THE VITAMINS OF ERMA GEOLAMIN
Renato Redentor Constantino
January 19, 2004
She is the mother of all our children and she represents both the core character of the Filipino -- selflessness and resilience -- and the fate that millions of other Filipinos have had little choice but to accept. There are eight million Filipinos working abroad today; 130,000 of them are in Hong Kong. Erma Geolamin, a foreign domestic help for 14 years, is one of them.
Erma left the country in 1990, the year the great earthquake shook Baguio and Cabanatuan. "I remember very little about what happened in the year I left," Erma said, "except that it was a painful parting. Oh, I think Rino Arcones died that year too."
"Who's Arcones?" I asked. "He was with Bombo Radyo. I've always dreamt of being a reporter," Erma said, suddenly spry. "Arcones was an idol of mine. He's very brave; I think I'm foolishly brave like him also. I always listened to Rino's broadcasts then. He was always exposing some scandal. When he died that year, it made me really sad. But that was a long time ago," Erma said dismissively.
Erma, a college graduate, first worked in Malaysia for four years; later on she moved to Hong Kong where the pay was a little higher, which meant that her children would all have a better chance to finish school.
Many things had happened since she left the country. In 1999, Erma left her husband when she found out that he had squandered the savings she had been sending home and that he had been sleeping with another woman, whose occupation she found severely unnerving. "All the while I toiled, he was sleeping with an embalmer," Erma exclaimed closing her eyes as if to shake off the thought. Erma is like many Filipinos; she can be solemn and feisty in the span of a second, capable of finding something oddlyamusing even in the most dire of situations, and she does not fear death but is deathly afraid of the dead.
There have been three new administrations since Erma left the Philippines in 1990, and possibly a fourth one unless Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gets reelected. So much has changed and so much has remained the same, particularly the nastier ones. Year after year, Filipinos working overseas continue to remit to the Philippines the dollars that keep the country's economy afloat. And year after year, too, the Philippine government automatically re-exports the dollars earned by Filipino migrant workers to pay or debts many of which were ill-gotten. According to the Freedom from Debt Coalition, from 1980 to 2002, the Philippine government automatically allocated a mind-boggling P2.5 trillion for debtpayments.
What does she say to all this, I asked Erma one cold January morning in Hong Kong. Was she aware at all of this policy?
Yes, she said, but only recently. "It is cruelty. They have no right to throw out what we have earned. They should all go to jail, especially the officials who allow this to continue."
Who will you vote for this coming elections, I asked Erma, who has devoted the little spare time she has to helping address, among other things, the electoral needs of Filipinos in Hong Kong, a highly organized work force which had the highest turn-out of registered voters among all the countries that participated in the recent overseas voter registration process. Perhaps because 94 percent of the Filipinos working in Hong Kong are women?
"President Arroyo and Roco are both very arrogant and I don't like them," Erma said "And their intelligence has meant nothing." "And Fernando Poe, Jr.?" I asked. "FPJ?" Erma replied as she laughed. "What about Pimentel?" I asked. "Pimentel is very good but he won't win. Even so I would have voted for him but he's no longer running [for president] he said. Sayang." "Ping Lacson?" I asked. "I think I will only vote for senators," said Erma.
Bitter years have not corroded her spirit. Erma continues to feed herself the vitamins of survival and meaning. Such as regular texting with her youngest child, who is now in high school; challenging, along with nine others, the legality and constitutionality of the Hong Kong government's recent decision drastically reducing the minimum wage of foreign domestic help in Hong Kong; Sunday church and lunches at Hong Kong City Hall with her fellow Ilonggos; and the fulfillment of one of her dreams. Since 2002, Erma has been sending regular articles to a Hong Kong-based Filipino newspaper, which also helps augment her income.
Her stories are all true to life and reflect a keen discriminating eye. The kleptomaniac employer who steals from his Filipina maid's wallet. A Filipina mother of three, whose love for the child of her Chinese employer was as if the child was one of her own, despite the language barrier and notwithstanding the difficulty of handling the child's frequent epileptic seizures. The comical account of a Filipina domestic help who was constantly hungry because her employer often gave her only a biscuit each day "and sometimes no biscuits at all." "One day," Erma said, "the Filipina decided to set aside HK$5 from the money she was given to buy daily groceries. The Filipina told herself that if her employer would not give her anything to eat, then part of the grocery money should be spent to buy her food. The Filipina bought only bread, which she would hide in a secret place and take out only after the owner had left. One day, however, after her employer had gone out of the apartment, she discovered that the bread was gone. Then out of nowhere, Erma recounted, "the child of the owner appeared and surprised the Filipina. 'Where did you get the bread,' the child asked. Fed up with sneaking about, the Filipina firmly told the child 'I pinch money from your father because he doesn't even give me anything to eat!' The child replied 'Well can you take some more from my dad? He doesn't give me anything to eat either.'"
"If you want friendship, gentleness and poetry to cross your path through life," said Georges Duhamel, "take them with you." Erma Geolamin continues to live Duhamel's wisdom and longs only for a few more things. To the permanent proximity of family she adds something new -- long prison terms for the officials who keep on throwing out of the country her life's honest earnings.
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