After Emma realized that her white-collar job in the Philippines would never pay her enough to send her children to college, she came to New York and became a nanny. CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY JEHAD NGA FOR THE NEW YORKER
Emma moved into Virgie’s studio apartment, in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood known as Filipinotown. More than thirteen thousand Filipinos live in the blocks surrounding Roosevelt Avenue, under the tracks of the No. 7 subway line, which takes them to Times Square. The avenue has evolved to meet the needs of female migrants: there’s a shop specializing in uniforms for nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides, and several freight and remittance centers, where workers send their earnings and gifts to their families. In the seventies and eighties, most O.F.W.s were men, who worked in merchant shipping or construction, but since the nineties migration has become increasingly female, both in the Philippines and throughout the world. Mothers and daughters leave their families so that they can do the type of “women’s work”—caring for the young, the elderly, and the infirm—that females in affluent countries no longer want to do or have time to do. They function as what María Ibarra, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, calls “emotional proletarians”: they “produce authentic emotion in exchange for a wage.” Emma shared a bed with Virgie, who was so exhausted from work that at night she demanded that Emma, who always wanted to chat, be quiet. Two friends from their province, a nanny and a housekeeper, slept on a pullout couch. On Emma’s second day in New York, after submitting her résumé to a Filipino agency for nannies, she shadowed Virgie at work and took notes as her sister demonstrated how to clean the American way, with bleach instead of soap and water, and how to use an electric iron, rather than one heated by the kindled ashes of a coconut shell. On Emma’s third day, Virgie told her to practice riding the subway alone. Emma couldn’t understand why her subway car was filled with people who appeared to be from Mexico and China. “Where are all the Americans?” she asked her sister.
In Emma’s first year at San Isidro College, in the Philippines, she saw her name on a bulletin board in the registrar’s office, on a sheet of paper titled “Promise List.” It showed the names of fifteen students who owed tuition to the school and the dates, long past, that their money had been due. Emma and three friends, who were part of a clique of seven girls known as the Ringlets, for the initials of their names, were shocked that their debts had been made public. The Ringlets crossed out their names with a pen. Within an hour, the college’s guidance counsellor had called Emma and her friends into her office. “We only did it because we were so ashamed!” Emma confessed.
Emma, who grew up on a farm with eleven brothers and sisters, paid her debts by working in the college’s library during the day and taking classes at night. Her job gave her an edge, because she could read her assigned textbooks the moment they arrived at the library. Few people could afford to buy the books, and as many as six students would stand at a library table, crowding over one text. Although Emma majored in accounting, she felt that she was best at reading. In her English elective, as her classmates got lost in flashbacks and extended metaphors, she could follow the plots of American novels. During breaks from work, she sat in the library reading and exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God!”—a heroine had been raped or unjustly imprisoned. Her classmates couldn’t understand how her reaction could be so visceral. “Just read this story!” she urged them.
Emma’s teacher in Personality Development, a class on manners and hygiene, was so impressed by her reading and writing that she asked Emma to be her assistant. Observing that Emma was popular and confident, the teacher joked that within a year she would be married, an idea that Emma, who was seventeen, found insulting. She was too ambitious to assume the duties of a housewife. But she enjoyed the company of her boyfriend, Edmund, a handsome student who made the other Ringlets jealous. “I wasn’t thinking of marrying,” Emma said. “It was just, Oh, there’s somebody who will bring an umbrella for me when it’s raining. There’s somebody who will go to the movies with me on Saturdays.” Within a year, she was pregnant. Her teacher said, “Do you remember what I told you?” Emma wondered if her teacher’s prediction had been a kind of curse.
She married Edmund, and returned to school two weeks after giving birth. She was frightened by the size of her daughter, who she thought was about as small as a plastic bottle. She and Edmund moved into a two-bedroom wooden house with a thatched roof made of palm fronds in Malaybalay, the capital of Bukidnon, a mountainous, landlocked province. She made her husband coffee every morning and did all the cleaning and ironing. She considered herself “a little lucky,” because Edmund’s parents ran a restaurant, which relieved her of the need to cook. But the restaurant went bankrupt, a common fate for businesses in the Philippines. Wages are low—the average annual salary is thirty-five hundred dollars—and more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
Raised Roman Catholic, like eighty per cent of Filipinos, Emma knew nothing about contraception. By the time she graduated from college, with a bachelor’s degree in science, she had two daughters. Within fifteen years, she had seven more children, all of them girls, who slept in bunk beds and on the floor. Emma paid two night-school students to care for her daughters while she worked for the government of Bukidnon, in the office of nutrition; she devised policies and classes to prevent child malnourishment. She made the equivalent of fifty dollars a week, which was barely enough to feed her own children. Edmund worked on his family’s farm, earning money only after harvests. Every week, Emma held a family meeting to discuss the household budget. After each daughter summarized her needs, Emma gave her money, but it was rarely enough. Emma kept asking for advances at work. “At some point, it just looked like I was begging,” she told me.
Emma’s oldest sister, Virgie, a teacher, also struggled to provide for her children, and in 1999 she moved to New York, where she became a nanny. With the money she earned, she sent her three children to college and bought a new house. Virgie was known as an O.F.W., an overseas Filipino worker. The label confers status in the Philippines, which receives more money in remittances than any other country except India and China. Since the nineteen-seventies, the government of the Philippines has promoted labor exportation as a strategy for relieving poverty and alleviating the national debt. A tenth of the population now works abroad, supporting nearly half of the country’s households and leaving some nine million Filipino children missing a parent. In the past decade, three-quarters of O.F.W.s have been women; former President Corazon Aquino has praised them as “the heroes of our country’s economy.”
By the spring of 2000, Emma’s neighborhood was being emptied of mothers. One of the Ringlets had left for New York, as had Emma’s home-economics teacher, a college classmate, and several members of her church. That year, after her two oldest daughters entered college, Emma, who was forty-four, realized that she could never afford to pay tuition seven more times, so she applied for a tourist visa to America. At her interview, at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, she said that she wanted to go to California, to visit Disneyland. The official asked her how many malnourished children she worked with in Bukidnon.
Emma, who has a deep, metallic voice, said, “Four hundred plus.”
“O.K., four hundred,” the officer said. “Then why are you wasting your money taking a vacation to Disneyland?”
Emma paused, flustered. “Oh, I didn’t think about that,” she said.
Her application was rejected. She waited three months and applied again. This time, she paid a wealthy friend to provide her with “show money”: the friend temporarily deposited half a million pesos, roughly twelve thousand dollars, into Emma’s bank account, so that officials at the embassy would believe that she was a wealthy tourist. The friend owned a rice mill, and she created papers for Emma that made it appear as if she were the owner of the business. On the day of the interview, in July, 2000, Emma fasted and prayed all morning. Her sister Nella, who accompanied her to the embassy, said that after the interview Emma ran toward her shouting, “I got it!” “She was jumping,” Nella said. “She was so happy. I said, ‘Go, go—before they take it back.’ ”
Emma knew mothers who were too ashamed to explain to their children why they were compelled to leave, but she was accustomed to discussing everything with her daughters, down to their menstrual cycles. When she returned home, she held a family meeting and told the children, “Mama is going to go to America for a better job.”
Her youngest daughter, Ezreil, who was eleven, shouted, “No, Mama!” Her fifth-oldest daughter, Eunice, proposed that they all walk to school, rather than take a pedicab, to save money for tuition. The older girls were more cavalier. “Are you going to send us plenty of money?” one said. “So we can buy the Levi jeans?” Emma said that Ezreil told them, “I don’t need the Levi jeans.”
On August 21, 2000, Emma borrowed two service vans from her office and, with her daughters, her husband, and her brother-in-law, drove two hours to the city of Cagayan de Oro, which has a small airport. She took one suitcase containing four pairs of pants, a sweater, two pairs of shoes, two nightgowns, and a hairbrush. Virgie had told her not to take any dresses; there would be no occasion to wear them. In the terminal, all her daughters were crying. They would be cared for by their father and two “helpers,” whom Emma had hired for the equivalent of twenty dollars a week. Emma went to the bathroom to weep alone in a stall. She said, “My conscience was telling me, ‘Don’t leave your kids. Don’t leave your kids. They are young and need you.’ ”
Emma moved into Virgie’s studio apartment, in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood known as Filipinotown. More than thirteen thousand Filipinos live in the blocks surrounding Roosevelt Avenue, under the tracks of the No. 7 subway line, which takes them to Times Square. The avenue has evolved to meet the needs of female migrants: there’s a shop specializing in uniforms for nannies, housekeepers, and home health aides, and several freight and remittance centers, where workers send their earnings and gifts to their families. In the seventies and eighties, most O.F.W.s were men, who worked in merchant shipping or construction, but since the nineties migration has become increasingly female, both in the Philippines and throughout the world. Mothers and daughters leave their families so that they can do the type of “women’s work”—caring for the young, the elderly, and the infirm—that females in affluent countries no longer want to do or have time to do. They function as what María Ibarra, a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, calls “emotional proletarians”: they “produce authentic emotion in exchange for a wage.”
The agency found Emma a job as a nanny in Chappaqua, and she felt that she had discovered the America she had imagined. Her employers’ house resembled pictures that she had seen in a calendar that her father, a Second World War veteran, had brought home from duty. Each month featured an American mansion with a chimney or two and an expansive lawn. READ MORE...