Filed under: Philippines
On New Years night when I arrived at the airport in Manila, Philippines I noticed signs welcoming the return of Filipino workers from around the world. One in eight Filipinos work abroad often under testy and lonely conditions. I see them at my side searching the baggage claim area for their heavy suitcases crammed with gifts for family, friends and maybe even the Mayor of their distant villages. When they reach their homes there will be tears of happiness mixed with the pain of lonely times abroad Now for a few days they will be dignitaries, much loved for their sacrifice on behalf of the people who gave them life.
Some of the migrant workers waiting at the baggage claim may not have received all of their $200 per month salaries due to misunderstandings? or cheating employers? Still they continue to travel to countries stretching from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, Europe and the Americas where they work sometimes seven days a week to bring home a tiny sum for the people they love. As I watch their eyes searching for luggage, I think of the Mexican workers in Chicago and the vegetable estates or construction sites all over my own country. My mind sees a nation of hands stretching for survival above and below the radar of regulations in a world where the law creates legal space for those who have means. .
When my colleagues in CPT bring water and occasional hands of rescue to the dying bodies of Mexicans migrants at the Arizona border they are touching the hands of a nation that may awaken soon.
Their long days in the fields, construction sites and homes remind me of my youth when I did that kind of work. In those days I was ignorant of how my skin color carried privilege. As a college student I worked beside Mexican workers at the packing plant. They worked hard, and I noticed that they were more adept and faster on the poultry line – a sure sign of experience and competence. One day during my tenure as a college student at Goshen College in Indiana I found out that my coworkers on the line earned much less than I did. I remember the sense of confusion that discovery awakened within me. I had no framework for understanding. At first I thought my extra pay must be some kind of expression of generosity directed to students like me striving to meet their tuition. One day I discovered the huts – maybe old chicken houses – where my co-workers lived. Confusion turned to a sense of dirty unfairness that continued to grow within me.
The memory of their worn and scarred hands have stayed with me for 45 years. They taught me the basics of the international worker system and over time I learned bit by bit how privilege, charity, and oppression support one another. The migrant workers survive at the boundary of full citizenship where hope, anger and resignation mix with occasional opportunities for escape to a fuller life. It is a scary territory where employers fear organized migrants and migrants learn to expand every opportunity in order to avoid consignment to that distant village where economic hope has lost its way.
The signs at the Manila airport shouts at me WELCOME HOME. But I am not home. I now come from a world that has forgotten how to dig ditches, harvest with hands and perform hard manual labor. I live in a world where work is defined by words, computers, and communication. The people who invite me to dinner struggle with being overweight or talk about vacation plans to distant sites of ancient treasure.
I am a person who was given the gift of hope and I did go on to a life of organizing, of trying to be an ally. But what should I do about my doubt. I feel awkward because it is taking me so long to integrate into daily life some very simple lessons that began many years ago on the poultry line. I grew up in a time when we talked of civil rights. I now grow old in a time of migrant rights. And I know there are miles to go to WELCOME HOME the nation of migrant workers so deserving of hope.
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