Broken Butterflies, Empty Homes and the Price of Forced Migration

A recent family tragedy in the Philippines really brings home the profound dislocation and loss that is the other wing of migration. That’s why the butterfly symbol for migration is based on broken assumptions. Assumptions that people come to the US because they want to, rather than forced to by the ravages of global capital. Only people in the 1st world can imagine migration without the accompanying loss and heartbreak. We believe the narrative of the migrant who wins the lottery to the land of milk and honey and builds a better life for her and her children. “How lucky they are,” we say.

This narrative misses the tragedy that forces entire populations from their homeland. 10,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines because they are driven out by economic forces. Children are gathering at the Mexican side of the US border because of desperate bid for survival. Humans are social creatures, we build families and communities because we need them for our physical, spiritual and mental survival. When we lose our families, our communities, we suffer profound trauma.

Imagine the life of the overseas workers, whom successive Filipino Presidents refer to as “heros of the economy.” Births, deaths, illnesses, and marriages happen half a world away. Children grow up without their mother, while their mother spend their days taking care of 1st world children or aging parents.

Back in the Philippines, neighborhoods are without mothers but littered with little mcMansions, gated monuments to the hard, break breaking labor of Filipino overseas workers. These homes conspicuously rise up, between bamboo houses and thatched roofs, concrete hopes of these women, who send money every month, while living in tiny NYC apartments, sharing a room. They scrub, wipe the asses of babies and the elderly, with the dream of retiring in their homeland, in their gated, concrete homes. They hold onto this fantasy as they watch their children grow up without them, miss funerals, and one year death anniversaries, Skype being a terrible substitute for actually living their lives with their families and communities.

When we received the phone call, telling us that a close family member just had a massive stroke and was on life support – There was nothing we could do. If we were in the Philippines, we could hold each other, grieve together, make food for the soon-to-be widow. But here? Here, life goes on, and we can only grieve by ourselves, wire money, light a candle. And wonder why we are a world apart.

And it is not just the big moments. It is the small ones, the sense of dislocation, not knowing your way, experiencing US racism, raising children in a land and language not your own.

But today, it is a big moment – a death of a loved one that brings the price of separation home. Can his grandson get off of school for a week? Can we afford tickets and time off work? In the Philippines, when someone dies, we do something like sitting shiva. The body is embalmed and comes back to the house and loved ones stay up all night with the body, neighbors come, food is eaten, cards played until sunrise. This goes on for an impossible 10-15 days. At the end, you are so exhausted, you are like a towel wrung out, all your grief spent, at least for a short time. Your loved one is buried and then you sleep. Here, we can’t join with the community to wring ourselves out.

RIP, to a fabulous farmer who always woke before sunrise and grew some of the most delicious rice I have ever eaten.