You think you have it hard making ends meet in America? Try out life in the Philippines.
You think you have it hard making ends meet in America? Try out life in the Philippines. Journalist Jason DeParle did, moving in with an impoverished family some 30 years ago and following their struggles and triumphs from a crowded shanty town all the way to a spacious home in Galveston, Texas. How did they get there? That’s the epic tale of A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century, a success story that isn’t an outlier in the Filipino community. Also, along with that success came a lot of grief.
The narrative begins in a Filipino slum called Leveriza, where DeParle, as a young reporter, met Tita and Emet Comodas in 1987, staying in a multi-generational family hut that was in such dire shape that they had to steer clear of rats. With poverty like that, and poor job prospects in the Philippines, why not search for opportunities abroad? Stationed everywhere from Saudi Arabia to the United States, that’s what Tita’s extended family did, giving their relatives a better life but encountering a lot of heartache in the process. The book’s title comes from something Tita’s sister Peachy tells DeParle: “a good provider is one who leaves,” making sacrifices and searching for opportunities far from home in order to support relatives in the Philippines.
DeParle covers four generations of the Portagana family. Tita was one of Venancio and Asuncion’s 11 children, and all but two of her siblings either worked abroad or had a spouse who did. If you’re a first-generation Filipino American, chances are you’ve cousins and Facebook friends posting dispatches from their own overseas jobs. The prospects for OFW – Overseas Filipino Workers – were much better than the job market at home, and the Philippine government encourages this, in part because the remittances – the money that overseas workers would send to relatives back home – became a significant part of the economy.
But if overseas jobs provided a better way of life for the family, the separation took its toll on family ties. Marriages dissolved, children grew up barely knowing their parents and Filipino workers were alienated in a strange land. But with hard work and a lot of patience and sacrifice, a modest version of the American dream could come true. DeParle focuses the majority of his book on Rosalie Comodas Villanueva, who went to nursing school in the Philippines and spent decades hoping for a chance to come to America. But bureaucratic and other issues at home kept the dream at bay for years while she took jobs in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The years away from her family were difficult; she would see her husband and children maybe once a year, and her youngest daughter became more attached to the relatives caring for her at home. When Rosalie finally got a job offer in Galveston, Texas, America was a far cry from the Park Avenue ideal she saw on television; the hours were long and the climate sometimes hostile. Meanwhile, Rosalie’s children were struggling in American schools, but their struggle to assimilate becomes part of the book’s triumph.
While much of A Good Provider follows the trials and tribulations of Rosalie and her family, DeParle also takes time to put migration into context, contrasting the late-20th century waves of immigration with those a century ago, and noting the varying changes in policy, which have alternately been expanded and restricted at various times in the past century. While Rosalie’s story is for the most part a happy one, the OFW system leads to tragedies as well, and DeParle spends a chapter telling the darker side of migrant working life, about a Filipino cruise-ship worker who’s severely injured on the job.
But the primary arc here, and one that would make a great movie or mini-series, is that of Rosalie and her family. If a parent’s greatest hope is to give their children a better life than they had, A Good Provider ends on a perfect note: her youngest daughter doesn’t even know what a shanty is.