Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Op-Ed, TODAY/abs-cbnnews.com
January 12, 2004

Frowns rarely reach her oval face, but smiles, too, do not come easily. Yet she is never expressionless; everything about her is implicit. Her eyes, the way her hands unconsciously stir as she ponders over a word, the way she nods or shakes her head as if she was just swaying. Her movements are measured like her words and her bearing emanates grace and the quiet dignity that is the reward of all honest toil.

Her name is Loretta Brunio, a tall slender woman from the Bicol region with an imposing soul. She has been working as a foreign domestic help in Hong Kong for 10 years. Though she is an eloquent speaker Loretta rarely speaks in excess; solitude can be a gifted teacher. The observant, however, will notice that facets of Loretta's spirit betray her frequently. When her brows furrow you, too, are troubled; and when she smiles, you soar with her. The rest of the time you listen.

She has been the chairperson thrice of the Coalition for Migrant Rights (CMR), a distinguished organization that she helped form in 1999 - from idea to fruition - and while she continues to work full time as a domestic help she remains a tribune of migrant workers in Hong Kong. A gentle woman whose humility and simplicity frames her very character, not because of the nature of her employment, though this may have been the case when she first arrived in Hong Kong a decade ago, but because, in her words, "there is always a foreign domestic worker here who is in greater need of succor than you are. Hindi lang Pilipino [Not just Filipinos]." Loretta represents the repudiation of stultifying Filipino regionalism. Along with her equally dedicated colleagues, she saw to it that the first composition of CMR were Filipinos, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Nepalese and Indians.

You wonder where she finds the time to do all this. Rest should take up the remainder of the day after her work; the body needs pause and the soul needs respite in order to shore up the walls that hem in the cloister of heartaches. But she finds time.

We met on a Sunday at the Hong Kong International Trade and Exhibition Centre in Kowloon Bay, where President Arroyo, who was on her way then to Bahrain, had delivered a two-hour speech to 5,000 overseas Filipino workers, the great majority of whom were Filipina domestic help. Loretta attended the event out of curiosity while I was there to cover Mrs. Arroyo's address -- a mish mash of tired platitudes sprinkled with bizarre spiels. "When I was young, you were just a few hundred then," Mrs. Arroyo had said in a congratulatory tone as she pointed to the Filipino band which had entertained the crowd prior to her arrival. "Now," said the beaming president, "you're in the hundreds of thousands!"

Loretta Brunio. Her sister was the one who had brought her to Hong Kong, she said. "My sister's with a born-again organization in Hong Kong and she thought it was her chance to help me find steady income and get me away from my activist inclinations." Before Hong Kong, Loretta had worked for ten years with a textile industry trade union in Valenzuela. Work did not pay much, she said, but it was important work and it was enough. It seemed to be enough but it wasn't.

"I spent some time attending some of the prayer activities of my sister's group," said Loretta, "but I found neither solace nor motivation there." Within a year, without any planning, Loretta found herself organizing foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Loretta left the Philippines in 1993, the year Mayon Volcano erupted and the year the Ramos government insanely dismantled tariffs that protected Philippine industries in rates unheard of in the world. Loretta's departure sought to arrest the onset of an impending fact - the absence of a viable future for her children. She wanted food on the family's table and good health and education for her children. In the Philippines, these are aspirations.

For the Philippine government, over which brilliant economists have long held sway, the departure of Loretta and others like her is a boon. They are expected to bring in the dollars that alone have kept the country precariously afloat and have maintained the illusion that the Philippine economy is not sinking under the weight of corruption and the continuation of spectacularly flawed economic policies. Such as the annual automatic allocation of a third of the national budget to pay off debts incurred mostly by thieving officials, corporations and banks - a monumental barbarity that re-exports the dollars remitted by overseas Filipino workers.

And yet this is merely a portion of the madness. For behind almost every statistic of Filipino workers "deployed" by government to work abroad is a home fighting to keep the fabric of family intact.

Loretta has three kids, the youngest of whom, Ivy, was two years old when she left; Abigail, the middle child, was four and J-R was six. Of the three, Loretta said Abigail takes to her the most. "Abigail is very straightforward like me," said Loretta with a rare giggle. "She has a strong personality. She hasn't yet decided on what she wants to do, which is fine. She's enjoying herself." Loretta glowed as she described her children, her smile radiant and enchanting.

J-R, her eldest, is sixteen and about to graduate from high school. "He's the MVP in his basketball league," she said proudly. Loretta said she intended to sign one last contract, which in Hong Kong runs for two years, but "J-R wants to study nautical engineering. He's a clever young man who deserves four years of training, which is expensive. So maybe two contracts and hopefully that's it."

Loretta's eyes shined widest as she described Ivy, her youngest, who is now 12 years old. "We called her Bilog when she was a baby because she was so chubby. The name stuck; I still call her Bilog today even though she is much slimmer. She's a very sweet girl who loves to sing. She has a beautiful voice; I have tapes of Ivy singing. I often play her tapes at night. She's my antibiotic. Some nights, when sadness is overwhelming, I call up Ivy and ask her to sing for me and then I'm okay."

Then Loretta fell silent and her eyes drifted away.

Loneliness is a furtive adversary. In Hong Kong, it has a certain velocity - it loiters around conversations and at night lingers in the space between the blanket and the bed sheet where the woman -- the mother, the daughter, the sister -- curls up and dreams of home.

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Comments are welcome at xioi@excite.com

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