By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“It’s free,” Mary says.
“Free?” Fred says happily.
Soon, Fred’s wife asks Mary to help give Fred showers. On their “first date,” as Mary calls it, Fred emerges sheepishly from the room with a face towel over his groin. Mary collapses in a heap, laughing at him, with him. Then it is Fred’s wife who collapses. It happens one day in the dining room. The cause is a bleeding tumor in the brain. Mary becomes Fred’s full-time caregiver after his wife dies.
“Can I sleep here at night so I don’t have to run home? It’s too cold outside,” she asks him. The arrangement makes it easier for her to keep an eye on Fred, to make sure he doesn’t stumble when he uses the restroom in the middle of the night. In America, she knows true loneliness for the first time in her life. Her fellow Filipinos become her salvation. They cover for each other, they help each other find work. Ironically, they are also each other’s own worst enemies. Mary stays so close to Fred partly because she knows someone else could easily snake her job. Half the caregivers at the retirement home are dispatched by agencies. The agencies charge the patient $20. The caregiver gets $8. The patient, though, sometimes won’t go to the agency, because why pay $20 when you can cut out the middleman and give the caregiver herself ten bucks?
Mary considers herself lucky to have landed with Fred. He is kind. He doesn’t grope her, or yell, or insult her. She would never want to be a caregiver working for another Filipino, she says.
“Why are you sleeping on the floor?” I ask. “Is he forcing you to sleep on the floor?”
“Why don’t you get a bed?”
“Oh,” she says, “I don’t know,” as if it had never occurred to her such a thing were possible.
On a sunny day months after the raid on Vernon Street, the mother of the man next door arrives and plunks herself down on the squashy couch in front of his large picture window. The man has lived in this quiet Los Altos neighborhood of Long Beach for 26 years. “We went over to have dinner there once,” his mother says, indicating the house next door. “We had chicken adobo and pancit and all that food.”
“They weren’t even getting paid minimum wage, I don’t think,” the man says of the enslaved women. “What’s minimum wage now?” he asks his daughter, who looks to be all of 7 or 8 years old.
“I think six,” she says.
For a while, Darwin was friendly. “He used to come over for a beer and sneak cigarettes,” the man says. “Then he stopped.”
Housing victims at traffickers’ own residences, it seems, is the norm. A profile of typical traffickers emerges. They engender mutual mistrust among the victims and instill what FBI agent Tricia Whitehall calls, in an affidavit filed in federal court, “a climate of fear” — fear of law enforcement, fear of reprisals if they stop working. Traffickers keep large sums of cash on hand. Most are vigilant record keepers — of money wires both international and domestic. Records are often written in code and by hand. They take photos of their victims. They take custody of their victims’ identification documents and passports. However futile it sounds, sometimes victims keep their own records of debt payments so they can reconcile them with their oppressors’ records.
Darwin, out on bail, came over to his neighbor’s house crying and apologizing one day. The man shooed him away. “I’d like to say to Darwin, what if it was your daughter? Or sister?” the man says now in retrospect. “They are soiling what America is. They were exploiting these girls and writing off electricity, gas, water. Can you imagine calling that a small business?”
Many do. Several years ago, Nena Ruiz, a Filipino woman working as a domestic servant for a vice president of legal affairs for Sony Pictures Entertainment sued him and his wife for enslaving her. She worked 18 hours a day performing what one paper described as “strange household chores,” which included microwaving chicken nuggets and cutting up bananas and pears for the couple’s dogs. Ruiz, meanwhile, was fed leftovers and slept in a dog bed. A jury awarded her $825,000 in back wages and punitive damages. In another instance, Elma Manliguez was paid 6 cents an hour to work under slavelike conditions as a caregiver for the family of a Merrill Lynch executive in New Jersey. They settled with her for $175,000. Then last year, a Milwaukee jury awarded close to $1 million in compensation to a Filipino woman who worked illegally for 20 years for a Wisconsin physician couple.
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