Nannies and imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 18 08:12:29 MST 2001

(As comrades may or may not now, the front page articles of the Wall Street
Journal are among the best written and most informed about class realities
that can be found in American journalism, despite the ultra-reactionary
character of the inside editorial pages. I, of course, will not name names
but one of their regular reporters was a friend of the Nicaragua solidarity
organization I was involved with in the 1980s. He even looked into the
possibility of placing his father as a volunteer with us. Unfortunately,
their articles are not accessible unless you have a paid subscription. I
recently signed up so as to be able to forward items like this to the list
on an occasional basis.)

December 18, 2001
High-Paying U.S. Nanny Positions Puncture
Fabric of Family Life in Developing Nations


CAMILING, Philippines -- The night that she left to become a nanny in
America, Rowena Bautista knelt in the empty church of her Philippine
farming village and lit a candle.

"Please watch over my children," she prayed. "Bring us back together soon."

More than six years later, Ms. Bautista and her children are growing
further apart. The college-educated 39-year-old spends her days caring for
the baby daughter of Myra Clark, a working mother in Washington, D.C. She
hasn't seen her own son and daughter in more than two years. The last time
she went home for a visit, her eight-year-old son refused to touch her and
asked, "Why did you come back?"

Ms. Bautista left the Philippines in order to support her children. Over a
third of the residents of her village are unemployed. Most jobs in the
Philippines pay less than $5 a day. She sends home $400 a month from her
$750 monthly salary for her children's schooling, food and clothes.

Her salary also pays for a nanny in the Philippines, Anna de la Cruz, who
cares for the two children. Ms. de la Cruz, in turn, has a teen-age son of
her own, whom she leaves with her 80-year-old mother-in-law while she's
caring for the Bautista children.

As the global economy draws more women of the industrialized West into the
work force, it is also pulling mothers from poor countries to take care of
children in wealthier ones. Last year, 40% of the 792,000 private-household
workers in the U.S. were foreign-born, not counting the large number of
illegal immigrants who provide child care.

These sweeping labor trends have given rise to what some sociologists call
"mothering chains," groups of mothers like Ms. Clark, Ms. Bautista and Ms.
de la Cruz who are linked across the world by their children.

The chains are especially common in the Philippines, one of the world's
biggest sources of migrant workers. More than one in 10 Filipinos has a
family member working abroad. While most of the country's migrant workers
used to be men, today more than 70% are women, many of them mothers working
overseas as nannies. Philippine women helped send home over $7 billion to
the country last year, creating the country's second-biggest source of hard
currency after electronics exports.

The struggles of migrant mothers are fast becoming part of the mainstream
Filipino culture. Last year's best-selling movie was "Anak," or "Daughter,"
the story of a mother who returned from working as a maid in Hong Kong and
found her family torn apart by her absence. At Sunday Mass in the
predominately Catholic country, priests say a special prayer for parents
overseas and the children left behind. Radio stations play a hit song
called "Mamma," which ends with the lyrics:

London, Vancouver or Hong Kong
Governess, housekeeper or nurse
What is to happen to us children
With mothers who travel so far.

On a recent morning in Washington, Ms. Bautista walked her employer's baby,
Noa, to a park filled with other Philippine nannies. She met Rosa, a
36-year-old Filipina from the island of Iloilo who left her son back home
10 years ago and who now worries that he's skipping school and
experimenting with drugs. Sheila, a 27-year-old Filipina, was raised by a
nanny in Manila after her mother became a nanny in the U.S. She says she's
proud that her mother's salary helped her get a college education. But
today Sheila has joined her mother in Washington, also working as a nanny
-- leaving her own three-year-old daughter behind. Both nannies declined to
give their last names because of immigration concerns.

Even as mother chains spread new wealth to third-world countries in the
form of remittances -- or money sent home -- they have also created new
pressures. Studies show that children of migrant mothers tend to
underperform in school and have more health problems than average children.
Critics also charge that mother chains may foster a new kind of global
inequity, where children in poor countries lose their mothers to
higher-paying families in the developed world.

"Mothering becomes another export," says Rhacel Parrenas, an assistant
professor of women's studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who
first documented care chains in Italy three years ago. "The benefits are
clear, but we haven't really considered the social costs."

For as long as she can remember, Rowena Bautista wanted to become a doctor
and move to the U.S. She was raised here in Camiling, a small farming
village about 200 miles from Manila, where her mother was a teacher and her
father was a sound engineer. Ms. Bautista excelled in school and planned to
enroll in medical school. "Rowena was always the independent one," says her
younger sister, June. "She always had to do things for herself."

Yet by the time she graduated, Ms. Bautista's family was struggling to send
all five children to college and couldn't afford medical school. She tried
engineering college but dropped out after three years. Ms. Bautista then
began a winding and difficult journey that eventually led her to the U.S.

Big Break

Venturing to Manila, Ms. Bautista was working in a travel agency when she
got her big chance in 1987. A local job recruiter told her about an
engineering job in Taiwan paying over $350 a month -- four times her salary
in the Philippines. She signed up, borrowing $1,000 from her grandmother
for the recruiter's fee.

A day before she was scheduled to leave, Ms. Bautista discovered that the
recruiter was a fraud. The agent gave her a fake passport in someone else's
name and a Taiwan tourist visa. Ms. Bautista, bent on repaying her
grandmother, boarded the plane to Taiwan and took on a new identity.

For five years, she evaded the Taiwanese immigration authorities and worked
odd jobs for under $150 a month. She cleaned houses, walked dogs and worked
as a nanny. She found steady work on the night shift of an electronics
plant, assembling television plugs.

One Sunday in 1990, while eating lunch with some friends, Ms. Bautista met
a Ghanian construction worker named Kingsley, and they started dating. The
next year, in a cold, makeshift clinic, she gave birth to a girl named
Princela. A year later, on the same day as the U.S. presidential elections,
she had a son, and proudly named him Clinton.

On Princela's first birthday, Kingsley was detained by immigration. He and
Ms. Bautista and the two children were deported, and they returned to
Camiling to live with Ms. Bautista's family. Jobs were scarce and after a
few weeks of looking for work, Kingsley left for South Korea. Ms. Bautista
soon followed, but she was detained at the South Korean airport and sent
back to the Philippines.

Ms. Bautista grew despondent. "What good was I if I couldn't even support
my own family?" she recalls. She baked cakes and sold them on the street
but was barely making enough to buy a bowl of rice each day for the two
kids. In late 1994, a cousin called with the answer to her problems: a job
in America.

The work, as a nanny in Washington, paid $600 a month and included room and
board. Ms. Bautista quickly accepted. Tucking Clinton and Princela into bed
one night, she told them she was planning to leave. "I said, 'I'm doing
this for you. For your future.' I think they were too young to understand."

As Ms. Bautista drove to the airport on the evening of her flight, Princela
buried her head in her mother's lap and cried. Clinton sat alone in the
back seat. As she kissed her daughter goodbye before boarding the plane,
Princela looked up and asked "When are you coming back?"

"Soon," Ms. Bautista said. "Hopefully soon."

The Other Mother

Myra Clark is a rising star at the offices of Oglivy Public Relations
Worldwide in Washington. The 32-year-old University of Texas graduate was
recently named an account director and handles some of the company's
biggest clients, from multinational companies to foreign governments. With
her husband and her two-year-old daughter, Noa, Ms. Clark lives in a
stately brick house in one of Washington's nicest neighborhoods.

Because her husband works for a foreign embassy, the Clarks were able to
hire a legal nanny without paying the usual U.S. taxes or wage and benefit
requirements. She first heard about Rowena Bautista from another diplomatic
family who was moving, and she hired her immediately. With her first
employers' diplomatic work visa, Ms. Bautista had little trouble entering
the U.S.

"She is incredible," Ms. Clark says. "When I'm at work, I can focus
completely on work because I know Noa is in the best care. I trust her
completely." She adds, "Rowena's made an incredible sacrifice for her
children and I know that. But I can't imagine making that sacrifice with my
daughter ... . I don't think I could."

Ms. Bautista also feels fortunate, since she is legal, is treated well, and
is being paid $750 a month. She spends her weekdays living with the family
in a spacious basement bedroom. On the weekends, she sometimes works at a
nightclub stocking bottles and stays at a small apartment she shares with
another Filipino family. She keeps four photos on her dresser: Clinton,
Princela, Noa and Yahni, a boy she cared for from a previous family who
still calls and asks if she's coming back. The pictures of Clinton and
Princela are from five years ago, "because new ones remind me how much I've

Ms. Bautista, like many mothers in a mother chain, has grown close to her
employer's child. She calls Noa "my baby" and rushes to her crib every
morning at 7 a.m. to begin the day. They take walks in the park, visit the
playground, go to reading hours at the library, and in the afternoon, curl
up together for a nap. One of Noa's first words was "Ena," short for
Rowena. Noa has started babbling in Tagalog, Ms. Bautista's first language,
while Ms. Bautista, in honor of the family's Jewish tradition, has started
singing children's songs to Noa in Hebrew.

"I give Noa what I can't give to my children," she says. "She makes me feel
like a mother."

Yet surrogate motherhood only goes so far. On a recent morning while
feeding breakfast to Noa, Ms. Bautista received troubling news from home.
Her father told her on the phone that Clinton had a high fever and had lost
his appetite. Princela, who's allergic to a wide range of foods, had broken
out in hives. Ms. Bautista asked to talk to the two of them, but they said
they're too tired.

A few minutes later, Ms. Clark called and asked if Ms. Bautista could take
Noa to the doctor for a possible sprained foot. Staring out the kitchen
window, Ms. Bautista's eyes shined with tears. "I should be with my
children when they're sick," she said. "That's what a mother does."

Discipline Problems

In a third-grade classroom of the Camiling Elementary School, teacher
Josefina Cabatic glanced at her latest discipline problem: Clinton
Bautista. The high-energy nine-year-old has trouble paying attention in
class and often distracts other students with his toys. "His mother sends
them," Ms. Cabatic said. "Clinton is always very proud of the things his
mother sends from America." This morning, while the other students worked
on math books, Clinton passed around a comic book.

Down the hall, in the fourth grade, Clinton's sister Princela has different
problems. With the African features of their father, Clinton and Princela
are often called "Aetas," local slang for the dark-skinned indigenous
people of the Philippines. The teasing has turned Princela into a shy
student. She refuses to read aloud with the other students and sometimes
eats lunch alone with her teacher.

With their mother gone, and their father abroad and largely removed from
the family's life, Clinton and Princela are growing up fast in their
struggling town. Camiling is no longer the peaceful farming community it
was when Ms. Bautista was growing up. Decades of economic decline under
corrupt leaders in the Philippines have brought drugs, crime and
homelessness. Most days, the streets are lined with jobless, shirtless men
loitering in doorways. Cows and dogs amble along the roadside. Rows of
cardboard shacks are sprouting up along the river bank for the growing
ranks of homeless.

Someday, Ms. Bautista hopes to get her green card and bring Clinton and
Princela to the U.S. For now, they're crowded together with 12 other family
members, including eight kids, in the same four-bedroom house where Ms.
Bautista was raised. Several of their cousins who live in the house also
have mothers in the U.S. Their grandmother has become their mother figure.

Princela has also grown attached to their nanny, Anna de la Cruz, who
arrives at 8 a.m. every morning and helps cook, clean and care for the
children. When she's not visiting her friend's mother in the market,
Princela sometimes takes walks with Ms. de la Cruz or helps her with the

Big families like the Bautistas are common in the Philippines, leading many
to argue that relatives can easily fill the role of parents when mothers go

'The Lucky Ones'

"We have lots of grandmas, aunts or uncles who are there to take care of
the kids," says Ricardo Casco, deputy director of the Philippines Overseas
Employment Administration, which handles overseas workers. "If you ask most
Filipinos, they'd say migrant families are the lucky ones. They have so
many material benefits."

The $400 a month that Ms. Bautista sends home is more than the salary of
Camiling's main doctor and is undoubtedly helping the children. Aside from
their school, clothes and food, the money helps pay for luxuries like a
washing machine and refrigerator. She hopes to pay for an addition for the
house next year, so Clinton and Princela can have their own room.

Yet studies show that families pay a price for migrant work, and that
relatives don't always make the best parents. A survey of over 700 young
children by the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila in 1996 found that
children with mothers working overseas performed worse in school, were more
likely to be sick and were more likely to show signs of anger, confusion
and apathy than children with mothers living in the country. The problems
are compounded by Philippine culture, which discourages men from raising

During Ms. Bautista's last visit in 1999, she spanked Clinton for throwing
a tantrum. He screamed back: "Why did you come back? Just to hit me?"
Discipline has become a problem: Ms. Bautista often asks them to go to
church and study harder, but they refuse. She also worries about their
growing materialism: During a recent phone call, Clinton said little except
to ask his mother for a computer and a scooter.

She's tried telling her mother to be stricter with the children, but her
mother says "it's harder if they're not your own children. I could be
strict with Rowena, but not my grandchildren." What's more, Ms. Bautista's
mother works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. as a teacher.

Alone in her room in Washington on a recent night, Rowena arranged a pile
of dried flowers she has collected to make a wreath for her children.
"Sometimes I think that all the things I send them ... it's just to fill
the space," she said. "What good is it if my children have problems later?
What if I don't know them anymore?"

Anna de la Cruz once had the same choice as Rowena Bautista, but she took a
different path. A slight, soft-spoken 44-year-old with little education,
Ms. de la Cruz was struggling to raise her family in the early 1990s when
she got an offer to become a nanny in Kuwait. The job paid over $300 a
month, more than 10 times the amount her husband was earning as a rice
sorter. She accepted, and after packing her bags and saying goodbye to her
family, she started heading out the door.

"I saw my four-year-old son crying," she recalls. "I couldn't leave."

Ms. de la Cruz called the recruiting agent and canceled. When the recruiter
threatened to send agents to force her to go, she says, "I had a friend
call them and say I had a heart attack and died."

Later, a friend told her about the job with the Bautistas, and she
accepted. For the first few months, Ms. de la Cruz, who lives in the rice
paddies about a half-hour from town, stayed at the Bautistas' and returned
home only for occasional weekends or holidays. But she missed her family.
In mid-1994 she quit, saying she would prefer to stay home with her own

The Bautistas persuaded her to return, and now she commutes every morning
by pedicab from her bamboo hut to the Bautistas' house in Camiling. She
leaves at 5 p.m. every day and gets weekends off. The wage of $50 a month
is lower than the Kuwait job, yet she can spend evenings and mornings with
her youngest son, Johnny.

"Anna's been a big help to the family," says Ms. Bautista, who gave Ms. de
la Cruz a raise when she returned home to visit two years ago.

Ms. Bautista sees herself and Ms. de la Cruz as being in the same boat --
nannies struggling to support their own children. "We both clean toilets
and change diapers for a living," says Ms. Bautista. "The only difference
is, I get paid more."

A lot more. On a recent evening, Ms. de la Cruz returned home from the
Bautistas with her family's dinner -- a baggie of rice and two small,
day-old fish. Johnny, 14, waited with Ms. de la Cruz's 80-year-old
mother-in-law, who takes care of the boy when Ms. de la Cruz is working.
Their hut has no electricity or running water, and they sleep on straw mats
on the floor.

With her salary, Ms. de la Cruz can barely support her family. Her husband
is often unemployed and rarely helps out. Her brother-in-law suffers from
mental illness, and her mother-in-law has high blood pressure, though they
can't afford treatment. Ms. de la Cruz says she hopes to hang on to her job
with the Bautistas until her youngest son is old enough to start work.

"I have my job and my kids," Ms. de la Cruz said, stirring a pot of rice
over an open fire. "I'm lucky."

Goodbye to Noa

At the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Rockville, Md., the Rev. John
Macfarlane stepped to the podium and began Sunday mass. Ms. Bautista slid
into a pew at the back of the church, tired after working until 4 a.m. at
the bar. This morning, she had another worry: Ms. Clark and her family are
moving overseas.

With the family planning to leave within months, Ms. Bautista has little
time to find another employer -- and another work visa. She has a few
offers, but the change in schedule means she probably won't be able to
return to Camiling to see her children for Christmas. What's more, she'll
have to say goodbye to Noa. "It's like leaving my own children again," she

Kneeling at her pew, Ms. Bautista said a prayer for Clinton and Princela,
and prayed for Noa, "wherever she may travel."

In October, Noa and her family moved to Israel. After trying unsuccessfully
to find another family to work for, Ms. Bautista took a job doing clerical
work at a Washington bar and restaurant, where her employer is sponsoring
her for an eventual green card. She keeps a photo of Noa on the her dresser
and talks to her on the phone every few weeks.

In the Philippines, Clinton and Princela are still struggling in school.
Because of immigration restrictions which require her to remain in the U.S.
while she is applying for a green card, Ms. Bautista won't be able to
return home to see her family for Christmas -- the second year she hasn't
been home. She sent the kids a box of presents but during a recent phone
call after her 10th birthday, Princela was largely silent and said: "We're
getting used to birthdays and Christmas without you."

Louis Proyect
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