A journey home: in 1974, Lorenza Calpotura left the Philippines to work as a nurse's aide in the U.S. The remittances she sent back to her family began her son's journey to America. (To the Point).
At 52, my mother left the country of her birth for the United States in 1974, one of 354,987 Filipino migrants to the United States that decade. She joined the exodus of professionals recruited to work and live abroad: in her case, to work as a dentist's assistant in Chicago. Though she got her dentistry degree from the Centro Escolar University in Manila in the late 1940s, she never filled a cavity or drilled a tooth in her life. She raised eight kids, giving birth every few years from when she was 21 up until two days after her 40th birthday in July 1962. "The last one was the hardest," she likes to relate whenever asked about the occasion of my birth. "I was already at the gates of heaven, but St. Peter told me to go back because God wasn't done with me yet."
After a few cold winter days in the Midwest, my mother took the next flight west to join my pregnant sister and her husband in their small house in San Bruno, California. It was there, on Kensington Avenue, that my immigrant mother, who'd never held a wage-earning job in her life, decided to make those monthly remittances her singular preoccupation. She scoured the want ads, finally ending up at the Helper's Home for the Mentally Retarded on Fulton Street in San Francisco, earning free room and board and $250 a month, most of which she sent to Manila.
Fully comprehending the meaning of my mother's remittances, what they signify as the toil of millions of people like her who chose sacrifice for a dream deferred, leads me to a position that clashes with the demands of a post-9/11 patriotism--when the dividing line between good and evil is to pledge one's total allegiance to America. Those who seek remittances from abroad continue to stake their belonging to a country they left, not merely for some forlorn sense of community at a time when immigrants feel unwelcomed in America, but because many have family who depend on their labor.
Greenbacks on Brown Backs
Starting in the 1970s, the Philippines, like many countries in the global south, adopted "economic liberalization strategies," which turned robust local economies into those that followed the dictates of the international market. Nation states were forced to privatize public industries, open their economies to foreign competition, and gear their production toward exports. Championed by transnational financial institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, these policies arrested economic growth that most countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa enjoyed in the 1960s. "The years 1960-1973 define the golden period of growth for developing countries with 30 countries growing at 3 percent or more in per-capita terms," according to University of Maryland's Economic Times. "In contrast, growth rates plummeted during 1973-1994, and was specially pronounced in Latin America and Africa."
Since these economic policies took hold more than three decades ago, millions have left their countries to look for better futures for their families. The United States was the destination of choice for millions looking for some comfort from poverty According to the 2000 Census, 11 percent of the total U.S. population are immigrants, with more than half immigrating in the 1990s alone, mostly from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In countries like the Philippines, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti (to name a few), more than 10 percent of the countries' total population reside outside of their national borders. As many Jamaicans live outside Jamaica as inside the country.
Between 1965 and 1969, the Philippines had replaced Europe as the leading source of foreign physicians in the United States and, along with India, was providing the bulk of its foreign scientists and engineers. By the 1990s, the Philippines' biggest export was human labor to work the fields of Dubai, the bars of Tokyo, and the hospitals of Los Angeles. There are 2,383 Filipinos who leave the country and their families every day in search of remittances abroad.
These mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters remit close to $8 billion each year to family members back home in the Philippines, accounting for more than 10 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). They earn up to 10 times, sometimes more, of what they could earn if they stayed put. In a country where 87 percent of families live below the poverty level, selling one's labor abroad is a family's only lifeline.
"We'll get a bigger room when I get my license as an LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse)," my mom told me on my first morning in the United States as she prepared to leave for school.
We rented a small room in Mrs. Garza's house on 16th Avenue in the Richmond district of San Francisco. It was no more than 10 feet from door to window, and 12 feet from one wall to the next. Two beds, one for my mom, another for me and my brother, both with electric blankets. A dresser, a closet, a bureau with a 13-inch color TV on top, and a small, gold-plated vanity with cracked glass where my mom hung her white nurse's aide outfit.
At 15, I joined my mom and brother in San Francisco. My original passport is stamped "hhw 9-11-77" on the very first page of the visa section. That day will forever be as clear as yesterday's memories. I wore my first-ever suit, a three-piece looker of white pinstriped gray wool, on my first-ever plane flight. Being extra careful not to mess the sharp crease of my new pants during the 16-hour plane ride, I didn't sleep much so that I wouldn't look rumpled when I got off the plane to meet my mom and brother. After a short stop at customs in Honolulu, Philippine Airlines flight #107 finally touched down in San Francisco. My brother met me outside the arrival gate. "Mama couldn't be here to meet you. She's working until midnight, so she'll just meet us at home," Ray explained matter-of-factly.
My mom left home every day at 6 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the Omlis, an elderly Russian couple who lived on the other side of town. She cleaned their house, gave them their medicine, and rushed off to school for an 11 o'clock class. I'd pick her up at John Adams Community College and take her directly to Hillhaven Convalescent Hospital by 3:45 p.m. I'd be waiting outside the hospital by 11:45 p.m. to bring her home.
At 16 years old, I could nor completely comprehend why my life was so different from the rest of my classmates. I blamed my mom for forcing me to be a responsible adult when I really wanted to be a regular teenager--hanging out at the Stonestown Mall, in front of Mercy High School for Girls. I don't remember ever telling her this; it must have felt too much of an imposition, an added burden, to her already burdensome life.
Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta!
It wasn't until I completely understood the totality of my family's experience that I found the courage to forgive. It wasn't until I became involved in the anti-Marcos dictatorship movement in the United States, with its antifascist and anti-imperialist politics, that I could put everything into proper perspective. I began to understand that my mother's decision to go abroad, the remittances, the uneasiness I felt in my brown skin, and my acceleration to adulthood had deeper, more historical roots than the mere consequences of individual actions. Poverty, capitalist-driven development, dictatorship, racism, low-wage jobs for immigrant women, imperialism--all of these shaped our family's trajectory. More importantly, my involvement taught me one other important lesson--that these injustices can be challenged, fought, and changed through the actions of a determined people.
It's almost Christmas, 1983, a few months since I joined the Pilipino Student Support Coalition. Marita leads us to the conference room of the law office where she works. It's a Sunday, no one's around, and I notice Mario by the Xerox machine taking advantage of free copying. It is raining outside, a typical San Francisco winter day, when it feels like dusk has folded into the early afternoon hours. We take off our coats and settle into plush leather seats in a room bigger than all of our apartments combined. Sony, Richard, Marita, Mario, and I are forming the United States chapter of the League of Filipino Students--the biggest, most militant student organization in our homeland, and more importantly, allied with the politics of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
From 1983 to 1986, there were dozens of anti-dictatorship organizations like the LFS that sprouted across the United States. Many more organizations--church groups, service organizations, hometown associations, Rotarians, Lions, etc.--joined activities that helped isolate the Marcos dictatorship internationally. Those were heady times.
But within the left in the Filipino community in the U.S. at that time, a debate brewed that never got resolved. It was a stupid debate on "primary contradiction" faced by the Filipino community--whether they should be organized as members of the U.S. working class exploited for their labor and their race, or as members of the Philippine nation who still maintain identification with the homeland.
This political reductionism misses the point. Both are important loci for a people centrally impacted by the forces of globalization from the last quarter of the 20th century to the present--displaced, forced to move, profiled by race and gender to fit a global division of labor, but still drawing unfathomable hope from a dream deferred. Most make this journey nurtured by their faith, culture, and their own language--and want to bring this deep texture of their lives into a new environment. They seek a place where they can bring everything about them, irreducible to one part of their complex selves, to an endeavor which speaks about this experience and, I hope, changes a world order which rends generations of families like ours without guilt.
"When I worked all those long hours," my mom recently told me, "what kept me going was thinking of all of you." Loyalty to family is unconditional.
Pledging one's allegiance to a post-9/11 America--one which continues to rip families apart for promises of material comfort--is at best an uneasy position for those who remit. How could they pledge loyalty to a country that destroys families with their bombs and drives millions from their homes? How could they ascribe fealty to an America that detains and persecutes those who come to this country because they, too, are forced to work for a dream deferred? How could this country deserve their allegiance when they're not allowed to feel that they truly belong?
When the Sun Meets the Moon
Twenty-eight years later, my mother returns to the Philippines to a four-bedroom house not far away from the two-bedroom apartment where I grew up. She's gone back to familiar streets--Katipunan Avenue where Shoppersville Supermarket still stands, B. Gonzales Street where our apartment complex has been replaced by a 14-story condominium building. But the Lazatins, our old neighbors, are still there, as well as Mamadeng's grocery store a block down on C. Salvador Street.
"This is where I want to spend the last days of my life. You are all grown now, with your own families. My job is done."
I went back to the Philippines with my mother, helping her settle into her new life. Every Sunday morning, I'd drive her to Seed More Market where we'd have our brunch in one of the outdoor eateries, and where she could buy plants for her garden outside her bedroom. Purple orchids, jasmine, and perennials of every color. And then there was the Ilang-ilang and the Champaca.
"These trees remind me of my childhood," she told me. "I love to sit in my garden, watch the sun meet the moon in the early mornings, and smell the odors of my youth."
RELATED ARTICLE: Millions in Remittances
"Remittances have for generations been a traditional means of financial support to family members in less-developed countries. As the scale of migration has increased in recent years and the growth of remittances has accelerated dramatically, the social and economic impact of this phenomenon now transcends family relationships and is drawing national and international attention."
Stephen Fidler, "Migrants Spur Growth in Remittances," FinancialTimes.com.
* Worker remittances in 2000 to Latin America and the Caribbean surpassed $20 billion for the first time, expanding at an annual rate of 7-10 percent. Most come from remittances in the United States.
* Workers remit $250 on average, 8 to 10 times a year, involving 80 million transactions each year to Latin America and the Caribbean. Transaction costs run between 15 to 20 percent of the funds remitted, meaning poor workers are paying several billion dollars a year in transfer fees.
* The level of remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean exceeds all foreign aid to the region combined, and is equal to a third of all foreign direct investments to countries.
* Remittances account for at least 10% of the Gross Domestic Product in six countries--Haiti, 17 percent; Nicaragua, 14.4 percent; El Salvador, 12.6 percent; Jamaica, 11.7 percent; the Dominican Republic, 10 percent; and Ecuador, 10 percent.
* Mexico's remittances ($6.8 billion in 1999) exceed 160 percent of its farm exports, are equal to tourism revenues, and equivalent to two-thirds of oil revenues.
* Salvadoran workers sent home $1.6 billion in 1999, seven times what the country received in direct foreign investments to its economy.
* 25 percent of residents of the Dominican Republic now reside in the United States, sending home $1.7 billion in 1999--three times more than what the country gets for its agricultural exports.
* Remittances to Colombia are equivalent to half of the country's revenue from exporting coffee.
* At current growth rates, cumulative remittances to Latin America and the Caribbean for the coming decade (2001-2010) will reach more than $300 billion.
Francis Calpotura was former codirector of the Center for Third World Organizing and is a frequent contributor to ColorLines.