The Best of Both Worlds
Myrabel Estonilo’s 1981 journey from Manila, Philippines in search of a better life
essay written by Wesley Lopezvito
Myrabel Estonilo is an immigrant from the island nation of the Philippines. She is an honor student and a graduate from the most prestigious state universities in the Philippines, yet her life is about to change forever. Her dreams and visions of the country an ocean away bring her to overcome major obstacles within herself to cross that ocean. Estonilo’s journey starts out with many hardships that she won’t face alone, but with her family. Her tale starts out small but it becomes one of the biggest immigrant success stories in history.
America - the land of opportunities, where dreams are fulfilled and hopes are reached. There are over 700,000 immigrants who migrate to the United States each year. Ever since the first colonies were set up in America in the 1600s, the United States has been based off immigrants in search of a better life. A modern story of adventure, hardship, and love is a tale many immigrants experience during their journey to America and one a successful American shares too. Her tale is an interesting one with many twists and turns that represent the true American spirit and American dream. The tale she told was one of an immigrant woman possessing the faith and boldness to leave behind all she knew for a dream. Her story truly symbolizes the legacy of a century of immigrants making their journey to the land of opportunity.
Myrabel Estonilo was born in 1961 in the coastal province of Zambales on the large island nation of the Philippines. She was the eldest of four children - three girls and a boy. Her early childhood was spent living in her grandparents’ ancestral home. The Zambales region was mostly rural and her grandparents’ home was a farm surrounded by many mango and coconut trees. As a young child she remembers,” [having] a lot of playmates because [she] had a lot of cousins.”1 Estonilo and her family soon moved to the city of Manila, the capital of the Philippines where she spent the majority of her childhood. When Estonilo turned five, she went to kindergarten at a Catholic school which was tradition for most middle class Filipinos as the Philippines was very faith-based much like Spain. She attended the same Catholic school for high school.
Family values were very important for Filipinos and especially for the Estonilo family who gathered every weekend. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and family-friends were there for each others trials and tribulations. Because of this, she still remains close to all of her cousins, regularly visiting them on special occasions. Estonilo’s parents instilled traditional Filipino values in her and made sure she lived her life on good ethics and morals. She says her parents were, “conservative, strict but very loving.”2 Life at home was made easier thanks to hired help of maids which were typical of middle class Filipino households. As government employees, Estonilo’s parents depended on their regular paycheck to provide for family needs.
Due to her parents’ strict values, Estonilo’s teenage life was very sheltered. She was not allowed to hang out with friends or go to parties unless it was related with academics. Her first party was not a pleasant memory as she recalls, “I was the only one in the party who was accompanied by parents. It was so embarrassing. When the dancing started, I got to go to the dance floor once and my parents wanted [Estonilo and her parents] to go home right after that.”3 Her mom monitored her phone calls and she was not allowed to have a boyfriend. Such sheltering led to misunderstanding between her and her parents. But thanks to the traditional Filipino values of respect for elders, not once did she talk back to her parents or disrespect them. Thanks to her parents’ rigorous principles and their never-fading love and support, she graduated honors and at the top of her class at high school. Estonilo got accepted to the most prestigious state university in the Philippines, the University of the Philippines. Although a bright student, she did not choose to pursue a career in the medical field due to her family’s financial status. She says, “[she] wanted to be able to help out [her] family financially, instead of being a burden to them.”4 Estonilo graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in biology. Somehow, her degree ended up getting her a job in a travel agency. Even though it wasn’t the job she expected, working in a travel agency created a desire within her to travel to the United States.
On her twentieth birthday, an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself for the Estonilo family. It was 1981 and Ferdinand Marcos’s military regime was going into its sixteenth year. Due to his hold on the Philippine government and his imposing of martial law for six years, many Filipinos sought refuge in America. Many, including the Estonilo family applied for visas to the United States. Thousands were rejected, but her dad’s long awaited family petition was finally approved and her chance to experience the American dream was finally realized. Still, there was the major problem of uprooting the entire family and moving to a new country to start a new life. This also meant adjusting to new laws, culture, society, and life for immigrants in a strange land would be difficult. The family would be leaving all they knew in the Philippines and Estonilo would also be leaving all her friends and cousins too. But the good out-weighed the bad for the American dream opened up new opportunities for the Estonilo family as Estonilo has said that, “The thought of being able to earn dollars [in America] and a brighter future for the family especially for us kids was a big consideration.”3 Even though Estonilo was sad to leave the Philippines, she was also excited to come to America.
Her first few weeks in America were filled with excitement and sadness. Estonilo was terribly homesick, she said, “I was so homesick even if I was with my family and relatives. I missed my friends and cousins in the Philippines. I missed certain Filipino foods although we did eat Filipino food at home. I kept comparing my life in the Philippines”.3 Yet with her homesickness, she was still very excited to be in America. She spoke of her first impressions: “I was very excited when we landed at L.A.X. We were gonna live with my aunt’s family for awhile until my parent’s can afford to find a place of our own. I remember being thrilled driving down [the] Hollywood freeway….It was exactly like it was in the Hollywood movies that I used to watch in the Philippines.”4 Estonilo’s first couple of weeks felt like a vacation visiting Universal Studios and Disneyland. But soon, reality started to kick in for her and her family.
After the first few weeks of vacation and fun, it became apparent to Estonilo that it was time to get a job and to establish a new life for herself in America. Her younger siblings had to go back to school and she went in search of a white collar job. She turned in resumes at various offices in the Wilshire Blvd. area, but no one called back. Eventually she found two fast-food jobs working twelve to fourteen hour days between Jack-In-The-Box and Pioneer Chicken. This was a far cry from the office work she did in the Philippines. She recalls, “I remember working at Pioneer Chicken and serving one of my former classmates in the university. At that time, he was already working as a physical therapist at a hospital and here I was working in front of the cash register earning minimum wage. It was quite frustrating for me.”5 Back in the Philippines, there were maids and helpers around to do household work, so Estonilo had to learn to do household chores. She recalls, “It was such a rude awakening for me and my family how life in the United States was not as easy as it seems”.4
As the paychecks started to come in, Estonilo started to realize the American dream. Estonilo has stated, “the best thing about coming to the US…. (that) is earning US dollars instead of Philippine pesos. Even if I was working my butt off at the fast-food restaurants, I felt a sense of fulfillment every time I got my paycheck because it was hard earned money.”4 Estonilo was able to spend her income on anything she wanted and she was able to set aside money for a savings account. Early on, Estonilo had trouble spending money due to her experience with the worthless Filipino Peso. But as she became more accustomed to American living, she would go out to L.A. on weekends and would go watch movies, go to concerts, eat out at restaurants or go to the mall with friends and co-workers. So for Estonilo, life was beginning to resemble the visions and aspirations she had for America back in the Philippines. For the Estonilos, the beginning of the American dream was about to be realized. A few years later, Estonilo reconnected with a friend from the Philippines who just migrated to California. She convinced Estonilo to move to a quite suburb south of Los Angeles called Orange County. In Orange County, Estonilo was able to use her college degree in biology to find herself a better job in the 3M Corporation than in a fast-food joint. Orange County is also where she made new friends and where she met her husband. Those friends would continue to be an important part of her life and her family’s life. They would become part of her extended family.
Assimilating into American society was made easier by the Philippine’s education system. English is the medium of instruction for schools in the Philippines, so Estonilo knew how to speak English before she made her way to the United States. American pop culture was very big in the Philippines as well and Estonilo knew big names in America culture such as Michael Jackson and Star Wars when they were popular in America. She says, “I was really lucky to have a great group of people as co-workers because unconsciously, they helped my transition to American society easier. I worked with a group of people that had diverse backgrounds, some of them older than me and some of them were my age so I learned a lot from different cultures and ages.”5 She learned tips on dating and single life in America, she learned how to raise children and juggle a career at the same time, and she learned about the high quality Irvine School District. Living in America was definitely easier for Estonilo thanks to the wonderful and caring people she met along her journey.
Estonilo currently has two teenage children and she has to deal with a multitude of problems on a daily basis. Her teenage years left her experienced, yet unprepared at the same time. Estonilo still remembers the misunderstanding she had with her parents and she has sought out to remedy this problem with her own kids. She says, “[her parents’ strictness] is the hardest part to reconcile because in American culture, children are taught at a very young age to express their opinions and stand up for themselves. But because of my experience growing up as [a] teenager with strict parents, I had to learn to find a healthy balance of discipline and freedom when it comes to dealing with my children.”7 Estonilo has always taught her children about their Filipino heritage since the moment they were born. She has always taught them how lucky they were to experience the best of both cultures. It was tough for Estonilo to teach her kids Filipino dialects and history due to the strong American influence of television, but she has never given up. Filipino cuisine has always been a mainstay for dinner in Estonilo’s household, even though when her kids were younger they preferred hotdogs and hamburgers. Family value was a very important thing to pass down to her children. Weekly visits with family and family-friends helps to “carry on Filipino traditions and values such as close family ties and respect for your elders,”6 she says. Estonilo has also subscribed to The Filipino Channel which she believes makes sure, “the kids are always aware of what’s going on in the Philippines”. She makes an extra effort to show her privileged children how lucky they are to be living in America and not in a third world country.
Estonilo is thankful to live in a country where discipline is imposed by strictly enforcing the law unlike the Philippines where corruption runs rampant. She believes it is “amazing that Filipinos will do as Americans do.”7 She does have some extremely minor gripes on American society such as the way they take care of the elderly by sending them to retirement homes. She believes the Filipino tradition of taking care of their aging parents in their homes until they die is more honorable. She also prefers the Filipino tradition of letting the kids leave the house when they’re ready instead of forcing them to be independent when they turn eighteen. But she is thankful for a life for her family that isn’t endangered by corruption or instability that has since plagued the Philippines and she is forever grateful to the country that she has lived in more than half of her life.
Estonilo’s journey has been a long one. She has experienced and learned about life in both America and in the Philippines and she is quite grateful for that. She is thankful to look at life through two very different perspectives; one through a youth raised in a problematic third world country and the other through a successful woman in the most prospering country in the world. She feels blessed to be able to experience the good life while not being caught up in the excesses American life sometimes has. She says, “when I hear about poverty in Africa or tragedy elsewhere in the world, I just don’t see it or hear it, I know what its like because I’ve witnessed it in my own country…..So as a parent, I always try to instill in my kids the values of hard work, integrity, and making the right choices because I don’t ever want them to be complacent and take things for granted.”7 Estonilo once thought that one day when she and her husband have saved enough money, they would go back to the country they once called home and retire. But now she no longer believes that and Estonilo has said, “America is now our home because this is our kids’ home and they will start and raise their family here….America has been so good to us so we also want to be able to give back to this country all the blessings we have received by volunteering our time to help others when we retire.” Estonilo will continue to visit her homeland from time to time and live in her adopted homeland with her family and will continue to enjoy “the best of both worlds.”7
Estonilo is a truly amazing woman with unwavering faith. She and many people like her represent one of many immigrant success stories and symbolize true success in a modern America. Her tale is one of the allure of the American dream and its promises of opportunity and success. Such promises are proven to be true because of immigrants such as Estonilo and millions of Filipinos like her. Estonilo is part of a legacy of immigrants who have crossed borders and oceans to be apart of the American dream and to be apart of American history.
1. Estonilo, Myrabel. Personal Interview. 23 May 2009, 1.
2. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 2.
3. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 3.
4. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 4.
5. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 5.
6. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 6.
7. Estonilo. 23 May 2009, 7.