From America to Africa
Human migration is fueled by human needs: the search for food, the escape from tyranny and persecution, the search for freedom. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, "It is better to be free abroad than to be a slave at home." Not unlike the Puritans who left Europe for the New World or the Jewish diaspora, Filipinos in the past century left their homeland in growing numbers in search of a better life. They come from all corners of the Philippines, leaving the comforts of homes and loved ones, clinging to a faint hope of decent jobs in some strange lands. Many take on jobs well beneath their formal training. It is not uncommon to hear of college graduates working as kitchen helps or teachers as maids. But what they do is better than unemployment or underemployment back home. Necessity is the wind behind their sails.
In recent years, more and more women than men left the country. Now comes a book that chronicles the successes of some of these women. The title "From America to Africa" sounds like a travelogue of an American on a trip to the Dark Continent. However, the subtitle "Voices of Filipino Women Overseas" reveals a collection of first-person stories of women from different walks of life who left the Philippines. One wonders why the book limits its scope to the distaff side of diaspora only. Is it because women are more vulnerable to the vagaries and hardships of breadwinning? Do the men not suffer as much and come through as well? There are also tragic stories among the thousands of Pinays working overseas. There is for instance so much to learn from what happened to Flor Contemplacion.
The publisher Imelda M. Nicolas and editor Lorna Kalaw-Tirol have gathered nineteen Filipinas who have achieved incredible success in such varied places ranging from fast-paced North America to ultraconservative Saudi Arabia to quaint old Europe and to the emerging nations in South America and Africa. Each story has glimpses of Pinay aspirations, of her coping with bureaucracy, discrimination and sexism in various subtle forms and of her small and big successes. One conclusion that ties the essays together is "You can take the Filipina out of the Philippines but you cannot take the Philippines out of the Filipina."
One of the more fascinating stories is that of Loida Nicolas Lewis, lawyer, businesswoman, philanthropist and probably, the richest Filipino living outside the Philippines. She has written a best-selling book on how to get a green card legally and another on how her husband created their business empire. Her story began when she met her future husband, Reginald Lewis, on a blind date. Both lawyers, they gradually built a fortune through leverage investments and timely acquisitions. Unfortunately, she lost Lewis to brain cancer in 1993. Undaunted, she took over their multinational company TLC Beatrice and managed it to a worth of billions of dollars today. She has not forgotten their origins and has been generous through The Lewis College in Sorsogon and the Reginald E. Lewis Foundation, which works with the NAACP to help young African-American businessmen.
On the other hand, Elizabeth Medina abandoned her "parents' materialistic values", joined Siloismďa movement for social change in Chile and became an activist for Chilean cause. She married a Chilean whose grandparents were Holocaust victims in Auschwitz, immersed in Chilean and Jewish culture and in the process discovered her Philippineness. She laments the assault on her Filipino heritage by the Spanish and American colonizers. Fluent in Spanish, she discovered a most important biography of Jose Rizal by W. E. Retana circa 1907 and proceeded to translate it "for the Filipino youth."
Sr. Emma de Guzman, ICM, flew from Brussels to Yaounde, Cameroon as part of a Catholic mission in 1975. She was awed by the vast African forests, the sea of smiling faces, the unpronouncible names beginning with Mv and Nk, and the insectsespecially the tiny "mout-mout", which took a fancy to her skin. There was also a lack of the most basic amenities. She worked with the poor in the villages advising on empowerment, women's issues, health services, transmissible diseases, and religious education. She did this in French and Ewondo. She became a member of the Better World Movement and has risen among the leaders who coordinate missionary work in Africa.
I have a few druthers about the book. I'd rather see Sharifa Ali-Salih drop all her obsequious mentions of appreciation of all those Arab men who patronized her. I'd rather see writer Cecilia Brainard write more on how she got her novels published. Surprisingly for one who writes as a profession, hers is the shortest piece of the lot. I'd rather see Linda Layosa expand on the unfortunate deaths of those Pinays in our neighboring countries and in the Middle East.
Yet having said all that, I did enjoy this book. These women wrote their stories without affectation or condescension. The common thread in the stories is their love for the Philippines and it is palpable through the pages.