Leaving Leveriza

Migration and Its Impact
on Global Poverty

Jason DeParle

New York Times

This is an excerpt from the Prologue of Jason DeParle's book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century.

Three decades ago, I was a young reporter in Manila with an interest in shantytowns, the warrens of scrap-wood shacks that covered a third of the city and much of the developing world. I called the Philippines’ most famous nun, who lived in a slum called Leveriza. Though I didn’t say so, I was hoping she would help me move in.

 

Sister Christine Tan was a friend of the new president, Cory Aquino, and busy on a commission rewriting the constitution.

 

“Call me back in a few months,’’ she snapped.

 

Hoping for a quicker audience, I explained that I worked with another nun in her order. Apparently, they weren’t friends. “That’s a mistake!’’ she said. “Meet me tomorrow morning, outside the Manila Zoo.’’

 

Raised in affluence, educated in the United States, Sister Christine had gained her renown as a critic of Ferdinand Marcos, the American-backed dictator who had proclaimed martial law in 1972 and plundered the country with the help of his shoe-happy wife, Imelda. “I hate their deceitfulness, their sham, their greed, their avarice, their lies, the deliberate trouncing of our rights and the burying of our souls,’’ she once said. The Vatican had told her to tone things down. The police had threatened arrest. Sister Christine defied them all and went off to find Jesus in the slums. 

 

“Are you CIA?’’ she asked when we met. “You wouldn’t tell me if you were, would you?’’

 

“The poor are magnificent people, unlike the rich,’’ she continued, but boarding in Leveriza wouldn’t work. Most of the shanties lacked toilets, and Americans can’t live without them. A host would feel obligated to serve pricey food. I’d be a burden. She denounced the U.S. for keeping military bases in the Philippines, then waved a hand above her head. “That’s all up here,’’ meaning her views of American policy. “Somehow, we have to build links between the First World and the Third World.’’ If I returned in a few days, she’d see what she could do.

 

Sunk into a mud flat near Manila Bay, Leveriza held 15,000 people in a labyrinth of alleys behind the whitewashed walls of one of Imelda’s old beautification campaigns. Children played beside listing shacks. Women squatted over tubs of laundry. Sanitation mostly meant “flying saucers,’’ bundles of waste wrapped in newspaper and flung in the surrounding canals.

 

I figured that Sister Christine would use the break between our visits to approach potential hosts. Instead she led me into the maze and auctioned me off on the spot.  I knew just enough Tagalog to realize our first prospect was aghast. “Hindi puede, Sister!’’ It’s not possible. The second candidate smiled more but ducked as fast. The third was simply too astonished to respond. Tita Comodas was 40 years old and sitting at a window in an old house dress, selling sugar and eggs. A scruffy American looking to rent floor space had the appeal of a Biblical plague.

 

Her thin patience exhausted, Sister Christine left. “If you don’t want him, pass him on to someone else. And don’t cook him anything special! If he gets sick, too bad.’’

 

I don’t know who was more frightened, Tita or me. We drew a crowd.

 

“Ask him if he eats rice!’’

 

“Ask him if wants to marry a Filipina!’’

 

Tita had plenty of reasons to decline. Her husband was out of the country…she was raising five kids…who knew what problems a strange foreigner could cause. Then she gave into what she took as Sister Christine’s request and said I could move in. I stayed on and off for eight months and made a lifelong friend.

 

The eldest of 11 children in a farm family, Tita had quit school after sixth grade and moved to Manila at 16 to work in a factory. Marriage and children followed, with home a series of Leveriza hovels, each as forlorn as the next. Her husband, Emet, had hustled a job cleaning the pool at a government sports complex, but a salary of $50 a month wasn’t enough to keep the family fed. Their eldest daughter had a congenital heart defect and needed care that he couldn’t afford. After years of worrying, Emet had dropped to his knees and asked God for a decision: take her or let him have her. God had answered in a mysterious way.  Emet got an offer to clean pools in Saudi Arabia. He would make 10 times his Manila wage but live 5,000 miles away in an Islamic autocracy where stories of abused workers are rife. He accepted on the stop. By the time I arrived, his daughter had medicine and the shanty had a toilet.

 

Up before dawn to cook the breakfast rice, Tita was a weary homemaker, trudging to the market every day and scrubbing her hands raw over laundry. She was also a lieutenant in Sister Christine’s slum improvement group, a small army of housecoat revolutionaries that ran Bible studies and livelihood projects and found strength in the nun’s message that Jesus had a special love for the poor. Tita’s life revolved around eggs: she bought 2,000 a week to sell in the group’s coop stores and stacked them under a kitchen light to protect them from the rats. Despite her grade-school education, or perhaps because of it, Tita was full of questions. “Ano ang imperyalismo?’’ she asked me. “I’m always hearing, `No to imperialism!’ but I don’t know what means `imperialism.’’’

 

Her middle child, Rosalie, was her confidence-keeper and chief helpmate. A slight, shy, doe-eyed girl, mature beyond her 15 years, Rosalie was easy to underestimate. Her religious devotion cloaked her ambition. Spying her quiet strength, Sister Christine tried to lure her to the convent, but Rosalie had another idea. There was a nursing school near Leveriza. Filipino nurses went far in life—some as far as the United States.

 

***

 

In 1965, six years before Rosalie was born, Lyndon Johnson sat beside the Statue of Liberty and signed an immigration law he both celebrated as a civil rights landmark and dismissed as a measure of little consequence. Johnson said he was ending a “cruel and enduring wrong’’ by abolishing quotas from the 1920s that banned most non-white immigrants. But he insisted the new law wouldn’t attract more people or change America’s ethnic composition. “The bill we sign today is not a revolutionary bill,’’ he said “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives …. The days of unlimited immigration are past.’’

 

Johnson was spectacularly wrong. In the decades that followed, the foreign-born share of the population soared to near-record highs, and immigration set the U.S. on course to become a majority-minority nation. In a thousand ways, large and small, Johnson wouldn’t recognize the society his pen stroke helped create. Immigrants brought 100 languages to the Des Moines public schools,. flipped south side of Milwaukee from Polish to Latino, and raised mosques to the Washington suburbs. Immigration changed the way Americans eat and the way they pray. It bred cosmopolitanism. It bred resentment. It made America more vibrant but less united, wealthier but less equal, more creative but more volatile. Shockingly, the demographic upheaval brought Barack Obama. More shockingly it brought Donald Trump.

 

About 258 million migrants are scattered across the globe, and they support a population back home as big if not bigger. While the movements of the 19th century were largely transatlantic, what stands out about migration today is its ubiquity. Ireland elected its first African-born mayor. Mongolians do scut-work in Prague. My own light-bulb moment in grasping the importance of global migration came in learning that remittances—the sums migrants send home—are three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. Migration is the world’s largest anti-poverty program.

 

Migration disquiets the West, but demographic logic suggests it will grow. Rich aging societies need workers. Workers in poor countries need jobs. Cheap travel speeds the journey, and instant communication spreads word that opportunity awaits. Economically, incentives to move have rarely been higher. An unskilled migrant in the 19th century might triple his wage by moving to the States; his counterpart today often multiplies his hourly pay six or seven times.

 

No country does more to promote migration than the Philippines, where the government trains and markets overseas workers, whom presidents celebrate as “heroes.’’ More than two million Filipinos depart each year, enough to fill a dozen or 747s a day. Migration is to the Philippines what cars once were to Detroit: the civil religion.

 

***

 

I wasn’t thinking about migration when I arrived in Leveriza . I was thinking about rats and eggs and how people like Tita endure such dire poverty. Migration was part of the answer. Emet came home during my visit and did all he could to stay. But he couldn’t earn a living in Manila. Forced to choose between living with his children and supporting them, he returned to Saudi Arabia, as he did for nearly 20 years.

 

What started as an act of desperation became a way of life. All five of Tita and Emet’s children grew up to become overseas workers, and they are part of a close, extended family that stretches across the globe. Most of what could happen to a migrant, good or bad, has happened to someone in the clan. Some lost marriages; one lost a limb. Many others turned thatched huts into cement block homes and hung their children’s college degrees on the freshly painted walls. Watching her siblings return from Saudi Arabia and build new houses, Tita’s sister Peachy turned to her husband and urged him to do the same, with words that became the family creed: “A good provider is one who leaves.’’

 

Relying on Emet’s overseas earnings, Rosalie got through nursing school and set her sights on the States. Thwarted at every turn, she spent nearly two decades as a nurse in the Persian Gulf. She married another Filipino worker, but they mostly lived apart from their three young children, whom Tita and Emet raised back in the Philippines.

 

Her hopes for an American job were fading when a hurricane hit the Texas Gulf Coast, destroying the hospital in Galveston. Unable to hire enough nurses back to the struggling island, the hospital looked abroad, hiring 20 foreign nurses to open a new ward. Rosalie had her chance.

 

I met her in Manila and flew with her to Galveston. Her husband, Chris, followed five months later with Kristine, Precious Lara, and Dominique, three grade-schoolers who spoke little English and hadn’t lived with their parents in years. They had to learn a new country and form a new family at the same time. Accompanying them to work and school, I took the journey beside them. Migration has become the defining story of the 21st century; by the accident of an old friendship, I had an intimate view. 

 

Little about Rosalie, four-foot, eleven-inch nurse evokes the main American controversies. She never crossed a border illegally. She doesn’t sport gang tattoos. She’s the kind of immigrant who’s been invisible in political debate, but increasingly common Since 2008, the U.S. has attracted more Asians than Latin Americans, and nearly half of the newcomers, like Rosalie, have college degrees. Every corner of America has an immigrant like her.

 

In a world where migration is a growing norm, it is tempting to call Rosalie’s experience an ordinary one, propelled by a common mix of hope and doubt.  But nothing about an immigrant’s life is truly ordinary. The journey from a Manila slum to Texas hospital spanned 8,500 miles and a quarter century, and little that happened along the way went according to plan.

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Jason DeParle will present "The Greatest Anti-Poverty Success Story I Know" on Thursday, February 20, 4:30-6:00 pm, 133 S. 36th Street, Room 250 (The Forum).