This is my mother and she is the person who’s story I am choosing to share with you on International Women’s Day.
She came to the UK to escape financial hardship and insecurity in the Philippines in the mid seventies and joined many others migrating all over the world to do the same. These migrants have since been collectively known as OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers). All to secure a career as a nurse so that she could provide for the family she had left back home. It is important to note that the Philippine economy is in a sound position today in large part because of the steady growth and size of contribution of overseas workers to the country [source], a huge proportion of which are female and in 2017 were estimated at 2.3 million [source] out of a total population of only 104 million [source]. But in real terms this accounts for at least a third of the Filipino population receiving money from family abroad [source]. These skilled and talented professionals working hard abroad give a sense of pride and hope to their families and to the Filipino economy.
My mum doesn’t speak much of her time growing up, except that she was a social butterfly and that she loved food!
She originally came from a small farming village in the foothills of a volcano a few hours drive from the capital Manila. The family lived in a haunted Spanish house where the majority of residences were made of bamboo and chickens roamed in the nearby woods. They eventually moved to a more affluent town when her parents were able to save enough money to build a more modern and modest home, but life still wasn’t a breeze. Regularly travelling around our home area in Pampanga, she visited relatives, sang in the church choir and helped her parents bring up her younger siblings and keep the house. She spoke of how delicious mixing fresh water buffalo milk with rice was, and what a blast she had when she moved from the provinces to Manila to live and study with her cousins. But what she doesn’t speak of is how hard things were.
The first time I became aware of this was when as a young child I once tried to talk to her about something seemingly normal to expect in eighties England. I was asking for a quiet space to do my homework, away from my screaming brothers, just like the desks I’d seen kids have in popular movies of the time.
But there was not the space nor the funds to facilitate my request, even in part, let alone flourishing it with all the desirable mod cons of the era. I was met with a short, sharp frustrated sentence about how lucky I was to have a roof over my head and food on the table.
At the time she hadn’t worked for a few years (and would not for a few more years to come) because she had became a mother herself and stayed at home while my father earnt a modest salary where we lived in a tied cottage on the estate he took care of. Isolated from her family, church community and work, she was unable to send crucial funds ‘home’. The pressure and isolation she must have felt as provider of the family back ‘home’ while she resided in the white suburbs of home counties England while not earning a living must have been a tough burden to bear emotionally, but she was in it for the long haul.
I learnt a hard lesson that day, that my mother had bigger things to worry about. I found out that everything is relative. Even though all my school friends had video players, MTV, central heating, a family car, Christmas presents, take away food, summer vacations abroad, trips to the hairdressers and new party outfits on their birthdays, I knew that from a different perspective that we were lucky because we had each other and somewhere to live. Having very little experience about the Filipino side of my heritage, I had a lot to learn about life outside of the isolated suburbs I grew up in and I set about finding out more about the world.
The Filipino elders in my family would later tell me how difficult things were just getting enough food on the table to eat in post war Philippines, the period my mother would have been a child. Having to grind up corn so small into the rice they cooked for meals to trick the kids into eating more, as there was little else at the time and gathering [edible] ants to throw into stir fries. These practical and economic hardships are just the tip of the iceberg and issues that a lot of people reading this will have a hard time relating to more than sixty years later. My Auts also tell me stories of how my grandfather moonlighted on his main means of income, having several careers on the go at once. Hustling as a dedicated churchman, fine tailor and all round hard worker, he would help anyone, anywhere.
And so, after a not so joyful stint as a primary school teacher my mum made the one way trip to England. Away from her family, her home (she still calls it home to this day) and everything she loved so dearly. But it was a sacrifice that needed to be made. She soon made friends and found that her church had set up a branch in London, which is where she met my father when he moved back to his original home town, London after making his name as a landscape gardener in the estates of Wiltshire.
My mum still works today, a sought after senior nurse in a healthcare system that is crying out for experienced nursing professionals. Working well into her retirement to build her dream home and continue to provide for her loved ones where opportunities sadly can still be very limited, more than 6,000 miles away on the other side of the world.