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Enslaved in Suburbia: Inside the World of Trafficked Indentured Servants and the Visa Violators Who Care for Our Old 

Two women, two fractured American dreams

Wednesday, Feb 18 2009
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The girls next door never rest. They work day and night and weekends taking care of the old people, and they never, ever leave the eldercare home on Vernon Street, hidden in plain sight inside an ordinary suburban tract house in Long Beach with light-tan stucco, white trim, burgundy awnings, a two-car garage and an American flag waving in the front entryway. Like the home’s owners, the girls are Filipino, with dark skin and dark hair. They might be pretty, if not for their miserable expressions.

Jokingly, the man next door asks the girls, “Do you ever get a day off?”

No, he finally realizes, they never do.

click to flip through (2) JASON EDMISTON
  • Jason Edmiston
 
 

This was the moment when the neighbor understood that he had to do something. He had been stuck at home, on disability from his job, and, in a plot straight out of Rear Window, had started paying attention to the activities next door.

“I’m not a snoopy-snoop, but something weird was going on,” says the man, who is reluctant to give his name to a reporter. “The whole neighborhood knew something was going on. We are working-class families here, and they’d have brand-new BMW SUVs pull up.” There were other cars, too, carrying a steady stream of visiting family members coming and going. The man next door used to get annoyed at the cars constantly parked in front of his house.

When at last the man signaled his understanding of the situation, the girls opened up to him. “They used to come over here crying, begging me to help them,” he recalls. He tried for a year to call various agencies, though not, for some reason, the police.

“Bah, the police,” he snorts. “What are they going to do? This is an international issue.”

And he is right, it turns out. It was the Feds who came to the rescue. The girls, who had been trafficked into the country, were being held against their will and forced to work for little or no pay.

 

Modern-day slavery does exist, but in degrees. Far more common, and far less mediagenic, are scenarios like Mary’s. Is it slavery if you are willing to be enslaved?

There is a name for the phenomenon, for the legions of undocumented who come over and choose to overstay their tourist visas: In Filipino slang, they are TNT, “tago ng tago,” or, “always in hiding.” Mary, who asked that her last name be withheld, works as a live-in caregiver in a posh senior-care center in Sherman Oaks. Her name tag reads “Private Duty Attendant.” She has shoulder-length black hair, dark skin, a wide, flat nose and eyes that seem perpetually tired. As a teacher in the Philippines, she made less than $100 a month. Now she makes $120 a day taking care of a retired podiatrist named Fred, who is 102 years old. The money is good. For all intents and purposes, Fred is alone in the world. His wife has died. His only living relative is a niece who lives in the Bay Area.

Mary was solidly middle class in the Philippines, not dirt poor, not rich. Mary’s husband is a small-town lawyer in the southwestern province of Negros City. She worked professional jobs herself: a decade in a bank as a fraud inspector, several years teaching Home Ec and nutrition at a high school.

Now she does “dirty work.” She wipes butts, gives baths, washes clothes. “Never in my life did I imagine I would be doing this kind of work,” she says as she strips off the old man’s sweatpants, unties his shoes, peels away his socks, then dresses him in pajamas. She sits him gently in front of the TV, tuned to the Lakers game. He falls asleep. He is a “sundowner” who gets confused as evening approaches, Mary says. There is a saying: “Kung walang hirap, walang ginhawa.” Without suffering, there can be no ease.

“What day is it?” Fred asks suddenly. It’s Saturday. “Just Saturday?” he frowns. “Not anything special?”

A handful of books rest on a shelf. Danielle Steele’s Finer Things and a Surgery of the Foot volume. These are the random things that have stuck with Fred into old age. A lifetime’s worth of stuff whittled down to what you can cram into a 300-square-foot studio apartment.

Mary’s husband knows what kind of work she does. They need the money to pay off their house in Negros. Her husband earns 5,000 pesos a month, about $100. Her former friends ridicule her for doing work that maids in the Philippines do. But with the money she earns, she has been able to send one of her two daughters to law school and buy each of them a car.

 

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