Filipino migrants as agents of change

In this week’s Five Minute Friday, Mina Roces FAHA explores the complex relationship between Filipino domestic workers living overseas and their home communities, and how, through shifting expectations, migrants have become significant agents for radical personal, social, and economic change.

A busy and colourful street in Hong Kong with various people crossing a street, some holding umbrellas.

Fifty years ago President Ferdinand Marcos signed the labour code that sent Filipino workers all over the world as domestics workers, seafarers, construction workers, nurses (both male and female), caregivers, professionals in the IT and hospitality industries, to name a few. Today, 10 million or ten percent of the Philippine’s population are migrants.

Both popular culture and academic scholarship has focused on migrants primarily as disenfranchised labourers but their lives are more varied and diverse than the stereotypical figure of the exploited worker would suggest. My book, The Filipino Migration Experience: Global Agents of Change is a history of migration outside the sphere of labour written from the perspective of the migrants themselves using a ‘migrant archive’ of sources they have personally collected and produced. It shows that their impact and contributions go beyond the economic contributions from their remittances.

A bright yellow banner featuring a smiling woman hung above retail shops on a busy street in Hong Kong. The words on the poster promote a domestic worker services such as cleaning and in-home care, a popular profession for Filipino migrants.
An advertisement promoting a domestic workers service in Hong Kong.

The half century of global travel means these migrants become agents of change in both their homeland and their host countries. They tinker with fundamental social institutions and challenge well-entrenched traditional norms while also altering the business, economic and cultural landscapes. Their impacts are creative, proactive, and self-aware.

By conceptualizing Filipino migrants as agents of change I show how they transform their households and communities as well as developing new notions of self-fulfilment. Equally, in recognising their financial roles as consumers, investors, and philanthropists, we see their power as agents of both social and economic change.

I also introduce the concept of migrants as historians of their own past. Migrants such as the Filipina/o/x American National Historical Society (FANHS) have compiled and created their own archives, the National Pinoy Archives in Seattle, and a museum in Stockton. FANHS’s 40 chapters run history conferences and heritage tours, and also publish their own memoirs and community histories. Activists use these community histories to demand a space in social memory. FANHS lobbied to make October ‘Filipino American history month’ to recognise Filipino contribution to United States history, and place markers in historic Filipino towns.

Juanita’s story

A pink and white pastel two-story house is boarded up. With large columns and brown marble tiles, the architecture draws inspiration from an Italian villa. The house is owned by a Filipino migrant, the Italian-inspired architecture indicating that the owner works overseas.
A ‘remittance house’ stands empty in the Philippines. The marble tiles and Italian architecture indicates the owner of the house works in Italy.

The profound changes migrants experience of living outside the Philippines are exemplified by Juanita’s story. After twenty years working as a nanny in Hong Kong Juanita returned to the Philippines for a holiday and was deeply disappointed with the cold reception she received from her children. She reflected on the change in her brief memoir:

“I hoped and dreamt that I will leave Hong Kong for good. And home, I went with all the expectations and I came to realize that to be lovingly welcomed by my family after twenty years of not being with them was an illusion.  I thought my children would be happy to be with me. I dreamt of going out with them, playing with my grand-children, just doing things together as a family.  I guess I spent too long in Hong Kong, I failed to realize that I really don’t know them at all. And they don’t know me at all, too. For them, I was just the mother that sent them their allowances without fail every month.”

Juanita’s account documented the pain she felt when her children failed to acknowledge her as anything more than a financial provider. Her daughter did not meet her at the airport and was too busy to spend time with her. She spent her holiday alone. Her children’s lack of affection contrasted with her Hong Kong ward who told her she was very welcome to return to Hong Kong because her cooking was much missed. In despair Juanita told her daughter:

“I came home to see my kids, I didn’t find them here! I went to Hong Kong to give you a future. I think you already had one. I am going back to Hong Kong so I will have one too!” I cried.”

Juanita’s story ended with her decision to return to Hong Kong to build an independent, personally meaningful life that included volunteering to assist migrants in distress. It was a difficult decision because she knew that it transgressed widely-held social expectations of ideal motherhood. Confiding to her best friend Mary she admitted: “I felt so guilty afterwards, but Mary assured me it was nobody’s fault. My children had found a life of their own without me. I need to find one, too.”

What is radical about Juanita’s story

An illustration of a family tree with senior staff member's photos on the tree trunk with more photos in the branches of the tree, representing a network of employees of Filipino migrants.
A page from the journal of Marties Mapa representing the NGO Lakbay Dangal’s founder, leaders, and members as part of one family tree. The organisation trains domestic workers to be historians and tour guides to take tourists on a Philippine historical tour of Hong Kong, visiting places that are of significance to Philippine history.

Juanita’s story of alienation from her children is not unique. But, mixed with the hardship is an empowering decision to embark on a life of her own separate from her children and family. In pursuing her own individual dreams, unattached to the family, Juanita was making radical moves.

First, she rejected the normative ideal of motherhood as one of suffering martyrdom where meaning in life was produced only by providing for the wellbeing of offspring.

Second, Juanita redefined culturally constructed ideas of ‘family’ by choosing to focus her affection on her responsive Hong Kong ward, rather than attempting to win love and affection from her disengaged biological children. In so doing, Juanita rejected a notion of motherhood and maternal affect intrinsic to Filipino cultural constructions of the feminine.

Rejecting the role of ‘suffering mother’ (taken from the ideal of the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa), was at the very least controversial, and at most a shocking act. Juanita challenged the connections between gender and motherhood and altered the definition of the family. In seeking personal fulfilment through community volunteering, she overcame years of geographical dissonance in which her work and life only became meaningful in another place—the Philippines.

Her work in Hong Kong was no longer only oriented to delivering improvements ‘over there’. Juanita’s independent life in Hong Kong was rid of the sojourner’s plague of temporality and dislocation in both affect and purpose.

Migrants as agents of change

The financial and emotional independence of migrants like Juanita have also provided wider opportunities for migrants to attain prestige as philanthropists. Migrants have been instrumental in funding scholarships for street children and free health care to the poorest through annual Medical Missions. Equally, their consumer power has produced myriad new business ventures in host countries as well as a real estate boom in the Philippines.

Tracking a half century of global migration through the voices of migrants themselves debunks dominant notions of labour migration experiences and brings to light stories of radical personal, social, and economic change.

While migrant workers still face plenty of hardship, they also are significant agents of transformation.

Mina Roces FAHA is a Professor of History at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of 5 books, the most recent being: The Filipino Migration Experience: Global Agents of Change, (Cornell University Press, 2021. Winner of the 2022 NSW Premier’s General History Book Prize, and Gender in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2022). In 2019 she received the Grant Goodman Prize for Excellence in Philippine Historical Studies given by the Philippine Studies Group of the Association for Asian Studies.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.