On a beautiful sunny day, a young woman looks out the window of a moving vehicle to blue skies, green trees, and a paved road. Having just said goodbye to the only home she's ever known, the woman looks longingly at the spectacular view and wonders if she made the right decision to join her husband in a new foreign land. She hoped with all her might that this new place will foster a wealth of opportunity that her current home cannot—especially for her children. As she gazes out the window, her hands are full with luggage in one hand and a small child in the other.
When she arrives at her new destination, her husband excitedly awaits. He came to the city first, to establish a job and home for their young family. Upon their reunion, the husband and wife passionately embrace and he gives his daughter an affectionate kiss on the forehead; he then leads her to the car and they drive onwards to their new life.
Once they arrive at their new home and open the door, she gets a whiff of something that surprisingly smells exactly like the place she has just left behind. As she enters the dining room, she sees a piping hot pot of her favorite dish at the center of the table, set for two: a dinner plate in the center with a fork to the left and a spoon to the right. Her husband made this dish as a reminder that her home, heritage, and the place they met is always only one meal away: as long as they keep these connections close to their hearts, they will belong there forever.
The woman in this story is my grandmother Paula. She moved from the town of Catanduanes in the Bicol province to Manila in the late 1940s with her husband—my grandfather—Jose. At the time, Bicol was a very rural and underdeveloped area—impoverished by the world war—with no electricity or running water, and bahay kubos made by the people of the community. Having grown up in a family of eight siblings, Paula knew hardship and poverty. That is why when her brother Francisco, the eldest of the family, first moved to Manila and convinced Paula to move there for better opportunities, she was immediately on board. Several years after marrying Jose and having their first child, Nellie, she packed her bags and moved to the nation’s capital, unsure of what the future will hold but hopeful that a better life lay ahead.
Adjusting to life from the countryside to the busy city was tough for the duo. They had to switch from their native dialect of Bicol to the one spoken in the city—Tagalog. Furthermore, they had to adjust to paved roads, crowded streets, endless noise, and unfamiliar food. For example, in their homeland, they were accustomed to the abundance of alimasag (crab) and everything prepared ginitaang (stewed in fresh coconut milk). In stark contrast, coconut milk in Manila came from a can and crab had to be replaced with vegetables and fish because it was too expensive in the land-locked city.
Nonetheless they trekked on, eventually buying a house, opening a sari-sari store in their front patio, and raising eight children. Paula was a dressmaker and alterer, managed the store, and took care of the children while Jose worked at a local restaurant. They continued to cook delicious Bicolano food, provide a good childhood and happy memories for their kids, and—most importantly—were able to support everyone through college.
As life continued in the big city, they would occasionally go back to their homeland in Catanduanes and visit family, eat fresh ginitaang alimasag, and enjoy the beautiful countryside. They continued to speak Bicol at home and to their children (though their children could only understand but not speak it), and learned to speak Tagalog fluently. Through their endless support and perseverance, all their children eventually got married, had their own families, and created their own journeys. Paula would eventually have 27 grandchildren who would also pave their own paths—even one who was so inspired by her lola's journey that she would document the story for the world to read.
The woman in this story is also my aunt Linda. She moved from the Philippines to the United States in the 1970s with her husband—my uncle—Pete in order to provide a better life for their children. Although they had stable lives in the Philippines, Lyn and Pete both came from a history of hardship and many siblings. They yearned for much more for their two daughters.
Pete was the first in his family to move to the U.S. At the recommendation of his best friend, Rey, Pete acquired a work visa as an accountant, packed his bags, and got on an airplane set to land in Washington, DC—unsure of what the future would hold but hopeful that a better life lay ahead. He adjusted to his job and found a home where his young family could settle. Lyn followed a year later with luggage in one hand and her two-year-old daughter in the other.
Similar to her mother’s, Lyn’s move was incredibly tough and culturally shocking. She continued to speak her native tongue to her daughters (who could only understand but not speak Tagalog). And although Lyn knew how to speak English, she had to adjust to American English—which had lots of slang and goes 100 miles per hour compared to what she was used to. With incredible homesickness and constantly missing her siblings and parents, Lyn visited her homeland a handful of times over the years and occasionally met newborn nephews and nieces, myself included.
She didn’t know at the time, but Lyn’s daringness to do what her mother did thirty years prior paved such an incredible path for all her family members. Several years after living in the U.S., Lyn petitioned her mom for a permanent residency visa, who then eventually petitioned all seven of her other children—Lyn’s brothers and sisters. Because of various rules and blockades of the US immigration system, it took 20 years for all seven to arrive. Each sibling had their own unique journey to obtain their visas and bring their own families; but ultimately, created limitless opportunity for their children—Lyn’s nephews and nieces, and Paula’s grandkids.
As mothers and role models, Paula and Lyn had equally monumental challenges when they decided to leave a familiar environment and culture to explore a completely foreign one. Because of these two brave women, my aunts, uncles, cousins and I were able to foster successful careers and higher education, own homes, build families, and travel all over the world. Specifically, they inspired me to write about my heritage and document their journeys.
This story is multi-generational for my family: my grandmother and mother were immigrants—as am I. We immigrated in the late 20th century, while many Chinese and Japanese families immigrated in the early 20th century, and many European families immigrated in the 18th-19th centuries. The pattern continues today as even more families from all over the world continue to immigrate—especially those in our neighboring countries.
However, there are hundreds or thousands—no, actually millions—of others over time who can relate almost exactly to this story because the immigrant story is all the same: we sacrifice our home, culture, and comforts to move to an unfamiliar place; all for a chance at a better life—for ourselves, our children, and future generations. This is not just the immigrant story, it is the American story.