A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of Sept. 10-16, 2014
A SAMPLING OF OVERSEAS FILIPINO WORKERS 2.0
First, we answer the question about last week’s creative writing game. We asked which between Stories A (the high school reunion) or B (the poetry contest) is truth and which is fiction. The answer: Story B is the truth. How did you do in figuring it out? Here’s an interesting feedback from one reader: “Blesilda: These are tricky – both are well-written, personalized, and have “larger-than-life” claims, which they support well with many details. If not for the romantic end here, this one feels most authentic and particular. The poetry contest one does have the resonant father angle but is not technically as detailed, or for me, convincing – still I’ll vote for it (because of the ending here, which I hope is true ).” Thanks to Mr. SW for the feedback! You sure got it right. Maybe you’re a father yourself so the father angle in Story B did resonate with you.
To continue with the disclosure, I did win first place in an international poetry contest in 2006 sponsored by the International Society of Poets (ISP). I honestly don’t know if ISP is still in existence because less than a year after I won, the mighty moving spirit behind it, Dr. Len Roberts, he of the multi-awarded poetry volumes and academic inclinations, passed away. Anyway, part of my prize is a book-publishing contract. It’s a good thing that I already have a manuscript to submit, since I’ve been dreaming about publishing my poetry since around 1996, when I was still in the Philippines. It took 10 years for my dream to come true. You can find my poetry book, “A Novice in Altruism and other Poems” at the Arkipelago Bookstore in San Francisco and the Revolution Bookstore in Berkeley. This includes my winning poem, “Villanelle of a Retired Overseas Filipino Worker” on page 64.
Now in honor of Labor Day last Sept. 1, let me tell you some stories of overseas Filipino workers. These are people who are known to me but I will change their names for the sake of their privacy. Anyway, I will just be presenting broad strokes about their lives so that we can get a sense of how diverse their working situations are. I know a couple of San Pedro Elementary School classmates who are in Italy now. Mina is a nurse in Bologna, single and sending several Manila-based nieces and nephews to school. Gabby got married just recently and migrated with his wife to Rome where they both work as engineers. In Zurich, Switzerland, my friend Susan is a number-cruncher/database manager for a certain teaching hospital. In addition to her job, she is managing a household of “boys”: her German husband (also working) and two active kids. Closer to home, there’s Viva who works as an office manager for a Silicon Valley company in San Mateo. After office hours, expect Viva to be in some party scene! There’s Pearl, a single woman in her 50s, a graduate of Economics from the University of the Philippines (UP), now working as a caregiver. Being Kapampangan, she sure whips up one helluva ginataang bola-bola with langka or a viand such as beef stew or pork sinigang. There’s Doc Tommy, my classmate at the UP College of Medicine Class 1994, who is now an infectious diseases specialist-consultant in a NorCal health facility. He says that most of the patients he sees are AIDS patients as part of his advocacy. Another classmate, Doc Sammy, is in Portland, Oregon as a pediatrician. He says that he recently limited his practice to only 0.8 time (i.e., Fridays off) “to prevent early burnout since retirement is still a long way off.” Way to go, Doc Sammy!
My former co-worker in a retirement center, Eduardo, hails from Quezon City and has been in the States since a few months after my own migration in late 2004. Ever since I’ve known him, he has held two jobs at the same time so that he could send a regular remittance to his wife and kids in the Philippines. As soon as he was able to do so, Eduardo petitioned them to join him in Hayward, and now they’re here with him, making him so thankful and happy. On the weekends as he has always done, Eduardo still collects bottles, cans, and plastic containers for selling to recycling centers. He continues to work as a driver for an adult daycare center and as a custodian for another care home. He has diabetes but that doesn’t deter him from working hard.
Another overseas Filipino worker whose story truly touched my heart was Tita Connie’s. She hails from Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur, a province south of the Philippines. She migrated to NorCal in 1996 and worked as a caregiver. With her savings from her job, she was able to send all of her four children to school. One is a supervisor for Continental Airlines in Tennessee while also on the Army Reserve, another is working in electronics in Fremont, another one is a CPA, and still another is a farmer and councilman in their barangay in Pagadian. Apart from that, Tita Connie had six other scholars from her hometown who are unrelated to her. These scholars are now all college graduates, a pastor and a motorcycle dealer among them. Furthermore, from her savings she was able to have a couple of sizeable houses constructed on the farmland that she owns. Right now her politician-son and his family live in the older house while one of her scholars and a helper live in the newer house. During Tita Connie’s 60th birthday celebration seven years ago (Dec. 8, 2007), a lot of people took their turn on the stage to pay tribute to the birthday girl for all the good she has contributed to the community. Some of her scholars were also there, saying that if it weren’t for Tita Connie, their dreams for a better life through education would not have come true. Nowadays, Tita Connie at 66 is still working as a caregiver and has no plans of “retiring,” since working keeps her mind and body active. As long as she has the strength and compassion to do her job well, Tita Connie will still be reporting for caregiver duty for quite a long time.
There you have it, snippets about a variety of overseas Filipino workers as they live and work today. Some stories are typical in that you know someone in a similar situation. Some are white-collar or blue-collar, high-end or low-end. Personally, I think this two-point-oh reimagining of the OFW in the 21st century is timeless and relatable, no matter what station in life we may be in.
If you come across my poetry book and turn to “Villanelle of a Retired Overseas Filipino Worker”… well first of all, you must know that villanelles in general tend to be sad one way or another, the way it repeats certain lines like a chant. Villanelle of a retired OFW? Guaranteed to be sad in another context. “Nobody is left for me to astound. / The ship of my heart has run aground” go the last two lines. You don’t know how many have emailed me after I won that ISP contest and told me how they said they could identify with the persona in the poem. All of us, the hardworking and caring OFWs that we are: we are united in heart and mind no matter where we may be in the diaspora. Hopefully we have established loving relationships with family and friends. When we retire someday and find our contemporaries dying one by one, let’s pray that we have stored enough good memories to look back on and sustain us because at some point, memories will be all that we would have. Ain’t that the sobering truth. And if we’re lucky, maybe some love left over.
Please tell me what you think: email@example.com