Can’t get a break: Story of Filipina migrant workers

Often, in the spheres of the Global Forum of Migration and Development and/or the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency, icons of migrant workers are those that look like the pictures below. Smily. Shiny. Happy. Eager. 

But in the real world, the one that’s not smily. Not shiny. Migrant workers are dealing with some really complicated issues.

Most recently, in California, Filipino nurses filed a discrimination lawsuit against Sutter Health-California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and St. Luke’s Hospital in the Bay Area. Administrators claimed that they were told not to hire Filipino nurses. Even though, Filipino nurses comprise more than half of nursing staff in any given hospital in the Bay Area. And heck, many hospitals in any major city in the US.

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure to view an uncut version of the documentary, “The Learning” by Ramona Diaz. It’s a moving documentary about Filipino teachers from the Philippines moving to Baltimore, Maryland to work, their struggles with being away from home, the transition of dealing with American students and, America, and the contradictions in the process.

A couple of days ago, Colorlines magazine writes about an alarming trend among Filipino migrant workers in the US. Michelle Chen writes, “Filipina workers just can’t get a break these days.” Damn right.

There’s definitely something up with Filipina migrant workers and the type of discrimination they’re facing in the US.

I’m gonna think and sleep on this more tonight. I’ll write through it tomorrow morning.


Headlines about the Philippines peppered many of today’s international news circuits (NY Times, Reuters, BBC, Examiner, etc.) with the words “gunman”, “hostage”, “standoff” and “(insert number here) dead.” The most I’ve seen the Philippines on the news since the presidential race.

55-year old Rolando Mendoza was recently laid off as a senior police officer in Manila, due to charges of extortion and robbery in 2008. A day ago now, he decided to hi-jack a bus load of tourists from Hong Kong at a frequently visited landmark in Manila called Luneta. His main objective for staging the hostage was to get his job back. The story ends with  bloodshed, at least 7 tourists and Mendoza, dead.

Mendoza’s standoff reminded me of Raymond Red’s “Himpapawid” or in English, Manila Skies.

Based on a true story, Red’s dark and compelling movie is about a man who loses his job, tries to get a visa to work abroad, gets caught up in a bad, petty criminal situation, ending up hi-jacking a plane to get home to his province so that he could work in the fields instead of struggle in the city. Throughout the whole movie, the main character (whose name escapes me now), is shown sewing together the strike banners of workers at a picket line. He uses this as a parachute to jump out of the hi-jacked plane, which inevitably fails to save his life.

Of course there’s more to the movie, and everyone should go see it. But..

Both these stories have been tragically inspired by common ills in Philippine society:

First, the fundamental and structural problems of unemployment and corruption leaving thousands jobless, desperate and always-at-the-brink-of-crazy. Regardless of which president sits on the throne of Philippine governance, the truth is that the neoliberal policy of migrant export coupled with the weight of political and economic intervention, is killing the Filipino people.

Second, the raw and unrestrained need for survival. On a much personal level, the emotions of the 2 men, one in real life and the other, fictive (but might as well be real), were of frenzied hopelessness. So much so they were grabbing at nothing.

Lastly, the gendering of both t/males, made available to us here in the “West,” points to such a significant loss in masculinity. So much so that the only way to gain back a job, respect, and dignity, was to go assert a violent masculinity. They both convince themselves that the way out of desperation is to spiral off into an even deeper situation. In essence, a lose-lose situation was the only solution.

To me, the circulation of this story is the dangerous part. What are the consequences of this narrative being told over and again about Filipino men, brown men, desperate, brown men? What is it connected to? What work does the circulation do?

At certain points, I think it serves to counter-act (or counter-balance?) the production of the overly disciplined, obedient Filipino female body: the migrant worker, “ilaw ng tahanan,” light of the home, stalwart mother. It definitely produces the Filipino male as unruly, savage, and fanatic.

The circulation of his story as an undisciplined brown man on a killing spree, holding up hostages, and acting against a just and rational police force and a just and rational president, Noynoy Aquino sounds a lot like an extension of the rational for Islamophobia. Its widening grip on anyone and anything that seems to be in opposition to good governance: terror-ists, resistors, and now, disgruntled employees. Really, the pre-emptive strike on anyone and anything that moves to challenge “just and rational governments”. Never the unjust and irrational conditions under which people live without water and food (Pakistan), jobs (Philippines), security and safety (Gaza), homes (New Orleans’ Katrina).  Thus everyone becomes a threat, the desperation becomes threatening and then, perhaps, it makes sense for people to play the part, the role of hostage-taker.

No justifications for Mendoza here. I mourn with the families in Hong Kong who lost their loved ones on that bus. And also for Mendoza’s family.

Moreover, I mourn for the many men’s desperation in the Philippines that may or may not hold another hostage. And those who are held hostage by the conditions of unlivable life.


My organization, Filipinas for Rights and Empowerment (FiRE) (see, just went on a summer field trip to Montreal to participate in the Montreal International Women’s Conference and the founding assembly of anti-imperialist, grassroots women’s organizations from around the world, called International Women’s Alliance!

This is what happened in Montreal last weekend:

There are more action pictures but these were kinda my faves. That’s me in the red polka dot dress!

maligayang pagdating

so really this is the first time, i’ve actually sat down and thought about my trip to the philippines with some type of reflection and reflexivity. and the funny thing is, i’m already here.

in the real time hustle and bustle of my life in the Big Apple, i was super uber still trying to do work, tie up loose ends, save files, get folks out prepped and ready for the summer (expo and stateside), etc. etc. right up until i almost missed my flight out of JFK on sunday morning. what followed was a blur of two–or was it three-days in the Bay Area despedida-ing, barbeQing, laughing, packing and still knotting up or putting on ice the gajillion things i try to stay on top of in my life.

the only real preparation i had for this trip was when i got bit up by 78,000 mosquitoes after the t-storm during the sandiwa conference, and R. took me to get some anti-itch cream and repellant. we walked hand in hand in the humidity from 69th all the way to 61st + 2 long blocks over, and while i held back the temptation to get on the floor like a flea-ridden dog and scratch the skin off my legs, he asked me ever so non-chalantly, “are you ready for the trip, my love?”

i could barely ek out the words, “i’m not sure,” as another mosquito try to feed on my calf.

both he and i knew, i wasn’t ready. even just to muse about the summer. i wasn’t about to sit there an dpretend that i knew nann about my trip and how i felt about. he paused a second, smiled and gave me a reassuring hug. picked my hand back up and bought me some benadryl for my bites. he’s gonna have my back, i know it. i just couldn’t even get anything out.

7 weeks. it still seemed so far away even though the clock was ticking on my sunday morning flight. i would get on that plane the next day.


“iba talaga ang pilipinas.”

my immigrant narrative is a tale of perpetual returns and departures.

i’m as conflicted about being as i was last year. yearning for my family but ecstatic that i’m out of the belly of the beast. wishing i could share all of this with R. but excited for the lessons we will have learned at the end of our annual sabbatical from each other. kicking myself in the culo for not bringing my FiRE sisters back with me but knowing that they are doing growing with each other on that side of the world. crossing my fingers that i learn something but knowing already that i’m changing already.

all of these, dialectics. internal and external. material and metaphysical. i, then, am situated. roots growing. concrete set. beaten path familiar. i’m here in my elsewhere. between homes and making a home in between.


the emotional train wreckage that followed me last year has been detailed, journaled, neatly folded up and stuck in my back pocket. i wouldn’t say i wasn’t feeling all my heart strings all through and while flying over the pacific, but i wasn’t a sobbing mess when the airplane landed at NAIA.

perhaps i didn’t have a knee jerk reaction to coming back because i now know what to expect a little. and perhaps still, it hasn’t hit me that i’m here. even now.


the humidity here is not so different from new york (minus the fucking batallion of insects that attacked me in Queens a couple of days ago). yes, you are right. i have yet to show off not a one philippine grown bug bite yet. do i think i’m fucking invincible right now. HELL TO THE M-FKN YEA. and i was steady outside in the pollution and smoke yestereday too! booyah.


today, i’ll tralala off to QC hug a couple of good friends and be back in time for galunggong at dinner time. (hopefully) imma do like mel gibson and braveheart the public transpo system in metro-manila in about an hour from now. wish me luck comrades.