Hope for the Filipina?

 (as published in Silangan, Vol. 1 No. 2, May 2009, Vancouver, BC)


Live-in ka ba?

“Yes,” is the answer to both questions; more precisely “yes,” is the answer if action, theory and analysis, and back to action were applied based on both questions. 

A new lingo in the fight for humanly and equal rights for Filipino immigrant women workers especially live-in caregivers, is it? Yes indeed, because the struggle has been laid out on a credible stage—the academe.   

Luminous like stage lights in a new play copying rebirth—the season—is how I sense the lift in her eyes as Marilou Carillo, Ph. D. (University of British Columbia) of only a few weeks, gives the gist of her doctoral thesis on Filipino women activists. We sit diagonally across from each other in her living room illumined by soft chartreuse that brush her profile spring yellow. 

The struggle: Its roots, its growth, its promise, the trampling down of its blossoms, the demise of its promise, the specter it has turned into on the ground it has been seeded and how scandals, the rawness of its wounds continues to appall has been scrutinized, analyzed and found not annihilated but transformed—yet again, another tiny seed just risen off its bed. This seed is Marilou’s thesis, which she identifies as “Socially Transformative Transnational Feminism: Filipino Women Activists at Home and Abroad”.

The kernel is in the title of the thesis. “Socially transformative” refers to our actions to change things; it could begin with our own selves, for example in our desire to improve our lives with our education and our jobs but in the end will in effect change our country. Marilou says it simply, “As we work together we are changing things, as we struggle for change we are empowered; throughout the struggle we have changed, and as we work as communities, de-colonization is happening.”

“Transnational” situates Filipina migrant workers who have crossed continents, working in 190 countries as of last count—an opportunity that came in the guise of first world nations helping the third world; from our perspective, it is a marginalized view. As Marilou puts it, “Poverty has kept us in the cycle of violence that has taken us all over the world”.

“Feminism” defines the study as gender concerns but not in the Western sense because the Filipina’s issues are anchored more on poverty and sovereignty or their rights that are suddenly denied on foreign land–“Gender, race, class—you cannot isolate these from each other,” the author emphasizes.

“Filipino Women Activists Here and Abroad” identifies the kind of work women activists have done, demonstrating how action and theory can be bridged or knowing why a protest must be staged, and that it must address systemic issues or the root of what needs to be changed in our struggle. Feminist movements in the Philippines espouse different ideologies, and are in varied stages of development; some belong to a group of women who have lived through the Marcos years and who have migrated to other countries, yet all share Filipino visions of social change.

Exactly what struggle is this we’re talking about? Marilou arcs her petite arms as if to reach the span of centuries where it all began. She says the obvious, “Racial discrimination,” in its many guises. 

Between us flashed the densely layered history of our country—300 years of Spanish colonization, half a century of American rule, four years of fierce fighting the Japanese, who was not even our own enemy, to our wallowing today in a quicksand of economic woes; too, the rebellions, insurrections, protests, demonstrations of the oppressed, the victims of injustices, and the enlightened had waged and fought. The cycle of our struggle has not changed, of course, though the enemy has taken on even more insidious guises such as economic benevolence for supremacy and opportunities for slavery.

Marilou takes off her own history from there. She came to North America in 1968 to study in Chicago and later moved to Seattle. She reveals that having left the Philippines, she had begun to think of her being a Filipino.  “When you leave family, you begin to have a sense of who you are. But when you’re young, it’s so easy to be Americanized,” she says.

But that winter she had bought her first coat, the mirror which reflected such self-image cracked the first time. She recalls, “This woman, a saleslady, looks at me and asks, ‘Do you have money?’ I told her I have enough. And then it struck me why she asked so I turned around and left.” 

That would not be the last experience that made her aware of who she really is in terms of how other races but especially the white race “labeled” her. Those five years she lived and worked in Venezuela allowed her “to rethink my frame of reference. I’m simply not a ‘Gringo’.” 

Marilou’s volunteer work with Amnesty International, where she spent her energy helping other peoples to regain their rights, drew her closer into what she would later take on. She was with the National Board of the Canada Section by the time she left the organization, saying she “outgrew Amnesty International with its strict mandate.” More possibly, her work reflected Filipino issues groaning to be met and her thoughts began veering this way: “Yes, it is important to work in solidarity but why am I not working for my own people?” By then she has also joined the BC Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and the Philippine Women’s Center. 

In Vancouver, “a number of situations” kept snagging her focus: first, the Vietnamese or “the boat people”—so called because of their history or how they escaped turmoil in their country by scrambling onto boats. She says, “I had wondered then, what it is like to be transplanted.” 

Next, she saw “more migration waves” at her position in the Vancouver School Board as speech pathologist and her work with a children’s hospital. She remembers how they inundated the schools like flood—after the boat people, the Iranians, Africans, Indians and then, the Filipinos. In the last ten years, there has been an influx of Filipino children because of the Live-in Caregiver program.

Against this mosaic of races, Marilou experienced what seemed like a more intense scrutiny; she would be asked, “Where are you from?” Caught off guard, she would answer, “From Vancouver.” It would prove to be an unsatisfactory answer and she would be dismissed as “one of those” because “some of us are darker than others.”

She reveals that even in social gatherings since the LCP, her presence often stirs guarded hostility or uneasiness among guests especially if married to a caregiver. It is nothing new to Marilou—early on in her becoming an immigrant, she was looked on as a “nurse”, that is way back when the influx of Filipino immigrants were nurses. She says, “I realized that my identity is the history of our migration.”

The arrival of the live-in caregiver intensified Marilou’s weighing of factors around her identity not as a given of her race but by those around her. First, the issue is gender based because the work of the caregiver frees another woman, a white woman, to work for her independence and contribute to the economy both of the household and the government. Second, the issue is contradictory in the sense that Filipino women leave their own homes to do domestic chores—a role she played as a principal in her own home—to earn a wage in another country which in turn denigrates such role into a subordinate one—“the brown woman, doing low-wage jobs.” And both women “are fueling enterprises of globalization,” serving a hierarchy of economic policies formulated by men.

Marilou recalls how she literally woke up one morning and decided that the Philippine Women’s Center needs an academic degree where knowledge and discourse is patterned, where credibility is sourced. Her passion flared not just for the study but on issues Filipino women in the countries they now serve as domestic workers have unmasked to the world—“tear-jerkers scenarios” as some commentaries labeled often oppressive working conditions. Thus, in consultations with Filipino women, Marilou began to work on her thesis.

Will change ever happen? Marilou answers with an unequivocal, “Yes!” She believes “there will come a point when social change happens, when a synchronicity of factors come about.” And this is where the seed which the “Socially Transformative Transnational Feminism” of the Filipina Activist proves crucial.