I spend a lot of time in the pews of beautiful churches, despite not having attended mass in years. Saints are loyal company. To be surrounded by them—wood-carved idols, polyptychs and their featured martyrs forever crowned in light—is to be surrounded by their narrative problems.
As the daughter of a former Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW), the narrative problem of saintly Filipino women has bothered me since childhood. I was told my mother was a saint for leaving us to work overseas and contribute to the national GDP with the money she sent home. This story is not unique—many of my classmates in Parañaque and Iloilo had one or both of their parents working overseas, and like me, were left to the care of their grandmothers and aunts.
When I was nine and my mother had already been away in Abu Dhabi for about a year (1), then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo launched the government’s Super Nanny Program (2). The black and white ad in the Manila Bulletin newspaper featured a red-caped Arroyo and a woman named Mary Joy Bunol, flying above a group of 30 women in maids’ uniforms. “Looking for personable domestic help who cannot only cook and clean, but also save your children from a fire?” asked the ad.
Filipino women are enrolled into programs like this and trained in English so they can be sent overseas to work in industries of care. They are trained to be super, to be serviceable; to be saintly—women who are left to burn after saving children not their own.
Arroyo’s Super Nanny Program has now ended, but there are lasting systems of colonial architecture (3) which continue to train and export Filipino women to work as nurses and domestic care-givers in wealthier nations. The deal remains the same—young Filipino women are called upon to sacrifice for their families in order to keep them alive, but their labour will be sacrificed to empire.
Though many Filipinos find themselves in diaspora through colonial systems of labour extraction, I do not want to erase our extractive relationships with the lands we are on. We may be unwilling participants of empire, but we are also beneficiaries of it.
I use the model of the polyptych to subvert the expectations and responsibilities of sainthood. While I want to explore our vulnerability, I also attempt to reckon with the reality of our roles as settlers who are complicit in colonial violence against the land, the waters, and their Traditional Custodians.
I love my communities and I am grateful to them, but we are not faultless. We are no saints. In reflecting on the darker side of our lives as immigrants, I hope I am showing a fuller image of our humanity.
I believe the labour of writing poetry is a labour of hope. For my communities reading this, I hope we can move beyond the imposed image of sainthood, and instead become conspirators who know that our journey towards justice is inextricable from the decolonial struggles of First Nations people around the world. I hope we may look beyond our own communities and see the way our oppression is interconnected with the oppression of others. Like the panels of a polyptych, may every act of resistance be interconnected with the anti-imperialist struggles of others. May we care for each other, grieve for each other, and labour together towards our collective liberation.