A question arose during the Erasmus Mundus Association Philippines pre-departure orientation about racism and whether anyone there has experienced it in Europe. The question was asked in such a soft voice that no one heard it but the few seated beside the student, and it was forgotten, through no fault of the moderators, in light of the louder voices present. Still, it was asked, and I thought to answer.
For better or for worse, I’ve spent the good last half of my life abroad (i.e., away from the Philippines) and I’ve lived in many cities and encountered many cultures. I can safely say that throughout living in Australia, Norway, Sweden, and America, as well as a respectable amount of time spent in other Asian countries, I was never the victim of racial violence or abuse until I landed in Italy. That is not to say that everyone in Italy is racist— no, like in all countries there are good people and bad, it is just to say that this was the very first time in my life that I was made to feel bad by a person who thought they were better than me. Specifically, by an Italian doctoral student who thought it appropriate to use rather untranslatable language to speak of me and/or ‘Asians’ and after I politely replied, to think it appropriate to email me an ‘apology’ asking how would I feel if she called me ‘Filippina’ which to quote her “is a synonym of housemaid serving Italian wealthy families”.
To answer her question: I am a Filippina. Whether or not you think it is an insult, coming from a wealthy Italian family and thinking I or any of my countrymen is beneath you, is not my problem.
I didn’t respond to the racism question posed during the EMA Philippines orientation as I didn’t want to scare the new scholars before their exciting leap into the world of European higher education, but I’ve been thinking about the question and about my first year in Rome a lot and essentially the answer is yes. Racism exists and rears its ugly head everywhere, and in my experience, even in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But let’s make one thing clear here: calling me Filippina (‘maid’ or otherwise) is not an insult and never will be.
The Filipino diaspora is huge. We have almost twenty million people scattered around the world, either as temporary migrants— Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) or students like myself— or as permanent migrants— whether as immigrants, dual citizenship holders, or legal permanent residents abroad.
While most Filipinos have settled in the Middle East or countries like the United States or Canada, a significant number have settled in Europe. Italy hosts the largest population of overseas Filipino workers in Western Europe, and the densest concentration of Filipinos can be found in Rome. Most Filipinos are working in the service industry, and a significant number of Filipinas are engaged as domestic helpers. According to the Philippine Embassy Rome, a total of 500,000 Filipinos were registered as legally living in Italy as of 2014.
In Rome, especially in the ‘posh’ district of Parioli, I’ve seen many Filipinos around. They push prams and help old nonnas with their afternoon walks, they do groceries and clean apartments, and the couple in my building are working as live-in caregivers— they were very surprised to hear me speak to them in Tagalog and I was so very surprised to find kabayans right there in my home.
I’ve written extensively about my troubled experience with Italian bureaucracy and my many problems simply getting access to basic social services, but throughout all of this I am lucky— because it was my choice to come, my choice to stay, and I have always had the option to leave. I’m not dependent on Italy for anything, I’m a doctoral student not a slave. I have the freedom to travel, the financial capacity to make my own choices, and the power to stand up for myself against injustice knowing that any harm done to me can only be verbal.
Many of these Filipino domestic workers do not. They travel to Italy, perhaps to Rome, and encounter such persons as the Italian girl who thinks herself above us simply because she is from a wealthy family and we are known as ‘maids’. I can only imagine how difficult the lives of my countrymen would be faced with such discrimination. I can only imagine how difficult day to day life would be working under the oversight of such a person.
To this girl and to any person who shares the same thoughts: these women you derogatorily refer as ‘Filippina maids’ are people who have left their families— parents, husbands, siblings, children— to work abroad. There is honor in this, and in not endlessly complaining about one’s lot in life, or in being too lazy to find a job, or on relying on the government for handouts. It is a supreme sacrifice to give up watching your child take their first steps, to have your parents grow old without you, to work in a foreign land often under hostile conditions— with the goal of said children having money to pay for education and said parents being able to buy medication. I can’t even talk about how husbands and wives risk tearing their marriages apart if one of them engages in overseas work, as anyone in a relationship, long-distance or otherwise, can imagine. For all the looking down on ‘Filippina maids’, you should try to understand that Filipinos are not simply ‘enjoying themselves’ working in your beautiful country, they are trading in their lives for a chance for their families to have a better one.
I can’t claim any of this noble sacrifice as I’m here on quite a selfish agenda— my own postgraduate education. But even so, being away from your family is the same thing no matter what the base cause is. I’ve missed many milestones in my brother’s life. My parents are growing older with me only seeing them briefly, perhaps once a year. My grandparents as well as can be expected from people approaching their centennial. I’m far from my friends and I’m missing out on the birthdays and the weddings and the occasional baby shower. But I’m lucky still. I chose this.
Others, especially Filipinos who are employed as domestic helpers, do not have such freedom. The rate of violence against and sexual abuse of OFWs in Europe is extremely high, and the statistics for the rape and sexual abuse of Filipinas in Italy is so alarming that it often has separate sections devoted to it in human rights reports. This is not even to speak of the little violences that go on each day— being sneered at while in line at the grocery, being spit on by schoolchildren, or having to listen to derogatory statements by people who think you don’t understand Italian but actually you do. That said, at least Filipinos are relatively light skinned. Those of darker complexion have it a hundred times worse. A friend of mine— who, barring political correctness, we shall identify as ‘black’— has been physically pushed away from a seat on the bus by an Italian nonna who didn’t want him there. This was witnessed with horror by Italian friends— kind, non-racist friends— who had no idea what to do. Another dark-skinned friend was repeatedly pushed aside by Italians at a grocery queue, again witnessed by kind, non-racist friends. Another friend was rejected from renting an apartment repeatedly simply because of his skin color. A Chinese friend suffered chants of “KO-RE-ANO” while on the regional train, even though he is Chinese and not Korean. The list goes on.
We people blessed with non-white skin living in a white-supremacist world bear it with grace. Overseas Filipino Workers live contentedly, if not happily, knowing their salary goes to their families. Those in Rome take being spat on by children (I have seen this) and being berated by old women for not pushing wheelchairs fast enough (I have seen this too). There are happy days, I would hope, but living in a place where racism exists and runs unchecked would break the hearts of the best of us. Mine certainly breaks every time I bear witness to this and I try to do what I can, with my very limited Italian vocabulary.
So yes, Italian girl, call me Filippina all you want. Know that it is not an insult to me, and will never be. And yes, incoming Filipino scholars to Europe, racism exists here. But be brave, and know that you are freer than others to speak back and make your voice heard. Never stand for injustice, against us or anyone.
It’s not just foreigners who are abused in Italy, even their very own Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge and internationally respected football striker Mario Balotelli are not immune. To quote Balotelli’s fellow striker Ciro Immobile after the incident— Immobile being fair-skinned and Italian-born— “No I’m not ashamed to be Italian when I hear things like this being said. But it saddens me. We’re in 2014 and to be hearing racist insults from people, whether you’re yellow, black or white is just unacceptable.”