America: Land of Opportunity
Barroga’s emigrated from the Philippines to the United States in 1968, in search of a better life
essay written by R.J. Renzi
Barroga is the grandmother of my significant other Grace McClain. I have known Grace since freshman and have only met her grandmother once prior to this interview. I had heard many stories about Barroga’s immigration experience from the Philippines to the United States. Most importantly her stories about the Japanese Invasion of the Philippines during World War II in 1941-1945, and I desperately wanted to listen and document her account of such a tremulous experience.
The story of Mercy Barroga’s immigration experience from the Philippines to the United States is no fairytale. Born in the Philippines in March 1930, she faced tremendous hardship and overcame many obstacles in order to immigrate to such a diverse country. She has endured the perilous time period of World War II during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines from 1941-1945 while she risked her life to protect her father. She is a single mother with seven children, and immigrated to the United States by herself in 1968 in order to provide a better life for herself and her children. She has lived an extremely interesting life, and her experience of immigrating to the United States provide a picture perfect reason of why America is said to be “The Land of Opportunity.”1
Barroga’s homeland is located in the Philippine islands, a small tropical country off the east coast of Asia, made up of more than 7,107 islands. Most of these islands are too small to be habitable, but they have beautiful beaches and resort areas. The Philippines are located near the equator, so it does not have four climates, like in the United States. It just has one climate: tropical. Inhabitants there dress light and wear little clothing. The children often run around with just underwear or shorts on, and maybe a t-shirt. However, during the summer and parts of fall, June through October, there are many rains and typhoons. Over 200 languages are spoken in the Philippines with Tagalong as their first national language, and English as a second language in order for everyone to clearly communicate with each other. English has been the spoken language in schools since the end of World War II, when the Americans came to help win the war against the Japanese invasion from 1941-1945.
Filipinos are incredibly resourceful and will use anything that comes from the Earth. Barroga lived in a really poor area known as the “barrio”2 just outside Manila, the Philippine’s capital city. The barrios there were made up of farming people who grew most of their food in their own backyard. They also raised pigs, chickens, and goats as their source of meat and milk. She lived in a hut made of bamboo and palm leaves woven together for roofing and siding. When she lived near the ocean, the huts were typically built on stilts, so that during the hurricane season they were protected from the high tides which would come up all the way to the front door. Houses made in the city were usually constructed using concrete cinder blocks and were a lot stronger.
Barroga’s average day in the Philippines greatly differed depending on what was occurring in the country at the time. Her daily life was differed drastically between peace time and war time. Before the Japanese invasion of 1941, she was just like any other young girl. She would wake up at 4:30 every morning to eat breakfast prepared by a maid and then get ready for school. In the Philippines, “there was a maid for everything”3 because Filipinos’ have extremely large families with many children. There was a maid for cooking, cleaning the house, washing clothes, and taking care of the children. Maids would work six days a week with one day off. She attended a free public school which was identical to the public school system of the United States, which went up to grade twelve. She would walk five miles to and from school everyday. The Philippines were previously a Spanish colony until 1898: as result, Catholicism is the national religion and is an important part of Filipino culture. Filipinos’ catholic faith is greatly displayed in the architecture of major cities and in their churches. On Sundays, Barroga would walk two miles to and from church with all the members of her family including their maids.
Barroga’s father was a high government official working as a Tax Collector in the barrio where she grew up during her teens. Her father was wanted by both the rebels who were against the Filipino government as well as the Japanese. She actually said the rebels at times were “worse than the Japanese”4 military who were looking to kill her father. Her entire family had to live in hiding during the war for fear of getting caught and being put to death like many of the government officials found at the time. Since so many officials had been murdered, her father was the highest remaining official and was therefore the mayor of the city under the chain of command, although he was unaware of his high ranking position at the time. In order for her father to avoid prosecution, he hid himself on top of one of the surrounding mountains in the middle of the forest from 1941-1944 so it would be incredibly difficult for the rebels to find him. Barroga would “walk to the top of the mountain almost everyday to bring him food,”5 along with family members and friends living in the barrio. He had escaped from many assassination attempts by the rebels; and the rebels were actually captured by the Japanese as a consequence for a fake city council meeting set up by the rebels which Barroga’s father never planned to attend. He eventually came out from hiding in 1944 and was surprisingly never killed by the Japanese, but was kept as a prisoner of war. A survivor of the war, her father became the mayor of the barrio.
The Philippines were ridiculed by war, a corrupt government, suppression of life, and a constant terrible economy. Barroga wanted to provide the best life and opportunity possible for herself and her children. With Barroga being a nurse, moving to America meant making more money. As for her husband, who was an engineer, the reasons were the same: “He was paid more than what he would make for the same job in the Philippines.”6 The currency of the Philippines is the peso, but it is not the same as the Mexican peso. One U.S. dollar ($USD) is currently equal to 47.27 Philippine Pesos (PHP). This large discrepancy between the two currencies is an obvious reason why it was financially better for her to live in the United States. In addition, Filipino citizens did not have complete freedom. If the government did not like someone, or if the citizen angered a high ranking government official, “[the government] would just come in and [take] everything you own and throw you out on the street.”7 Barroga did not feel safe or protected in the Philippines and did not want her children to experience the same hardship and fear.
As a result of America’s victory of liberating the Philippines from Japanese occupation in 1945 under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, the Filipinos viewed America as the greatest country in the world. Barroga desperately wanted to be a part of that country and to call it her home, for her native country had been overrun by corruption. Her expectations were that “everything would be better in America.”8 She even said “at first I was expecting everything to be made of gold.”9 She expected everything to be more advanced, “just everything to be better, cleaner, and [even] smell better.”10 Her expectations originated from pictures she saw of movies stars and “things more beautiful than in the Philippines.”11
In 1956, she married and became pregnant with her first child Bernard. In 1968, she and her husband planned on coming to the United States “for a better life since the Philippines was such a poor and underdeveloped country.”12 Her husband was a civil engineer and she was a nurse. At the time, it was fairly easy to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines if you had a profession that was needed. Nurses and engineers were in high demand in the United States during World War II because of the many injured soldiers and numerous war machines being constructed there. Her husband came to the United States first, and then she came shortly after to work at a hospital in Chicago, Illinois. Her seven children remained living in the Philippines under the care of her sister because she needed to save up some money to bring to America. She also wanted to find a place to live which had a more temperate climate than in Chicago, and more like the tropical climate of her homeland. A year later, in December 1969 Barroga and her husband finally reunited with their children in Los Angeles, California.
The necessity of money was not the only reason which delayed the migration of her children to America. Her second oldest son Bert was diagnosed with Tuberculosis while he was still living in the Philippines. This diagnosis was never actually confirmed but it created a lot of problems for Barroga and her family. His diagnoses delayed all seven children from coming here because they all needed to come together. When they did finally immigrate here, Bert had to go to the hospital every 6 months to be tested for Tuberculosis, although not one test ever came up positive.
Barroga’s first impressions of America were only positive ones of “how wonderful it is to be here.”13 Everything was so clean and organized compared to the Philippines. The streets were cleaner, paved, and clearly marked. The supermarkets and hospitals were clearly labeled-everything was easy to locate. There were never any empty shelves or signs that would say “not in season.”14 In the Philippines, the time of year determined what kind of food you were able to buy in the market. Barroga had transcended from living in a third world country to living in the first world where America was the dominating superior power. Her impression of America could be nothing other than fascinating. To her, living in America was like “living in the future.”15 Everything was so advanced-the movies, the phones, the cars, the kitchen appliances, the washing machines and dryers, the offices, the government, and even the TV sets. In the United States, there was nothing that she could ever consider as “primitive.”16
Although Barroga has overcome many obstacles in both the Philippines and the United States, she has no regrets. Even though she comes from a family who was viewed as royalty in the Philippines, she moved to America without any reservations about turning back. She has lived in Los Angeles for almost 40 years now. In 1971 Barroga divorced from her husband. Her husband took off and moved to Hawaii to live with his sister. Barroga was forced to raise all seven children by herself and without any physical or financial support from her husband. In order to accommodate for the loss of income, Barroga worked as a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles working 2-3 shifts seven days a week. She would come home at night only to bring home food to her children, and rest for a few hours before returning back to work. The fact she did not have as much time as she would have liked to spend time with her children is her biggest regret. Sadly, this was not because of her. It was because of her husband leaving and forcing her to raise seven children on her own. She had no man in her life and had scarce support from anyone else. Although she did receive help from one of her sisters as well as a cousin who were both living in the area. Her cousin would feed Barroga’s children breakfast in the morning and dinner at nights while she worked three shifts at the hospital. Her sister and her cousin gave Barroga the most help out of anyone, even more than her husband.
All seven of Barroga’s children were born and raised in the Philippines for the first few years of their lives. Her children immigrated together to the United States. Since her children had lived in the Philippines previously, they were already accustomed to the Filipino culture. Filipinos love to party and it is a big part of their culture to get together on a regular basis. Most of their get togethers are potluck, banquet style dinners where everybody contributes to the party. Most of her children are Catholic and attend church weekly. Some of her children even take her to church every week. In addition they all eat some of their native foods on almost a daily basis. Their two most common favorite foods are Vietnamese Eggrolls along with pancit noodles, which resemble chow mein noodles with beef or chicken on the inside. Barroga did not need to do much to retain her culture in her children because they both came from the same place. However assimilating was a little bit different. For the first time in her and her children’s lives, they had to wear jackets and sweatshirts. Never before had they experienced cold weather. To them, the only other difficulty in assimilating besides the cold weather was the high price of sushi and other seafoods.
Barroga lived a very difficult, fascinating, and interesting life. I believe most people in her position would have given up a long time ago. She currently lives in the same three bedroom home she bought in Culver City, California in 1971. Her husband has relocated from Hawaii, to San Bernardino, California. She has not seen her husband since 1978, and has no desire of ever seeing him again. Her biggest feelings of regret would be marrying her husband, but ironically her biggest joy is the children he gave her. Her worst experience of coming here was the feeling of her husband leaving her to raise seven children on her own. He left her feeling alone, depressed, and isolated. The greatest part though however, was the fact she was able to move here and enjoy the land of opportunity and shares it with her children. Barroga gets together with all of her children about once a month where they partake in huge get togethers where they drink wine and eat their favorite traditional Filipino foods. Her children are her living legacy, and her greatest accomplishment is the positive impact they have left upon the world.
1. Barroga, Mercy. Personal Interview. 17 May 2009, 11.
2. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 2.
3. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 4.
4. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 3.
5. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 3.
6. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 1.
7. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
8. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
9. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
10. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
11. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
12. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 1.
13. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
14. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
15. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 7.
16. Barroga, Mercy. 17 May 2009, 1.