, with wounds, bruises, and all to proudly show for it.
Last June when I was visiting England, my mom, my sister and I were approached by a man inside a pub in London, asking if we were Filipinos. He would later ask us if we were willing to take care of his aging mother.
My sister, an English and Philosophy graduate from the University of Dundee, felt so insulted. I told her to look at the bright side: that at least we weren’t asked if we were willing to be his bride.
What I should have told her is that being asked to take care of people is never an insult. After all, we may just be the best yayas of the world.
Saudi journalist Rawan Radwan searched three years to find her Filipina yaya Marie Ning, and would travel to Nueva Ecija in the Philippines just to thank her again for loving and caring for her as though she were her own.
When veteran documentarist (and my boss) Howie Severino covered the pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong last October, he observed a change of character among the teenagers leading the protests — the young ones were more polite, vibrant and determined than the young once he had met many years ago in his many visits to the country.
This generation, he wrote, was a Filipina yaya-raised generation.
We lent our mothers and sisters to the world, and as a result, we raised good children all over. Isn’t that a proud battle scar?
But I get my sister, too. Sometimes it gets tiring having to live with that reputation. And that is where people like Abys bear a responsibility — the responsibility to change perspectives on behalf of all Filipinos around the world.
“Lagi kong ginagalingan kasi parang kargo ko ang maitaas ang tingin nila sa mga Pilipino,” Abys said.
(I always have to be the best in my field because I feel like I carry the burden of raising the bar for Filipinos)
In this year’s Ms. Universe pageant, the top 5 candidates were asked this question: “What is your country’s greatest contribution to the World?”
Ms. USA boasted of their financial aids, Ms. Colombia discussed lessons of perseverance and Ms. Jamaica answered Bob Marley. Had Ms. Philippines been in the top 5, I would expect no less than this answer —
That our actresses and actors are bringing London West End into a new era, our fashion designers are changing the face of American Couture, that we supply Europe’s Health Care Workers, Middle East’s engineers, Asia’s teachers, we are the drivers in the war zones in Iraq, we are the seafarers in oceans where there are pirates, we are the peacekeepers in Golan Heights and that our missionaries are risking their lives everyday in Sierra Leone and Guinea fighting Ebola.
We take care of everyone, and I guess in that sense, whether one is a nanny or a helper like my mother or a professional like Abys, we really are the Yayas of the World.
Our greatest contribution to the world is our people. We gave the world our greatest assets, so selflessly, so bravely, so proudly.
The story before was that Filipinos seek the help of other countries for a better life.
The story has changed.
Other countries seek the help of Filipinos for a better society.
It is both a point of pride and a challenge for every one of us, especially our leaders, that this is still a work in progress.
Somebody has to step back and examine where we are and how we got here.
It began in the 1970s when unemployment in the Philippines was at its peak, and there was a rising demand for blue collar workers in the Middle East and in Asia.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos would then sign the Labor Code into law, creating provisions that promoted overseas employment. At that time, it was the Government’s response to an emergency, and they were successful. In just a decade, the number of employed Filipinos boomed, more than 300,000 of them were overseas.
Our economy would come to enjoy the millions of dollars in remittances, and we would proclaim our OFWs heroes. From being a temporary solution, we have now fully embraced that Filipinos have to leave the country just to give their loved ones quality life.
This story also needs revision.
Families need to be kept together, and above all societies, ours should be the ones to benefit first from its own people.
It has been a pleasure sharing our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters with the world.
But we hope they come home soon.