How the Filipino Maid Became a Pop Culture Hero

How the Filipino Maid Became a Pop Culture Hero

How the Filipino Maid became a Pop Culture Hero 1

via Independent Cinema Office

For eight years, Teresita Sajonia scrubbed floors and washed dirty dishes. Like many young, poor Filipino women, she worked as a domestic helper in Singapore. In 1997 she returned to her small town of San Miguel in Iloilo where she lives to this day, farming and raising chickens. Her story is not what many would call cinematic, but in 2013 she was depicted in the critically acclaimed film “Ilo Ilo,” which later won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film was written and directed by Anthony Chen, one of the three children Sajonia cared for in Singapore. In the movie, a young boy named Jiale (loosely based on Chen and his brothers) forms a bond with his Filipino maid whom he affectionately calls Auntie Terry. Dealing with the pressures of school and his parents’ financial difficulties, he finds a companion and a surrogate mother with his nanny.

Sajonia lost contact with the Chens when she returned to the Philippines. However, an extensive search through local media helped find her. When Chen and his brother reunited with their Auntie Terry, they were touched to find that she still kept photos of them in a blue pouch that she carried everywhere. Sajonia attended the premiere of the film in Singapore as a guest of honor.

Terry is far from the only Filipino maid in popular culture. Michael V. and Ogie Alcasid play the incredibly popular Yaya and Angelina characters, Alessandra de Rossi starred in the Singaporean horror film, “The Maid,” and Jodi Sta. Maria played a domestic-helper-turned-lover in the long-running telenovela, “Be Careful with My Heart.” In fact, two of the greatest actresses in Philippine Cinema—Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos—have played maids.

Filipino maids, particularly the yaya or nanny, have become stars of the screen. No longer confined to bit roles as the sassy gossip or the boorish probinsyana, their stories have become the focal point of movies and television shows.

How the Filipino Maid became a Pop Culture Hero

via Fukuoka Film Archive

It was the execution of Flor Contemplacion in 1995 that cemented the Filipino maid in the public consciousness. Contemplacion, a domestic helper working in Singapore, was sentenced to hang for allegedly murdering two people. Her death sparked an outpouring of sympathy. President Fidel Ramos called her a heroine and thousands turned out for her funeral. Overnight, she became a symbol of the miserable plight of overseas workers and her life was dramatized in “The Flor Contemplacion Story” starring Nora Aunor. 20 years later and history seems poised to repeat itself as the public rallies around domestic helper Mary Jane Veloso, who faces the death penalty in Indonesia for drug smuggling.

The Filipino maid is, in essence, a tragic figure, forced to travel thousands of miles just to eke out a decent existence. They face the prospect of overwork and exploitation. They’re forced to dodge bullets in war-torn countries (during the Libyan Civil War in 2011, two Filipino maids had to make a spy movie-esque escape from the house of a Gadhafi relative). And they’re confronted with real life horror stories of their compatriots being sexually abused, scalded with boiling water or toiling in slave-like conditions.

Earning a better salary also comes at the cost of personal relationships. In the film “Anak,” Vilma Santos plays a Hong Kong nanny who comes home after six years to find that her kids are total strangers. She has no idea that her son is failing in school or that her eldest daughter–fueled by anger from her mother’s absence—has fallen into a destructive lifestyle.

Much has been written about the social toll of migrant parents on the children they leave behind. In a paper sponsored by the United Nations Children’s Fund, Professor Melanie Reyes of the Miriam College Women and Gender Institute found that “children with the mother abroad tend to be more angry, confused, apathetic and more afraid than other children.”

It is a sad irony that some of them end up forming stronger bonds with the kids they take care of rather than their own children. How many kids from Hong Kong have been lulled to sleep with “Bahay Kubo”? How many Malaysian children know how to speak a few sentences of Bisaya? How many Chinese kids have grown to love their yaya’s home-cooked Adobo? There is an entire generation of Asians who have been raised by Filipino nannies. Like Anthony Chen, a lot of them look back fondly on their childhood companions.

How the Filipino Maid became a Pop Culture Hero 2

Filipino pop culture hasn’t exactly caught fire in the region outside of a few international stars such as Christian Bautista. For most of these kids, their maids are their first introduction to the Philippines. More so than Lea Salonga, or Charice, the Filipino maid is our greatest cultural ambassador. They share the country’s food, film and music all over the world. More importantly, they spread the country’s unique brand of warmth and humanity.

Some Filipinos bristle at the idea of being associated with maids. Recently, a controversy erupted over a Hong Kong textbook purportedly depicting Filipinos as domestic helpers. But why is this a bad thing? We make a big deal when some American Idol contestant or Hollywood starlet is 1/16th Filipino but we’re ashamed of our overseas workers. Filipino maids do honest work. The remittances they send back home keep the economy afloat. And they’re entrusted with arguably the most important job of all: raising children. That’s something to be proud of.

Early last year, a Saudi Arabian journalist visited the Philippines to surprise her childhood nanny, Marie Luningning Bebit, whom she hadn’t seen since 1992. Their heartfelt reunion was aired on “Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho.” “Hindi ko naman naiisip na maalala pa nila ako, kasi matagal na panahon na (I never thought that she would still remember me since it’s been a long time),” said Bebit as she wiped away the tears. Her story and the story of many others are a testament to the love and affection of Filipino nannies and the powerful effect that they have on the children they take care of.

How the Filipino Maid Became a Pop Culture Hero


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