Saturday, March 10, 2007


DURING a visit to Rome I was surprised at the large number of Filipinos in St. Peter’s Basilica. In churches, metros, there were Filipinos; and at night, clusters of Filipinas sat around the Piazza di Navona, chattering away in Tagalog.

Art specialist John Silva, whom we ran into in Rome, also shared his story about being in a bus full of Filipinas on their way to work as domestics in an expensive area of Rome. We wondered where these Filipinos came from in the Philippines, why they migrated to Italy, and how they were adjusting there.

As my husband and I continued our journey through Italy, I observed these Filipinos at a distance. In a park in Florence around 30 Filipinos gathered for a picnic. They were in their thirties. Some men clustered around a table, gambling. I saw some infants and young children. Only one woman among them smiled a greeting at me; the rest ignored me. And so I simply smiled at the woman and did not talk to them. My curiosity about them was left to grow.

In Stressa however, I had the chance to talk to a Filipina. While waiting for a train for Milan, a Filipina approached me and introduced herself. Her name was Yolanda, she said, and she took care of a wealthy Italian woman with cancer. It was Friday, and Yolanda was off for the weekend; she was on her way to Milan to join some relatives and friends.

Petite and wiry, Yolanda looked ten years younger than her 53 years. She was adamant about guiding us from Stressa to Milan, stamping our train tickets for us, and telling us where to sit, and when to get off. She was starting to annoy my husband, but I saw an opportunity to interview a Filipina in Italy. She didn’t mind my questions at all; in fact she thoroughly enjoyed telling me her story.

When she was 33 years old, in Manila, her husband who was 31 died of a heart attack. She tried supporting her four children by selling bananas and other small business ventures. She was so desperate that she considered becoming a singer/performer in Japan – a Japayuki. Her mother and other relatives discouraged her from doing so. An agent suggested that Yolanda work as a domestic in Saudi Arabia. She left Manila for Saudi on December 23. She said she was still nursing her youngest child, and her breasts were full of milk. She wept all the way to Saudi. Her employers met her at the airport and brought her to their house. Her job was to take care of their children. Yolanda said, on Christmas day, she continued to cry, but even then, she added, my hands were full of grapes.

Her employers were kind and even sent her on holidays to the Philippines. She was in Manila when the Persian Gulf War broke out, and she decided not to return to Saudi. The pay was not that good anyway, Yolanda added.

She still had to figure out how to support her children who were being raised by her mother. An agent suggested going to Italy. Apparently the agency could falsify an Italian visa. She was drilled well. She had to know what the airports looked like, where to go, what to do. She had to dress well, to pass for a tourist.

In France, the French immigration officials questioned and delayed her. They finally released her when she insisted they had no right to question her since her final destination was Geneva, Switzerland.

By the time the French released, Yolanda missed her flight to Geneva and had to take the plane to Zurich. She was terrified, she said because the agent’s contact was meeting her in Geneva.

In Zurich, she didn’t know what to do. She approached a teenage boy whose mother was Japanese and whose father was Caucasian, figuring he spoke English. She asked him to call a telephone number for her, which the boy did. After, the boy said, “You look hungry, come eat with us.”

She continued her journey in this way, asking for help from Filipinos or people who spoke English. Finally after a long and frightening journey, she made it to Italy. She reported that her journey was not as bad as others who had to go to Germany (I think she meant Austria) and swim across a river. There was a group of Filipinos, she related, who swam the river, but one had a heart attack, and they had to leave her.

Yolanda considered herself lucky because ten months after her arrival, the Italian government offered amnesty, so now her papers are legal. Her children in Manila have all gone to school. The youngest, she reported is in art school – a useless major, commented Yolanda. And her life seems full in Italy. Aside from taking care of her employer, she has sideline work – selling insurance, and swatch watches, and so on.

In Milan, Yolanda wanted to take us to the Duomo. I understood that she was repaying the kindness that others had given her during her journey to Italy.

We’ll be all right, I said. And so at the train station in Milan, we said goodbye. We headed for the Duomo while she vanished into the mass of people at the station.
I have a scrap of paper with Yolanda’s name and cell phone number; but she and I knew we will never see each other again.

(Picture above shows: Cecilia and Lauren Brainard with John Silva in Rome)

All for now,
Cecilia Brainard

tags: travel, tourism, Italy, Rome, St. Peter's Basilica, Filipina maids, Europe, Cecilia Brainard

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