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A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves

September 11, 2019

A Conversation with Jason DeParle

“The two main themes of Filipino Overseas Worker life are homesickness and money,” writes New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer finalist Jason DeParle early in his new book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves.

As a Henry Luce Scholar in the mid-1980s, with no previous experience in Asia, DeParle was placed for a year in Manila by The Asia Foundation, where he found himself writing grants for an activist nun. Restless, and searching for a better understanding of poverty, DeParle was introduced to Tita Comodas and her family, who invited him to live with them in the shantytown of Leveriza. His year-long fellowship was the beginning of more than three decades of reporting on Tita and her husband, children, and grandchildren as they came to embody the rise of global migration.

At the heart of the story is Rosalie, Tita’s middle child, who becomes a nurse and lands jobs in Jeddah, Abu Dhabi, and, finally, Texas. The book is a chronicle of success against overwhelming odds, but also of painful sacrifice, as Rosalie and her fellow labor migrants endure years of separation from their families, watching their children grow up over the internet as they work to give them a better life.

At a time when migration is central to global politics, DeParle offers a human portrait, backed by extensive research, of one extended family and their part in what he calls “the world’s largest antipoverty program.” He joined us recently to talk about his new book.

The shantytown of Leveriza

Jason, how did you meet Rosalie, the central figure in this story? 

I got to the Philippines in 1986 as a Luce Scholar. I went to Manila because I was interested in shantytowns, and I asked a prominent nun if she would help me find a family who might be willing to let me move in. Leveriza is one of the city’s oldest squatter areas. Some of its residents could recall childhoods spent there before World War II, when it was still a mudflat.

Emet Comodas was away as a guest worker in Saudi Arabia. His wife, Tita, was home, raising five kids on the money he sent back. I wasn’t thinking of migration, I was thinking about poverty, but migration was the way they survived their poverty. Rosalie was the middle child of those five kids of Tita. She was a 15-year-old student when I met her, and she’s now a 48-year-old nurse and mother of three, living in a suburb of Houston and working in a Texas hospital.

The poverty you describe encountering in Manila is, of course, a big part of the story. 

The remittances that migrants send back from overseas are 10 percent of the Philippines’ GDP. Tita had a sixth grade education, Emet probably less than that, and yet all five of the kids got college educations. That wouldn’t have happened without the money he sent back.

Emet and Tita Comodas with their five young children in Leveriza.

I asked Tita what she did when her husband sent back remittances for the first time. She said, the first time, she was so overwhelmed she cried. He made 10 times as much money in Saudi Arabia as he did in Manila.

So she had six teeth pulled, and then she was able to afford dentures, and then she bought some clothes, and then she bought a closet to put the clothes in, and what Rosalie remembers being the greatest luxury is that they were able to buy a mattress—they had something soft to sleep on.

In your very well researched book, Rosalie is kind of an Everywoman of global migration. Who is Rosalie?

The author with Tita and Rosalie,1987

When I met Rosalie, she was a shy student who always got cast as the nun in the youth-group plays. If you were going to pick the person in Leveriza who had the drive to get out of the slums, you wouldn’t have picked Rosalie. But what Rosalie had was a determination that reveals itself with time.

She was a mediocre student. She worked hard in high school to raise her grades from Cs to Bs. But what really leaps out about her transcript is that in four years of literal revolution in the Philippines and constant poverty, she never missed a single day at school.

Well, Rosalie graduated from nursing school, and like many graduates of Philippine nursing schools, set her sights on the U.S., but that’s often a long path, and she first got hired in Saudi Arabia.

She spent a total of about 15 years in the Persian Gulf as a nurse in various hospitals, all the while trying to amass the documents and credentials she needed to get a job in the States.

You write that Filipinos thinking of going overseas often speak of “trying their luck.” What’s at stake and what are the hazards for these labor migrants? 

Rosalie at her nursing school graduation

I was really struck, reading the Philippine papers, that migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit. It’s kind of the civic religion, and the whole society revolves around some element, good or bad, of migration.

So, there’s constant coverage in the papers: “Remittances set new tally.” “Condo sales through the roof.” Stories of people who have educated their kids, and kids who have gone on to great success. And then there are terrible stories of overseas domestic workers who were abused, or raped, or abandoned, and people who even die abroad.

Somebody asked me once, which is it? Is it a great opportunity to leave poverty for the global middle class, or is it a form of modern indentured servitude? But the word isn’t or. It’s both.

I think that’s what Filipinos understand by that phrase. When a Filipino goes abroad, she doesn’t say, “I’m going off to get rich.” She says, “I’m going to go try my luck.”

You once found yourself in an airport elevator with Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after a ceremony welcoming a returning group of workers, and you asked her why she called them “heroes.”

Rosalie in Abu Dhabi

Yeah, she turned and looked at me like I was a dunce and said, “They send home a billion dollars a month.” It’s nearly three times that now.

One of the most unusual things about the Philippines is that it does more than any other country to promote migration. In most countries, when migrants go abroad, it’s an individual decision. But the Philippine government decided to seize on migration as an economic development strategy: have people go abroad and send the money they earn back home.

As part of their promotional efforts, every year, President Arroyo would go to the airport and hold a ceremony welcoming the workers back home for Christmas, and they literally rolled out this long red carpet. And these workers get off the plane from Kuwait, and they’re walking down this red carpet, and she’s standing there at the end, holding out a plate of cookies, and shaking their hands and calling them heroes.

Why do you call labor migration “the world’s largest antipoverty program”?

The lightbulb moment for me was discovering that the money that migrants send home is three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. It is the main source of development aid pouring into the developing world. And they do it at great personal cost.

The Philippines is sometimes described as the most social-networked country in Asia. And this also has something to do with labor migration, doesn’t it, the presence and utility of social media?

Yeah, one of Rosalie’s cousins, a woman named Tess, became a nanny in Abu Dhabi, and left behind two teenaged daughters with her parents.

Tess felt terrible about being away from her kids, so she got a computer with a webcam so she could Skype with them. And then she got something that she found even more useful, which was Facebook. They could send a message at any time, and of any length, and they essentially found a way to carry on a level of constant and intimate communication from their phones, even checking in on her daughters to see what they had for lunch.

When Rosalie moved to Galveston, she kept in touch with her daughters in the Philippines via webcam

It was completely different from what had happened a generation earlier. When Tita’s husband, Emet, first went abroad, they communicated by mail. He’d send a letter and might get an answer a month later, whereas Tess could immediately know what was going on with her kids.

When Rosalie first got to the United States, the kids were still in the Philippines. So, she’d leave the webcam on all day long on her days off, 12 hours a day. She was in Galveston, Texas, and could hear the roosters crow 13 time zones away. Mother would be ironing, or the kids would be running in and out, somebody would slam the door, and it was the ambient sound of the Philippines that helped Rosalie feel less homesick.

So, Jason, after 33 years of reporting this story, you find that immigration itself has been, for America at least, a success story. 

Houston, where Rosalie now lives, is the most ethnically diverse city in the country. When I was growing up, it was known for rodeos and honky-tonks. It’s now got Hindu temples in the suburbs and boasts of its Viet-Cajun cuisine.

Rosalie’s children join her in Texas

A fourth of the workforce in Houston is foreign-born. It’s a very pro-immigrant city. Public opinion surveys going back 30 years show consistent support for immigrants as being vital to the economy, both low-scale, in the construction industry, and high-scale, in the city’s famous medical centers.

What about you? You first met Rosalie in 1986. What’s it been like, and what was it like to have moved to Asia so early in your career? 

Well, honestly, at the time, it was hard. It was lonely. I was homesick. You know, my Luce year, in retrospect, was the greatest year I ever had, and it shaped my professional life for 30 years and helped put me on the path to writing this book that was such a gratifying experience.

But at the time, being by myself at age 26, 27, living in a shantytown, my friends were getting married, buying houses and moving on with their careers, and I was sitting in a slum of Manila, trying to figure out what would come of it. So, I guess this project—my writing—at some level has been redemptive.

It happened to be a story about migration, but the real core of it, to me, is their resilience, and the endurance they showed in overcoming this terrible poverty. So, the chance to meet Tita and her family, and know them for all these years, and document the humor and wisdom and grace of their experience, it’s a real reward to me.

At home in the Houston suburbs

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Luce Scholars Program

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