The Life and Times of a Filipino
Overseas Worker

Rosalie Villanueva's 8,500-Mile Journey From a Manila Slum to a Texas Hospital

Thirty years ago, I was a young reporter in Manila with an interest in shantytowns, the warrens of scrap-wood shacks that covered a third of the city and much of the developing world. I called the Philippines’s most famous nun, who lived in a slum called Leveriza. Though I didn’t say so, I was hoping she would help me move in. 

Sister Christine Tan was a friend of the new president, Cory Aquino, and busy on a commission rewriting the constitution.

“Call me back in a few months,” she snapped.

Hoping for a quicker audience, I explained that I worked with another nun in her order. Apparently, they weren’t friends. “That’s a mistake!” she said. “Meet me tomorrow morning, outside the Manila Zoo.”

Raised in affluence, educated in the United States, Sister Christine had gained her renown as a critic of Ferdinand Marcos, the American-backed dictator who had proclaimed martial law in 1972 and plundered the country with the help of his  shoe-happy wife, Imelda. “I hate their deceitfulness, their sham, their greed, their avarice, their lies, the deliberate trouncing of our rights and the burying of our souls,” she once said. The Vatican had told her to tone things down. The police had threatened arrest. Sister Christine had defied them all and gone off to find Jesus in the slums. At 56, she had a smooth, grandmotherly face, which made her look gentle, though she wasn’t. 

“Are you  CIA? . . . You wouldn’t tell me if you were, would you?” she began. When she called herself “anti-imperialist,” it sounded like an accusation. 

“The poor are magnificent people, unlike the rich,” she said, but boarding in Leveriza wouldn’t work. Most of the shanties lacked toilets, and Americans can’t live without them. A host would feel obligated to serve pricey food. I’d be a burden. She denounced the United States for keeping military bases in the Philippines, then suddenly waved a hand above her head. “That’s all up here,” meaning her views of American policy. “Somehow, we have to build links between the First World and the Third World.” If I returned in a few days, she’d see what she could do. 

Sunk into a mudflat near Manila Bay, Leveriza held 15,000 people in a labyrinth of alleys behind the whitewashed walls of one of Imelda’s old beautification campaigns. Children played beside listing shacks. Women squatted over tubs of laundry. Roosters crowed. Sanitation mostly meant “flying saucers,” bundles of waste wrapped in newspaper and flung in the surrounding canals. 

I figured that Sister Christine would use the time before my return to approach a potential host or two. Instead, she led me into the maze and auctioned me off on the spot. I knew just enough Tagalog to realize our first prospect was aghast. “Hindi pwede, Sister!” It’s not possible. The second candidate smiled more but ducked as rapidly. The third was too astonished to respond. Tita Comodas was 40 years old and sitting at her window in an old housedress, selling sugar and eggs. A scruffy American looking to rent floor space had the appeal of a biblical plague. 

Her thin patience exhausted, Sister Christine left. “If you don’t want him, pass him on to someone else. And don’t cook him anything special— if he gets sick, too bad!” 

I don’t know who was more frightened, Tita or me. Neighborhood entertainment was scarce; we drew a crowd. 

“Ask him if he eats rice!” 

“Ask him if he knows how to use a spoon!” 

“Ask him if he wants to marry a Filipina!” 

Tita had a boisterous neighbor who fed her questions and whooped at the answers. But Tita struggled to see the humor—after all, it was her house. The reasons to decline were many. Her husband was working in Saudi  Arabia . . . she was busy raising five  kids . . . she already had two relatives sleeping on the  floor . . . her English was limited and my Tagalog was worse . . . Who knew what problems a strange foreigner might cause? Then she surrendered to what she took as Sister Christine’s request and said I could move in. I stayed on and off for eight months and made a lifelong friend. 

Immigration widened class divides between the affluent, who are most likely to benefit from migration, and the less privileged, who are more likely to bear its costs.

The eldest of 11 children raised in a farm family, she had quit school after sixth grade and moved to Manila as a teenager to work in a factory. Marriage and children followed, with home a series of Leveriza hovels, each as forlorn as the last. Her husband, Emet, had hustled a job cleaning the pool at a government sports complex and held it for nearly two decades. On the spectrum of Filipino poverty, that alone marked him as a man of modest fortune.

But a monthly salary of $50 wasn’t enough to keep his family fed. Their eldest daughter had a congenital heart defect that turned her lips blue and fingernails black and who needed care that he couldn’t afford. After years of worrying over her frail physique, Emet had dropped to his knees and asked God for a decision: take her or let him have her. God had answered in a mysterious way. Soon after, Emet got an offer to clean pools in Saudi Arabia. He would make ten times his Manila wage but live five thousand miles away in an Islamic autocracy when stories of abused laborers were rife. He accepted on the spot. By the time I arrived, years later, his daughter had more medicine and the shanty had a toilet. 

Up before dawn to cook the breakfast rice, Tita was a weary homemaker, trudging to the market every day and scrubbing her hands raw over laundry. But she was also a lieutenant in Sister Christine’s slum improvement group, a small army of housecoat revolutionaries that ran Bible studies, sold subsidized rice, joined political protests, and found strength in the nun’s message, counterintuitive amid the squalor, that Jesus had a special love for the poor.

Tita’s life revolved around eggs: she bought 2,000 a week to sell in the group’s co-op stores and stacked them under a kitchen light in an attempt, only partly successful, to protect them from the rats. The enterprise was metaphoric: in the 

post-Marcos Philippines, her hopes and the country’s were equally fragile. Despite a limited education, or perhaps because of it, Tita was full of questions. She read English newspapers with a Tagalog dictionary and asked me about the news. “Ano ang imperyalismo?” she asked me. “I’m always hearing, ‘No to imperialism!’ but I don’t know what means ‘imperialism.’ ” 

Tita’s oldest child was an indifferent student of modest ambition who spent his spare time on the family farm. The second was sick. The two youngest boys were spindle-legged scamps, busy chasing roosters through the alleys. That left Tita’s middle child, Rosalie, her confidence keeper and chief helpmate. 

A slight, shy, doe-eyed girl, mature beyond her 15 years, Rosalie was easy to overlook. Her religiosity cloaked her ambition. In addition to school and chores, she was a stalwart of Sister Christine’s youth group; when it staged plays, Rosalie played the nun. Noting Rosalie’s strength and faith, Sister Christine saw the makings of a real nun, but Rosalie had another idea. There was a nursing school near Leveriza, and the students looked smart and clean in their starched white dresses. Filipino nurses went far in 

life. Some went as far as the United States. 

*

In 1965 (six years before Rosalie was born), Lyndon Johnson sat beside the Statue of Liberty and signed an immigration law he both celebrated as a civil rights landmark and dismissed as a measure of little consequence. Johnson said he was ending a “cruel and enduring wrong” by abolishing quotas from the 1920s that banned most nonwhite immigrants. Passed in an age of peak immigration, aimed at southern and eastern 

Europeans—the nonwhites of the day—the quotas had kept immigration to a trickle for four decades.

Johnson praised the new law for ending discrimination but insisted it wouldn’t attract more people or change America’s ethnic composition. “This bill that we sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power.” He added, “The days of unlimited immigration are past.” 

Johnson was spectacularly wrong. In the decades that followed, the foreign-born share of the population soared to near ecord highs, and immigration set the United States on course to become a majority minority nation. The United States counts more than 44 million immigrants, nearly five times as many as in 1965, and as many as the next four countries combined. The United States has more immigrants than Canada has Canadians. Nearly 90 percent come from the developing world, with 11 million Mexicans trailed, respectively, by Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Dominicans, Koreans, and Guatemalans.

Non-Hispanic whites, 83 percent of America when Johnson signed the bill, account for 62 percent today. Much attention gets paid to the share of immigrants, about a quarter, who are here illegally and less to the fact that most come through authorized channels. With one in four children in the United States an immigrant or the child of one, it’s no exaggeration to say their future is America’s. 

In a thousand ways, large and small, Johnson wouldn’t recognize the society his pen stroke helped create. Immigrants brought a hundred languages to the Des Moines public schools, turned the South Side of Milwaukee from Polish to Latino, and raised mosques in the Washington suburbs. In 25 years, the  foreign-born population of Greater Atlanta rose nearly 1,200 percent.

Immigration changed the way Americans eat and the way they pray. It powered the rise of Silicon Valley and redrew the electoral map. It bred cosmopolitanism. It bred resentment. It widened class divides between the affluent, who are most likely to benefit from migration, and the less privileged, who are more likely to bear its costs. It made America more vibrant but less united, wealthier but less equal, more creative but more volatile. Shockingly, the demographic upheaval brought Barack Obama. More shockingly, it brought Donald Trump. 

The United States is not alone. About 258 million migrants are scattered across the globe, and they support a population back home as big if not bigger. Were these half billion or so people to form their own country, it would rank as the world’s third largest. Just since the turn of the century, their numbers have grown nearly 50 percent. While the movements of the 19th century were largely transatlantic, what stands out about migration today is its ubiquity. Ireland elected its first 

African-born mayor. Mongolians do scut work in Prague. The roster of recent Miss Israels includes one  Ethiopian-born.

“I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one,” wrote the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle, who peoples his stories of multiethnic Dublin with characters like Fat Gandhi, the Celtic Tandoori King. A few decades ago, migration seemed so  irrelevant to international affairs that doctoral students in political science couldn’t find professors to guide dissertations. Now it threatens to tear apart the European Union. 

My own light bulb moment came in learning that remittances—the sums migrants send home—are three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. Migration is the world’s largest antipoverty program, a homegrown version of foreign aid. Mexico earns more from remittances than from oil. Sri Lanka earns more from remittances than from tea. About $477 billion a year now flows home to the developing world, an increase of more than sixfold in the 21st

 century. 

Yet competing with the literature of gain is a parallel literature of loss. About half the world’s migrants are women, many of whom care for children abroad while leaving their own children home. “Your loved ones across that ocean . . .” Nadine Sarreal, a Filipina poet warns, 

Will sit at breakfast and try not to gaze
Where you would sit at the table
Meals now divided by five
Instead of six, don’t feed an emptiness 

Earlier waves of globalization, the movement of money and goods, were shaped by mediating protocols. The International Monetary Fund regulates finance. The World Trade Organization regularizes trade. The movement of people, the most intimate form of globalization, has the fewest rules. There is no World Migration Organization to say who has the right to migrate or what rights a migrant should have. 

Migration disquiets the West, but demographic logic suggests it will grow. Aging societies need workers. Workers in poor countries need jobs. Rising incomes in the developing world give more people the means to move and instant communication spreads word of opportunity. Refugee populations have soared. Economically, incentives to move are profound. An unskilled migrant in the 19th century might triple his wage by moving to the States; his counterpart today can multiply his earnings six or seven times (even after accounting for the cost of living), a pay raise twice as high. 

No country does more to promote migration than the Philippines, where the government trains and markets overseas workers, whom presidents celebrate as “heroes.” More than two million Filipinos depart each year, enough to fill a dozen or more 747s a day. About one Filipino worker in seven works abroad, and the $32 billion that Filipinos send home accounts for 10 percent of the gross domestic product. Migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit: the civil religion. The Philippine Daily Inquirer runs hundreds of stories a year on Overseas Filipino Workers. Half have the fevered feel of gold rush ads. Half sound like human rights complaints. 

“Remittances Seen to Set New Record.”

“Happy Days Here Again for Real Estate Sector.”

“5 Dead OFWs in Saudi.”

“We Slept with Dog, Ate Leftovers for $200/ month.” 

*

I wasn’t thinking about migration when I arrived in Leveriza. I was thinking about rats and eggs, about how people like Tita endure such dire poverty. Migration was part of the answer. Emet came home during my visit and did all he could to stay. But he couldn’t earn a living in Manila. Forced to choose between living with his children and supporting them, he returned to Saudi Arabia, a cycle he sustained for nearly 20 years. 

What started as an act of desperation became a way of life. All five of Tita and Emet’s children grew up to become overseas workers, and they are part of a close, extended family that stretches across the globe. Of the eleven siblings in Tita’s generation, nine went abroad or had spouses who did. So far, 24 of their 49 children have done the same. Most of what could happen to a migrant, good or bad, has happened to someone in the clan. Some lost marriages; one lost a limb. Others replaced thatched huts with cement block homes and hung their children’s college degrees on the freshly painted walls.

Migration disquiets the West, but demographic logic suggests it will grow. Aging societies need workers. Workers in poor countries need jobs.

Tita has a  grade chool education, but her sister Peachy earned a doctorate, with money that her daughter made cleaning cabins on a cruise ship. Peachy’s husband’s years abroad nearly destroyed their marriage; she understands migration’s social costs. But when I asked if the sacrifices had been worth it, she articulated the unofficial family creed: “A good provider is one who leaves.” 

Soon after I left Leveriza, Rosalie started nursing school, which was possible (if barely) because Emet was away cleaning Saudi Arabian pools. She was 24 when she landed her first overseas job, at a hospital outside Mecca. By the standards of foreign workers in the Persian Gulf, Rosalie was in luck: nurses earn much more money, and suffer less abuse, than the migrants who go in much greater numbers as nannies, cooks, drivers, or maids.

But Rosalie left nursing school with an overriding goal, to reach the United States. Two decades later, she was still trying, working in Abu Dhabi, along with her husband, and worried that she had become a stranger to her three young kids, who were living with Tita and Emet back in the Philippines. Then a hurricane slammed the Texas Gulf Coast and left behind a nursing shortage. Rosalie got her chance. 

In 2012, I met her in Manila and flew with her to Galveston. Her husband, Chris, followed five months later with Kristine, Precious Lara, and Dominique (ages nine, seven, and six), who spoke little English and hadn’t lived with their parents in years. They had to learn a new country and form a new family at the same time. I tracked their experiences on a near daily basis for three years, following Rosalie in her hospital and the kids in the Galveston schools.

Migration has become the defining story of the 21st century; by the accident of an old friendship, I had an intimate view. This was a journalistic endeavor but not an entirely arm’s length one; occasionally my presence shaped events I was trying to record. But our long relationship affords a perspective that conventional deadlines don’t afford. Rosalie was a 

15-year-old schoolgirl when I met her and a 48-year-old nurse, wife, and mother as her story goes to print. 

The politics of migration, at home and abroad, have radically changed since the project began. Britain voted to leave the EU, the Far Right gained a hold on the German Bundestag, and the United States elected a president who denounces immigrants in terms no president has ever used. The Trump administration muscled through a travel ban aimed at Muslims, separated mothers and children at the border, cut refugee  admissions to the lowest level in four decades, assailed protections for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as kids, and erased the words “Nation of Immigrants” from the work of the immigration agency. No one can fault President Trump for hiding his views. He cut a 2018 campaign ad too racially inflammatory for Fox News. Among the labels he’s attached to immigrants are “drug dealer,” “terrorist,” “ani-mal,” “gang member,” “criminal,” “rapist,” and “snake.” 

Little about Rosalie, a four-foot, eleven-inch nurse, evokes the main American controversies. She never crossed a border illegally. She doesn’t sport gang tattoos. To the challenges of assimilation, she brings advantages the poor and unauthorized lack. She’s the kind of immigrant who is largely invisible in political debate but increasingly common. Since 2008, the United States has attracted more Asians than Latin Americans, and nearly half of the newcomers, like Rosalie, have college degrees. Every corner of America has an immigrant like her. 

In a world where migration is a growing norm, it is tempting to call Rosalie’s experience an ordinary one, propelled by a common mix of hope and doubt. But nothing about an immigrant’s life is truly ordinary. The journey from a Manila slum to a Texas hospital spanned 8,500 miles and a quarter century, and little that happened along the way went according to plan. For Rosalie, as for the world, immigration is a story filled with surprise. 

______________________________________

From A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParle, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jason DeParle.

Jason DeParle
Jason DeParle
Jason DeParle is a reporter for The New York Times and has written extensively about poverty and immigration. His book, American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Helen Bernstein Award from the New York City Library. He was an Emerson Fellow at New America. He is a recipient of the George Polk Award and is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.





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