Migrants' Stories: The Usherette

Posted at 12/27/12 3:44 PM

Editors Note: The story is from the book “Migrants’ Stories, Migrants’ Voices 4" published by the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW) with the support from CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) or the Italian Bishops' Conference. The book contains a collection of 10 stories of the realities of migration as faced by Filipinos abroad and their family members in the Philippines. abs-cbnNEWS.com obtained permission from PMRW to publish the stories online.

The night skyline of Taipei, Taiwan. Courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Office

Different shapes of plastic containers, some square, mostly rectangle and oval, containing varied Filipino delicacies were lying on top of the concrete table. There were the usual Filipino favorites like pancit bihon, chicken-pork adobo, menudo, lumpiang shanghai, laing, escabecheng tilapia that looked so orange with banana catsup, and the buko salad with lots of green shredded jelly. There were also canned soft drinks and rice cake called biko. It was especially ordered by Esper from Aling Magda of Won-Won a few months back.

Soon, the guests started to arrive one by one on that mid-morning spring. They all gathered in a park, surrounded by very green ornamental plants.

Flora, Esper’s closest friend, went to this park soon after attending the earliest morning mass at a nearby church to make sure they were able to reserve the place for the birthday party.

They occupied the bench positioned next to one of the few tables provided by city park administrators. The tables and chairs made of cement were probably meant for a family or for a group of friends who might like to spend time in the park in order to bond, like Esper’s group.

There was also Merced who came along with Flora on that still cold April day, with the sun shining over them, as they carefully arranged the food on the table.

Anticipating a sunny day, they had chosen the area close to the trees to have adequate shade for the birthday bash of Esper who had just turned 40. Her birthday actually happened five days ago, but as is the case of most overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) around the world, Esper could not usually go out on weekdays for a day off. She had to wait for Sunday in order to celebrate her birthday with friends in Taipei.

“It is always good to have a lot of friends in a place where you do not know anyone,” she once told me. “Sometimes, they truly become one’s family in a foreign land. Besides we know more or less the kind of work that each of us do and we also learn a lot from each other,” she declared.

Earlier, Esper, who likewise attended the first mass at the St. Christopher’s church, the most famous church among Filipinos in Taipei, had to pick up some of the food she ordered for her birthday. She was smiling at every friend who came to greet her. Probably influenced by the Chinese tradition, she was dressed in red and looked so unusually radiant. Esper looked so much different that day. She did not want to think of her work but only of her belated birthday celebration in the park.

She was very excited. “Happy birthday, Esper!” greeted everyone who arrived for the bash. “You look so gorgeous today! I love your dress,” some guests greeted her.

Merced was just so happy to take pictures of every friend who came to greet Esper. Most of them had just come from the church, too. There was a lot of laughter, as if the park was exclusively reserved for their affair. The bench was not enough for the 14 OFWs who were mostly standing around their banquet table. There was a lot of food for the whole barkada and Tonia was quick in suggesting to have early dinner at the park, too.

They wanted to spend the whole day at the park if not for the unexpected rain. Besides, Esper promised to return to the church to serve as an usherette.

“That’s a blessing!” remarked Tonia, referring to the rain.

She was the most boisterous among her friends. She was the one who insisted last week that I join them at the park after my 10:30 in the morning mass. It was Tonia who recounted to me how they had planned the party to make Esper happy at least for that Sunday.

Esper was one of those parishioners who had become very close to me as she served as usherette in the church almost the whole day every Sunday. For a change, she asked me if I could allow her to skip her commitment that Sunday in greeting and ushering church goers as part of her job as a member of the hospitality ministry at the parish, but she also promised to assist at the last mass in the evening.

It looked like her friends were successful in making Esper happy that Sunday. After all, she is one person who was easy to please. She seemed very honest too with her true sentiments especially when she had a problem. She was very emotional. She laughs without control, and she cries when needed. I witnessed those moments several times at the prayer meeting of the charismatic group, where she was also a member.

When I arrived at the park, the laughter had ceased momentarily because I told them that I need to go back to the church for my next mass or probably they did not expect me to take time to greet them. Immediately, I invited her friends to pray with me for Esper, who started to appear teary eyed. My prayer was followed by saying the grace after which I invited everyone to attack the food lying on the small concrete table. That was my way of making them feel at ease with my presence. The laughter continued and the picture taking, too.

I noticed there were Taiwanese in the nearby tables observing us while others were just busy doing their own business in the park. Not far away were other groups of Filipinos congregating in the park. Some were dancing, apparently rehearsing for a number, while others were simply having fun at the park. Just like the group of Esper, other OFW groups in that park had probably experienced brief liberation from a whole week of hard work.

In between the picture taking, Esper wanted me to take a bite, but I told her to share with me only the biko. She immediately cut a slice of biko but I refused to bring it along and insisted that she only send me some should there be left over. As their pastor, it was part of my responsibility to share their joy even by merely visiting them in the park on Sunday.

Esper was so contented to see me visiting her with her friends. Beaming with pride, she started to introduce me to the rest of the group whose names I could not all remember, except for Tonia and Flora who were also active volunteers at the various ministries in the parish. Happiness was painted all over Esper as she least expected me to spare time for her birthday celebration at the park.

Esper is one OFW that I could never forget among the many parishioners who had actively volunteered in the parish. If one has to make a movie, her story would be a mine for dramatic highlights.

One Sunday, on a winter morning, I saw her seated at the lobby of the St. Christopher’s Church wearing sunglasses which seemed rather strange. She never wore sunglasses inside the church. She immediately stood up to approach me and asked if I have time to listen to her.

It was customary for me to walk around the parish in between my Sunday masses and meetings to check or monitor the surroundings of the church. I even made it a habit to check on the toilets if they were clean and not smelly. To me, it is not just the church which should be clean, but also its facilities. Such habit of checking the toilet was part of keeping the church service upgraded. I would instantly ask the janitress to clean the toilet if they had become messy.

It was in fact through one of those regular checks that I discovered and was able to confirm that some OFWs were taking illegal drugs. I accidentally saw a lighter, an aluminum foil and a straw left behind lying on the small window in one of the
toilets. These items are used in taking shabu. Shabu is methamphetamine hydrochloride and is common among Filipino illicit drug users.

When I shared that discovery with the parishioners, several OFWs came to confirm that they knew many OFWs who were actually users of the prohibited drug. Drug addicts had probably used the church in their drug transactions, as they could remain anonymous there because on Sundays, the place becomes inundated by churchgoers.

Once inside the toilet cubicle, nobody would know what one was doing in private, including taking prohibited drugs. One very young parishioner who claimed to be a former drug user told me that by merely looking at the eyes of our parishioners, he could immediately identify who among them is a drug user. He disclosed further that some of the OFWs working in the factories were encouraged to take the illegal drugs in order to stay awake when company owners request them to do overtime jobs. The poor OFWs were obliged to render at times up to eight or twelve hours of overtime work when production demands became high. Such overtime job exposes them highly to accidents. I have met some OFWs who came to our parish who had lost limbs, hand, and fingers. The accidents, according to them, happened because they were too tired in their jobs and had failed to secure themselves from the dangerous machine that they were operating.

It was in the ladies’ toilet that I uncovered another shocking story in the parish while working there as parish priest.

In one usual round that I took one humid summer afternoon, I noticed the toilet bowl covered but soiled with fresh blood. The smell of the blood was strongly fetid and immediately I started to think that the last lady to use it was rather very untidy and had no respect for others who would be using the toilet next.

With my right foot, I slowly opened the bowl and checked the extent of the blood spill that was inside before flushing it but I was surprised that it was rather clean. I then traced the source of the blood and discovered a lacerated fetus lying among the napkins and toilet papers inside the trash bin. I shivered upon such discovery. Even our parish was never spared by someone who had aborted a baby. One parishioner commented that the person who did it was a criminal.

Such discovery confirmed the reports alleged by Filipino-Chinese doctors working in hospitals that many OFWs were submitting themselves to abortion. Of course, forced by their employers in exchange of keeping their jobs, abortion was common among women OFWs. That was enough reason to lobby the Taiwanese government legislators not to use pregnancy as a reason for job termination to which they obliged.

But let me go back to Esper’s interesting story. Besides working for several years in Taipei, she had also disclosed several funny stories about her love life.

There was Efren to whom she was introduced through text by a common friend in Manila. They became text mates. Efren, according to Esper, courted her via long distance. He was from Baguio but worked in Manila as a factory worker. Younger than she, he was in his mid-thirties but has never been married.

Esper claimed that Efren accepted her, knowing that she is a widow with three children. Her husband died early. She told me that it was better that way. He left her only with three children otherwise it might have been more difficult to send them to college if they had more than three children.

It was Esper who would call Efren, because it was a lot cheaper to call to Manila from Taiwan. According to Esper, she fell in love with Efren’s thoughtfulness because he was sending her text messages almost every week without missing a single Sunday. That love changed when Esper finally met him in person.

In one of her vacations in the Philippines, Esper finally met Efren to verify if indeed he was the Efren she had come to know through long distance calls and a picture he sent her. She revealed that they checked in at one of the motels in Pasay. I was dumbfounded by such disclosure at first, but pretended not to be in order to listen to her usual vivid narration. She said that she was so disappointed by Efren’s incapacity to have an erection for the longest time when they stayed at the motel in Pasay.

After that encounter she never contacted him again after she had returned to Taipei. She changed her mobile phone number and declared their love affair closed. That way, she said, “I am telling him that I am no longer interested.” I told her that she was only interested in sex, and we both started to laugh. When I told her that what she did was wrong, she justified herself by saying that she only wanted to be happy the second time around.

Some of her friends in the church ministry of hospitality tell us that whenever they saw us talking in private, Esper must be having a problem again. We just smile at such remarks. Esper’s stories were in fact full of moral lessons.

Esper is petite in height and I sometimes wonder how she could attract men as she looked a bit corpulent and dark. Her parents were from Negros Occidental. According to her, they migrated to General Santos and it was there where she was born and grew up. They are very poor people, she claimed, and was very grateful to have left the country and found job in Taipei where she earned quite good. She had been in Taipei for six years and had been relatively lucky to have employers who were not abusive, except for the current one.

She recounted to me the sexual attempts made by her current male employer when she was once alone in the house one summer afternoon. Mr. Chen, her male employer, had stolen a kiss from her when he was once drunk. She let it pass as she claimed he was drunk. But when he got drunk again, he attempted to embrace her and Esper pushed him hard. Jokingly, Esper told me that she could have been happy to submit to his attempts if not for his mouth which smelled so bad.

“I could not take his very bad breath, Father,” Esper had smilingly divulged in one of those small talks we had outside the church. “He’s not that old, but his mouth is reddish and he smokes a lot, too,” she added.

Like some Taiwanese men, Mr. Chen chewed betel nut. Luckily, he was very drunk that time when Esper pushed him hard. He lost his balance and that gave Esper enough time to quickly run inside her room and lock herself in. He followed her, but she did not open the door.

I told her to be careful or probably find a way to report the incident to her broker or to the police but she just shrugged it off, probably thinking that she could not trust her broker as well.

She promised though to be always cautious in dealing with her male employer. She defended him however, saying that he is very sweet when not drunk.

Small stories from Esper made me become very familiar with her background. She was one OFW who can easily make friends and is also easy to deal with. My first meeting with her was when she asked me if I was an Ilonggo to which I answered no.

“I am Hiligaynon,” I told her to her amazement because I started already conversing with her using the Ilonggo language.

She immediately trusted me after that first meeting and shared so many personal stories of her life. Moreover, she also reported to me anything untoward happening at the lobby, inside or around the church before she reported them to her coordinator. She was a very reliable parish volunteer.

Based on the many meetings I had with her, it was a different Esper who approached me that one winter morning. I noticed that her eyes were swollen especially when she took off her sunglasses. It was strange to see her wearing sunglasses inside the church, especially at the lobby. But she was always funny or she must really have a problem, I thought.

“How much time do you need for this story?” I asked Esper. She replied, “Maybe longer than usual. I have a very big problem Father,” she started. “My son has been accused of rape,” she added. “He just recently turned fourteen. We had just celebrated his birthday when I was on vacation with them,” she continued
to justify. “The woman who accused him of rape is already 19 years old,” she said looking at me straight in the eye. “She’s older and the family is now suing us.”

“How could that be, he is only a child?” I protested. He also has rights. He needed to be assisted by the police or by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Esper was crying even more as she continued to narrate the news she received from her father. I could see her frustration and confusion. She said she wanted to go home to General Santos, but she had just arrived from her holidays. She is at a loss. She is so worried that her son might be imprisoned. She likewise had confused me with such news when I knew that she has just come back from her vacation with her family and could have sensed some problems while she was with them. We retreated away from the church lobby so as not to attract the attention of the parishioners who were entering the church.

Being relatively familiar with her, I made an effort to ask more questions as I could not easily understand the situation even if I have in the past heard so many tragic stories about her family.

Apparently, Esper’s monthly remittance has always been a source of trouble for her family. She once made her father the designated recipient of her salary through the bank but that arrangement was withdrawn after a year when her children started to complain that they were not given their allowances as earlier agreed. She discovered that the remittance was instead shared by his father with her other siblings in need of help.

They kept borrowing money from her father who could not say no to them. She complained that her children who were attending Catholic schools were denied support by her father. She was very mad when she learned that all the remittances she sent were enjoyed mostly by her other siblings and little was practically left for her very own children. Her siblings got mad at her when she changed the beneficiary of her remittance.

With the help of a very caring cousin, she was able to save some money to buy a tricycle which had served as her children’s service vehicle to and from school when not used as a public utility transport.

“That seemed very positive,” I told Esper with admiration. “Not at all, Father,” she protested. “My two daughters were raped by our tricycle driver one after the other,” she bemoaned.

“It was done inside the tricycle!”

This story had taken me aback.

“What can I do? I am so far away and I trusted people whom I thought could help us,” she said. “The person who did those horrendous acts is a relative,” she confessed.

I had high regard for Esper because of her tough disposition after recounting to me that story last summer. In fact, she has always been a subject of my little moments with the Lord.

For a long while, I had kept her in my prayer, especially her two daughters, that they too will be safe. As to her son, she feared that he will be put to jail once convicted. Such dreadful thought was driving her crazy.

Her high school classmate who is a lawyer promised to help her but that was not enough considering that she lived far away from his son. Esper’s life is like a telenovela; it could stun anyone but also bring laughter at times. Despite her sufferings, she could still make me laugh.

“That is probably how most Filipinos deal with their problems,” I concluded. “Maybe, Esper wanted simply to be heard. Maybe she just needed someone to listen to her problems.” “Was he really capable of raping a girl who is a lot older than him?” was my insistent question. “Is your son that big to overthrow a girl who might have protested to such sexual attempt?”

From her wallet Esper took out a picture of her with her children and pointed to me her son who looked so frail and innocent. I wondered when that picture was taken, but most likely it was taken just recently because it looked new.

Esper wanted to go home to be with her son but she knew it was impossible unless she cuts short her working contract. In that case, she will go home not only penniless, but with lots of debts.

In between sobs she said, “I thought that by working overseas, I could really provide a good life to my children. Evidently, I was not able to.”

At that moment, I had to excuse myself from our unexpectedly very long conversation. I had to prepare for my next mass and she knew that my time was limited during Sundays. I left her with the promise to talk to her again. She rejoined her friends at the lobby. I knew that they would console her and probably extend the usual support.

While celebrating my next mass that particular Sunday, I had Esper in my thoughts. I also thought of her family. I imagined the pain she carried in her heart when that year before she discovered that her two daughters were raped by their tricycle driver. Thank God, they did not become pregnant. Who was looking after them now, guarding them from possible abuse? In less than a year, her son stood accused of raping a girl. Was she telling me the truth? How could she bear the gross pain as a mother?

Earlier, she had approached me for advice. Would it help if she catches the first flight to Manila the next day and proceed to General Santos to be with her son? Why doesn’t she just go home and be with her son? If she goes home, will the case be resolved? Will her problem be gone?

That afternoon I was more equipped to talk to her again. I went to look for her at the lobby, but she was not there. I proceeded to the third floor of the parish multi-purpose building where she normally attends the prayer meeting with the charismatic community, but I was told that she skipped that session. I checked her presence at the second floor among the other groups who were having meetings but she was nowhere to be found.

Moving around the parish, I saw her inside the church. She looked as calm as the place. There were few people inside the church who were either kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the right side of the church or lighting candles at the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help located at the right. She was at the main altar, seated in front of the risen image of Jesus Christ hanged on the cross. I walked by in front of the main altar trying to seek her attention, attempting to disturb her and hoping that she would approach me. I was hesitant to break her communion with God. She did not look at me. Her eyes were only fixed at the wooden image of the risen Christ. Her gaze at Jesus was steady, persistent and not even blinking.

I presume she had seen me walking by the altar, but she did not bother to ask for a meeting again. She might have found her salvation.