I have a nice life, one my parents say was made possible by the American Dream. But I am an American because of American imperialism.
My introduction to empire came in childhood, helping my mother pack and label balikbayan boxes for a trip back to the Philippines. Each member of our family was allotted two pieces of checked baggage; all children were expected to surrender at least one to a balikbayan box the size of the maximum space allowed by the airline. The balikbayan operation, which took over our living room for weeks, was one I had observed for years. I was thrilled to finally join the ritual, Tetris-like packing of enormous cardboard cubes filled with Reese’s Pieces, Nike sneakers, three-packs of Hanes men’s briefs, boxes of Ziploc bags, Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and other items. All the gifts were crammed in amid hundreds of face towels and washcloths, bought in bulk at whatever department store had recently had a linen sale and that were exclusively for my paternal grandmother, Ima, who sold them for profit at the supermarket she owned. The pasalubong was expected, my mom explained, given out of love and the financial success my parents had achieved abroad. At the time, I took it to mean we were giving our less fortunate Filipino relatives the American goods they could not afford otherwise.
After being filled and weighed, each balikbayan box was sealed and wrapped in packing tape, the screeching sound and chemical plastic smell of which filled the house. Cages of bright yellow or pink twine—for easy identification amid the sea of other boxes at baggage claim as well as easy lifting from the carousel—were knotted around them. Then, our family name and address were written in foul-smelling black Sharpie on four sides of each box: Garbes Dizon Supermarket, MacArthur Highway, San Fernando, Pampanga. The road my grandparents lived and worked on is named after the American general whose decisions led to so much Philippine death and heartache during World War II.
I learned and memorized the proper spelling of the Philippines through labeling balikbayan boxes until my hand ached. It was an object lesson in the lasting effects of colonialism.
“Write PHILIP for the King of Spain,” my mom instructed me. “Then PINES, like the trees outside.” I found Spain on our globe afterward, unsure why our country on the other side of the world would be named for its king. Later, I learned that in 1544, Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos, having sailed across the Pacific from Mexico, claimed and named a few islands for his king. Eventually, this archipelago—comprised of more than 7,000 islands and over 100 Indigenous ethnic groups with their own customs and languages—would be condensed into one country, now known as the Philippines.
You can say that my parents came to America for a better life, and that they got one. In fact, they would be the first ones to say so. But that tidy narrative oversimplifies the story and fails to capture the geopolitical manipulations that shaped their paths.
My parents met in 1969 at Manila’s Philippine General Hospital. My mom was a quiet 22-year-old nurse who kept her hair slicked neatly back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck; my dad was a medical student with a perpetually wrinkled lab coat, big lips, and a head of wild curls. My mom says her first impression of him was that he was a “slob.” Six months later, they were married.
As the seventh of nine children, my mom was told that upon graduation she would work as a nurse in the United States and send money home to help her two younger sisters go to college. My father, the eldest of seven and the first person in his family to attend college, was instructed to study a profession he was expected to pursue for the rest of his life. Though my parents were not aware of it at the time, their decisions to work in health care and move to the United States were shaped and constrained by centuries of conquest, bloodshed, and American policy.
Prior to the passing of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1965, also known as the Hart–Celler Act, which lifted quotas on visas for skilled workers from other countries, Filipino migration had been limited to just 50 visas a year. This was the lowest number allotted to any country in the world, a harsh reversal from the previous decades when Filipinos, called “U.S. Nationals” under American colonial rule, were able to travel freely throughout the United States and its territories. Filipino bodies—hands, backs, knees, minds, voices—have always been viewed as economic leverage for the United States.
The U.S. government’s decision to allow an influx of Filipino workers such as my mother conveniently coincided with a nursing shortage in the United States. In the two decades following World War II, the rapid growth of hospitals, higher demand for health care services, and creation of medical insurance made filling nursing positions across the country difficult. While hospital managers believed the shortage was caused by women leaving the workforce to care for their families, nurses stated that low wages and poor working conditions were to blame. They organized and advocated for better pay, but efforts stalled as nurses held little status within hospitals, and administrators opted to hire supporting workers—nurse aides and practical nurses, rather than registered nurses. Recruiting and bringing in a skilled foreign labor force, aided by the Hart–Celler Act, allowed hospital administrators to keep costs low.
My mother, a graduate of the colonial education system who spoke fluent English and held a brand-new nursing degree, qualified for immigration in 1970. My father, who never intended to leave the Philippines, reluctantly agreed to move to America for love. His medical degree made obtaining a visa relatively easy. My mother followed the path of many Filipina nurses before her—and tens of thousands after.
“Her story is a part of something larger, it is a part / of history,” poet Rick Barot writes of his grandmother’s journey from the Philippines to the United States many years before. With these words, I can grasp the magnitude of forces that sent my mother across the Pacific.
“Or, no, her story is separate / from the whole, as distinct as each person is distinct,” Barot goes on, and I see my mother—a brave individual in a foreign country, with a new husband, and a burgeoning sense of self—forging her way forward.
“Or, her story / is surrounded by history, the ambient spaciousness / of which she is the momentary foreground,” continues Barot. I now see my mother’s story as her own, important and distinct, but always part of a larger diasporic whole that I will spend my life trying to wrap my mind and heart around.
This excerpt is from Essential Labor by Angela Garbes. Copyright © 2022 by Angela Garbes. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
Angela Garbes is the author of Like a Mother, an NPR Best Book of the Year and finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, New York, Bon Appétit, and featured on NPR's Fresh Air. She lives with her family in Seattle.