Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien) #5

Beyond Deadlines is proud to serialize Mr. Romy Morales’ first book “Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien).” It is a personal account of a Filipino immigrant in the United States. It is a must read for those who wish to migrate to the U.S. Come let us join Romy in his journey and see what is in store for us.

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(5th Installment)

Chapter 4

Carlos, a schoolmate from college, picked me up from my best friend’s house in San Jose and drove me to Stockton, some 100 miles away or so. As he drove, he confided that he had been married perhaps awaiting a surprised response. However, his revelation didn’t surprise me. I already assumed that when I last saw him in 1998.

Marrying Jessica helped him legalize his status and put a semblance of legitimacy into their relationship. He and Jessica had been living together for quite a while. Getting married is but natural for them to do. Carlos was a contract worker in Saudi Arabia when he met Jessica in the Saudi capital of Riyadh while she was a nurse in a military hospital,.

Two years after Jessica left for the United States, Carlos followed. They now live in a roomy and beautiful home in Stockton with a big front and back yards. Carlos had converted one of the four bedrooms into a working office. He let me occupy the guest room on the ground floor.

Every morning, Carlos and I would hit the road from Stockton to San Francisco, otherwise known as Sanfo. His work was based in Sanfo. He was a merchant selling anything from real estate to door knobs. He goes to the Bay Area, also in Sanfo, almost every day to close deals with clients or render service to old time customers. In the evening, we would travel the long sleepy road back home for about an hour and forty-five minutes.

Carlos is one hell of a good driver. One can fall asleep and after some time, voila!…you are now in your destination and you didn’t even feel a thing. His job and the distance he travels from his residence to place of work and vice versa makes him to be on the road most of the time.

During the first six days of my stay in Carlos’ house, we visited several home cares in Manteca, San Bruno, Tracy, Walnut Creek, Millbrae and Daly City. Sometimes we drove as far as Redwood and San Jose where I met caregivers with interesting stories to tell. I learned about:

  • A Filipino caregiver who raped a Sri Lankan and fellow caregiver in the facility where he worked after she refused his overtures. After the incident, the 63 year old Sri Lankan accepted her 54-year old rapist as her lover. The Filipino was a former policeman in the Philippines and police officers in my country are notorious for having several women at a time. They are now living together as a common-law couple, four years after the “incident,” and still work for the same facility.
  • A married couple came to the United States as tourists. They got work permits after the husband filed for an asylum. Their permits, however, lapsed and hadn’t been renewed so they agreed to divorce and take care of their status individually. They also agreed to seek new mates for convenience and made a bond to remarry once they had legalized their status. “Tulungan tayo. Kung sino ang mauna,” they promised each other.
  • An embassy secretary came in with a Malaysian diplomatic passport and has since then been working in a facility for the elderly.
  • A 35-year old Filipina came to the United States as a tourist. She had three children from her Chinese-mestizo husband in the Philippines. Initially, she stayed in Hawaii but then moved to California where she fell in love with a much younger man, also a caregiver and an illegal alien like her.
  • A 45-year old widow from Thailand set foot in San Francisco as a hopeful immigrant. After 20 years, she is still an illegal immigrant not because of her own making but due to her lawyers who, either through incompetence or ignorance, botched her opportunity to legalize her stay. Worse, the money she spent with her immigration lawyers was enough to give her a comfortable retirement.

During one of these trips, Carlos brought me to Crispin Aranda’s office in downtown San Francisco. He is an old friend or so I thought.

Aranda had been my senior at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines which was known then as the Philippine College of Commerce.

During the Marcos regime, the college was labeled a hotbed of dissent as most of the students, who came from poor families, became student activists. Aranda was among them as he was an active student leader who is always in the forefront of rallies. He was also involved in the college theater, of which I was also a member.

Aranda was into immigration when I saw him again in his office after several years. He was then writing a column on immigration for a Manila based newspaper.

I haven’t seen Aranda in more than 20 years. Our last contact was a month before he was thrown in jail during martial law. While in prison, his wife and three young daughters rented a room in our house. I had no idea if he ever learned I housed his family.

When he was released from prison, he left for the United States, leaving his family behind.

Meeting him for the first time in so many years, I felt we were strangers. There seemed to be no common denominator between us that we could explore to make our meeting exciting or lively, except we had gone to the same school.

He was not the Aranda I had known back in college, not the stage trooper I had worked with on stage plays, whom I was comfortable with. He was not the friend I knew then—jovial, friendly. Maybe he just never considered me a friend, just a schoolmate. He didn’t seem excited seeing me. I felt like I am just another client, just another immigrant trying to get an audience with him.

Our meeting was businesslike except that we did no business. There were many moments of silence during that meeting but the deepest silence of all came as I was leaving. I left very disappointed.

I also expected to meet a former business reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, who, two years before in Manila, came to me seeking assistance as he was in the process of legalizing his status in the United States.

He was about to leave the country in 1998 when he was barred from leaving. The Department of Foreign Affairs would not give him an exit permit because of an alleged unsettled court case dating from his time as a reporter.

Filipino journalists often find themselves slapped with libel suits due to the articles or expose they wrote. According to this reporter, the foreign affairs department wanted him to present a court clearance attesting that he no longer had a pending libel case before he will be allowed to leave and that would surely take time. He was in deep trouble when he sought my help as president of the Diplomatic Press Corps. Nevertheless, I didn’t hesitate to extend a helping hand to a colleague in distress.

I placed my name on the line by vouching for him, assuring the DFA case officer that what happened is just a case of mistaken identity. He was then given the permission to leave. Had he not been allowed to go, he will surely screw his immigrant status as he will definitely stay in the Philippines and exceed the grace period given by the U.S. government to green card holders. This fella now manages his own businesses in the Bay Area.

Before he left the country greatly relieved, he promised to return the favor in any way he could. He said “just give me a call when you’re in Sanfo.”

Thus when I was in Sanfo, I took his word and made several phone calls to his office. His secretary would ask for my name only to be told, after several moments of silence on the other end of the line, that her boss was out or not yet in the office.

No matter how many times I tried, I cannot get a hold of him over the phone until I got tired of calling. I just lost interest in contacting him.

I strongly felt he just doesn’t want to deal with me because I am looking for a job. To confirm my suspicions, I decided to trick his secretary by saying that I already had a job and I just wanted her boss to know and that if he could just return my call so I could tell him “the good news myself.”. Lo and behold, soon my phone is ringing and he is on the other end of the line. As much as I hated him, I remained civil when we talked.

The Philippine News in the Bay Area responded to my job application. They needed an editorial assistant. From Stockton, Carlos and I traveled some 100 miles for an interview appointment with the associate editor.

The strong rain on the freeways had slowed down our speed. I was about 45 minutes late and I sensed the lady associate editor was not amused.

After a brief ice breaker, she asked me to write two editorials— one for the Philippine market and another for the U.S. readers. I was also told to lay out a newspaper’s front page. But since a group of people at that same time needed the conference room where I was to take the exam, she told me to bring home my exam and return it within a week.

Coming back after a week, I was surprised that the position they are now offering me was an entry level post. I will have to start as a reporter covering the San Jose area before I could assume the editorial assistant position later on.

They would pay $40 for every article submitted, the only pay I would receive. The newspaper comes out once every week. Most likely I could come up with one or two stories each issue. Could I survive on that? Forty or $80 a week is good news if I have another job.

What they are offering is a full time job. I have to go to San Jose every day to get the news. With no allowance and basically on my own covering my beat, I didn’t think it was worth it.

My friend Joe from Los Angeles called one evening. He used to be a photographer in the Philippines. He came to LA. as a tourist two and a half years prior.

The Baltic Publication took him in as an all-around help — messenger, photographer, maintenance, janitor, and security guard — and gave him a meager pay which is what is given to people who have no work permits.

Nevertheless, he was close to the publisher and that was the reason I contacted him. I wanted to be in the publication business.

Carlos and I fetched Britney Swing at the Greyhound Terminal. She came from from Modesto. Britney was sharing space with a friend in a row of old apartments in what was a slum area in Modesto. Almost all the tenants there were farm workers, although Britney was not a farm worker neither was her friend who was renting the unit she was staying.

Britney smoked a lot and so did her friend—a big, burly woman, five years older than her. Carlos had spotted her one time he visited his cousin, who owned the housing units.

Carlos had a friend, whom he was helping. He is Diego Garcia, who is about to turn 21 in July of the following year. He had to find a way to save himself from “aging out” — a term used in the immigration industry to refer to someone turning 21.

Diego came to America as a dependent (H-4 visa) of his father, who was on H- 1B visa petition. Professionals desiring to work in the U.S. should have H-1B petition. Employers wanting their professional services usually filed the petitions for them and their family.

The H-4 visa is given to dependents who join their principal. Under U.S. immigration law, person about to age out, with no approved relative petition or have not yet adjusted status to that of a permanent resident will have to go back to the country of origin to wait approval of the petition. To avoid going home and risk the possibility of not being able to return, Diego had to marry a U.S. citizen.

Britney would be a good savior for Diego, although the two didn’t look like a good match. Diego was five years older but several inches shorter than her. His brown features and lack of height evidently marked him as a Filipino while Britney with her fair complexion, green eyes and freckled face was a typical American girl. She was wearing a faded slacks and a T-shirt that probably had been her outfit for several days when I met her at the station. Despite her her simplicity and ruggedness, she was a stunner.

Carlos offered Britney $5,000 to marry Diego. The marriage would only be in paper. And while the petition was being processed, she would have to live with Diego, like a wife to a husband until the green card is secured. The $5,000 was a huge amount for Britney. She never had that kind of cash amount in her life.

Britney has been living independently since she was 14. Only 17, she had to get the consent of her parents to marry. She discussed the marriage proposal to her father who initially expressed reservation. To sweeten the “dowry” Carlos also promised a tidy sum of money to be given once in a while to Britney’s father. It was an offer the father could not refuse, he being jobless.

A meeting between Diego and Britney was set. Britney’s father would come and so her lady friend. Diego’s parents and sister and other relatives would also be present. Like in the Philippines when a man proposes to a woman, almost the entire town would come. The two families agreed to have the meeting in a restaurant.

Later that evening after an impressive dinner, Diego wooed Britney with romantic songs. When Britney heard his voice, she was smitten. Similarly when Diego cast his eyes on her lovely and adorable face, he was love struck. What was supposed to be a fixed marriage suddenly became real. Britney waived the $5,000, much against the wishes of her father, saying: “It’s no longer necessary.”

Diego’s family rejoiced. They set the wedding soon in Las Vegas, feeling as if they had won the Fantasy Five.

We waited a couple of hours for the rain to stop before leaving for Vegas. Carlos took the wheel. There were seven of us in the van. It took us nine hours to reach the Sin City. Diego’s family arrived several hours ahead of us from Los Angeles. They stayed at the Flamingo while our group took the Days Inn.

The wedding started as scheduled. The long, sleek, white limousine that Diego’s family rented brought the couple to a wedding chapel on South 9th Street, an apartment converted into a one-stop shop chapel. I’ve never seen a place where there are chapels one after the other. If I didn’t know Vegas, I will think this place to be a holy one. But I know more, the chapels were there for a specific purpose—the wedding business.

The minister controlled all aspects of the enterprise—the video, still photos, and the wedding itself. They didn’t allow anyone to take photos. Even relatives were prevented from taking shots with their cameras. I was supposed to photograph the wedding but the piercing look of the house photographer prevented me from exposing a single shot from my camera. Thus, I lost an opportunity to photograph what I thought would be a classic wedding.

On the surface, because of the height differences, the couple seemingly didn’t look like a proper match. But who cares about height nowadays? Have you seen Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Cruise and Katie Holmes, Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan, Danny de Vito and Rhea Perlman and a lot more? They have height differences but it haven’t been an obstacle for them to marry each other. I had this feeling I was close to finding myself in a similar situation.

We left Vegas in the evening but not after. I won $55 on a blackjack table in one of the casinos there and the rest of the group lost their money in the slot machines.

As we are now on our way home, we decided to take another chance with our luck in one of the brightly lit casinos along the road. We stopped at Gold Strike. I tried the slot machine this time and I won $900. We then moved to the Primm Valley at the next stopover where I lost $20. We were a bunch of inveterate gamblers at every slightest opportunity.

At the nearby Techapi gas station, the cold wind of the evening hit me hard as I walked to the washroom in the convenience store. It was only a short distance walk from where we parked the van but the effort made me gasp for air.

I suddenly heard or rather felt a hissing sound in my breathing similar to what asthmatics suffer when they are suffering from asthma attacks. Well, I didn’t have asthma anymore since I was seven. Perhaps the my gasping was due to the cold for when I took a hot cup of coffee, I was relieved.

It was Sunday morning when we got home.

I got my first job offer from Lavinosh Pullman. I saw some of his flyers in a laundry shop at the Bay Area. Mr. Pullman, owner of two home cares in Arizona, is looking for someone to manage his facilities and I responded to his call. He said he is taking me in at twelve hundred a month with the possibility of increasing it by a hundred dollars more if he is satisfied with my performance. He wanted me to leave immediately for Phoenix. However, I deferred my departure a few more days since I have to meet an earlier appointment.

I visited a cousin and my mother’s older sister, Aunt Noemi, at East Molkie in Daly City. I had been coming to the U.S. since 1992 and but it was only now that I visited my relatives. I wasn’t close to any of them.

At an afternoon children’s party in Sanfo, I happened to watch a Filipino-American child belt a song. She was so good and I am reminded of my daughter because they were of the same age. Uncontrollably, tears rolled down from my eyes. It was flowing like a waterfall. I bowed my face to hide the tears and rushed to the washroom where I stayed for a long time and really cried. I only came out of the restroom after the tears have dried.

On reaching home in Stockton, I felt a shooting pain on the left side of my back. I had this pain before but I didn’t pay it much attention. Seating in the car for long hours during our travel had somehow pained. me. It worried me but I didn’t tell Carlos about it for fear that he would no longer bring me along. I hated being alone in the house doing nothing.

Having a California ID enables one to open a bank account, travel, and have a feeling of security from police and immigration checkpoints.

If there is one thing that Carlos insist I should have, it is a Social Security number which I actually was able to secure in 1992, during my first visit to the U.S. With my old SS no.,I applied for a California ID at the Department of Motor Vehicle. The social security number was a requirement for the issuance of an ID.

There was no hitch; the DMV had approved my application. I could expect the ID at the end of the month. I also applied for a credit card at the Bank of America, making a security deposit of $300. I then had my first haircut. My hair was almost shoulder-length when I came to the country. I am like one of those hippies during the days of Woodstock. A Vietnamese hairdresser, after doing my long hair, said “You look younger.” I looked at myself in the mirror. She was right.

In only more than two months of stay in the U.S., I have discovered something unpleasant.

During my 1992 trip and the succeeding ones, America had impressed me so much. Houses were awesome and impressive. The streets were clean; the parks and forests were well maintained—a perfect place for an afternoon picnic or camping. The people were interesting to watch, especially the gorgeous women and macho-looking guys. They were like Venuses and Adonises. How could this country have so many beautiful people? In my country, they could easily become movie stars. That was when I spent about two or three days in one place or another.

But now that I have stayed for quite sometime and came know the people around me and community, I saw what I didn’t see then. I realized that rats were everywhere in downtown Los Angeles, flies abound, dilapidated houses full of cobwebs and dust are all over Stockton, ants and roaches infest many places and hookers were permanent fixtures along Sunset Boulevard. Garbage, which includes furniture and mattresses, were along the sidewalks and uncollected for days. I also saw people collecting some still usable trash for personal use.

I thought those eyesores were only present in India, China, the Philippines or in other third world countries. I may have been too naive but I never really expected the “third worldesque” I saw here in the U.S., a modern and industrialized country. I must have been reading too many press releases and watching many feel-good Hollywood movies that I have been ignorant of those.

Moreover, I also saw several homeless people roaming around the streets, bums asking passersby for a quarter or two, scavengers and deranged (or depressed) stinky folks who were unmindful of their tattered and dirty clothes mixing with the crowds on the streets and in public conveyances. Even with all the wealth this country has, these people, the so-called dregs of society, were ignored and neglected by the very all powerful and rich government that is supposed to care for them.

I moved back from Stockton to Andy’s house in San Jose. When Sunday came, I went with them to attend a mass at a Catholic church. The following day, December 13, is my birthday. I then asked God for a job as birthday present.

But today, after mass, I have a several big surprises – Andy was cooking a lot of foods i.e. menudo, dinuguan, barbecue, egg rolls, and noodles—and had invited a number of common friends.

Soon at lunch time, our friends came. Conrad brought a carton of Budweiser, Anita Tomista came with her six-year old daughter, who handed me a black Nike jacket, Elpie and Delia came with their four children. My godchild Paul handed me a small bag with two pens and an envelope with a few dollars in it. The last one to arrive was husband and wife Ernie and Susan Celeridad, who also gifted me with cash money and a bagful of chocolates.

I never expected Andy to throw a party for me. His wife Arlene gave me a gift, too. I was so happy. But I could have been happier if my family were with me.

I made a long-distance call to Mother and Stephanie. I heard my daughter’s voice. Over the phone, she said she wanted chocolates. Oh my God, if only I could fly back to her, I will give her all the chocolates she wanted. Before we hang up, we didn’t say goodbye, I hate goodbyes, I heard her say: “Love you, Papa!”

Five-year old Elian Gonzales was plucked from a shark- infested ocean by fisherman Donato Dalrymple clinging to an inner tire tube, three miles off the Florida coast. It hugged the headlines. Eleven Cubans, including Elian’s mother, drowned in the sea when their ship sunk. The boy is the only survivor. The boy’s great uncle in Miami‘s Little Havana, Lazaro Gonzales, took care of him after he was treated for dehydration and sunburn. Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzales, wasted no time in petitioning the United States for the return of his son upon learning he survived the sea tragedy, “setting off the stage for an international custody battle.”

(to be continued…)

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