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.
One cool evening, my friend and former photographer from the Philippines Joe called from Los Angeles relaying good news to me. Joe came to L.A. as a tourist two and a half years ago. Thalia, Baltic Publication publisher/owner, took him in. With his job in the publication, I felt that he is close with the publisher which is the very reason I decided to contact him – so I could be employed in that newspaper publication.
Sure enough after about a week, Thalia called and asked me to send via fax a copy of my resume. I felt it was so soon. I wasn’t ready yet to accept a job as I still want to try my luck with some of my contacts who I believe could give me a better offer.
I start calling friends who might be able to help. I phoned Alvin in Oregon and left a message. I e-mailed Key Stewart in North Carolina — she is Elizabeth Miller’s friend whom I met in December 1998 when I visited James Nisbet, my pen pal for many years.
James is a businessman and philanthropist. He referred me to the president of Campbell University for a teaching job in 1998, but I declined the offer saying I didn’t have the American twang to teach American students. I am so bad with my F’s and P’s and pronoun usage that I am afraid to “contaminate” the students with my kind of English. Had I have a good diction, the story line of this book could had been different.
I wrote Elizabeth too, James’ daughter who I was told put up a bank in North Carolina. I also sent an email to John Khoe’s sister-in-law in New Jersey. There was another friend in college that I wanted to get in touch with. I knew it was just a matter of time before I could find him.
With the way I was contacting my friends, I think it was obvious, to me at least, that I am desperate to get a job. Six days after my birthday, I still had no response from the people I wrote. I now had only two job possibilities left to choose from—one in Arizona and the other in Los Angeles.
I decided to try my luck in L.A, so I left on a Greyhound evening express with only a sweatshirt and an extra shirt with me. After an eight hour ride from San Jose, I arrived at the bus terminal on East 7th Street in the City of Angels around 6:15 a.m.
Soon after a short city bus ride, I am looking through the office glass panel of the Baltic Publication which occupies a two-story building at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place.
There was a Burger King at the corner. It is where my friend Joe usually take his coffee break. Right across the office was Ranch Market and just nearby was Carl’s Jr., both of which were also favorite places for lunch and coffee breaks by the publication staff.
Americans love their burgers and fries while we Filipinos prefer rice. With the burger and fries joints close by, I, too, could soon become a burger and fries lover.
After filling out the information sheet that was given me by Thalia’s secretary, I went to see the publication’s managing editor, Bob, for my preliminary interview. It was not actually an interview but more of a meet-and-greet. After talking with Bob, I finally met Thalia, a fairly chubby, middle-aged woman with a prominent cheek bones, large bluish eyes and strong broad shoulders—strong enough I guess to carry the load of running a newspaper publication.
Thalia is an American with a rich Lithuanian-Russian and Chinese-Filipina ancestry. We talked inside her thickly carpeted office and immediately I notice that it was in disarray. It looks like a twister had passed through. She explains to me that they didn’t have any writing position open but points out that if I really want to write, the publication welcomes my talent.
In the meantime, I would be a paste-up artist and my job would mostly consist of pasting ads and stories. She offered a salary of US$1,200 a month with no benefits since the deal is an under the table arrangement. She, however, promised that the company will take care of my immigration papers including the attendant attorney’s fee. All this time, she talked with me on her side, her head tilted to the right of her shoulder as if urging me to “C’mon make up your mind.”
For a moment, I stood and found myself not only looking at her but also her graying hair after which a faint smile spread across my face to indicate I am accepting her offer. It was my first job and I don’t have any other options. I didn’t even know whether the agreed amount of pay is fair or not or whether it is enough for my needs. I didn’t even know how is it like to work without benefits.
“I leave everything to your disposition,” I found myself saying to Thalia with the acute realization that I am not supposed to work.
Returning to the editorial room afterwards, the publication’s editor-in-chief, Kristina, told me to start working right away. I had to strip-clean the 42 boards for the Tribune Weekly of its stories and advertisements and then work on the individual runners. I had no prior experience stripping dummy boards of its contents for all I did in the Philippines was to gather news stories and write.
Obligingly, I stripped the boards as I was told. It was past 10 p.m. when we finished. I had worked for thirteen hours with only a thirty-minute break. I was so tired and exhausted that I could hardly bend my body. Paste-up artists work standing up and I had so much back pain after that first day. When I left the editorial room, I didn’t feel like coming back the following day. I never thought that the position I got will be time-consuming and a back breaking job. I easily fell asleep that night without even having supper.
I decided to return the following day only to find out that everything will turn out much worse. I had to strip-clean another 42 boards of its advertisements and stories. These dummy boards belonged to the Lithuanian Bulletin and the Thai Times for which the Baltic Publication was doing graphic and layout designs.
In other words, I was working on three newspapers all at the same time. All three came out weekly. I have to peel old stories and advertisements from the boards, sort out the ads, place them in boxes and then paste the ads again onto the clean boards as indicated by the dummy sheet. The only time I rest was for lunch and dinner.
Our workday starts at 9 a.m. and often stretch late into the evening, sometimes until early morning. One could only guess when it would end—maybe 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m. midnight or anytime beyond that. To top it all, we didn’t get overtime pay.
Although I had worked two jobs in the Philippines, I never worked as hard as this before in my life. I felt that I would either break down or simply walk away. The unbelievable working schedule drained me of whatever sanity I had. Many times I was on the brink of giving up. But because I need the job so much, I hanged on to it for dear life. I had such high expectations when I left my country. I never thought I would end up with this kind of job.
The rest of the staff stayed put too. Almost all of them were under petition, meaning they either came to the United States on a tourist visa or had jumped ship, or they had come on a student status (F1) visa and changed their status to H-1B visa or to an immigrant status so that they could work legally for the petitioning employer. Only skilled professionals qualify for H-1B visa while health workers could be petitioned as immigrant workers.
Like me, my co-workers needed the jobs as well as the petitions and so they stayed with the publication no matter what or, I guess, for as long as one could tolerate the working conditions and avoid getting fired. I heard them complain many times amongst themselves but they never voiced their misgivings openly. I was like them— who is unable to speak for fear of losing my job. In fairness to Thalia, however, she didn’t force us to work and we were also told repeatedly that we could leave anytime we want. We asked for a job and she gave it to us.
With the way things are going and how we are asked to work in the publication, I doubted whether I could stick it out with Thalia for the next six years, enduring the seemingly never-ending long working hours and the absence of benefits.
Six years is the time frame for an H-1B working visa, the maximum that a non immigrant worker is allowed to work for a sponsoring company. Two years is too long for me to continue working in horrible condition. A person being petitioned for H-1B status can work for up to three years, renewable for another three more years. After the six years are over, the waiting petitioner must spend one year outside the United States before he or she could be petitioned for another working visa.
Meanwhile, during the first three or more years, the employer can file the labor certification, which would allow the worker to obtain a permanent resident visa or green card. At the rate I am working in the publication, I don’t think I would still be alive and standing by the time my green card petition is approved and issued.
Being new in the job, I would hear snide remarks from Kristina. Many times I would keep the anger I felt for being treated unjustly. I convinced myself that since “I’ am new in the company…I must show these people, Kristina included, that I can work with them.”
Just to illustrate what I am saying, there was this one time when I was having difficulty finding a logo from the boxes of advertisements, Kristina sarcastically tweaked me for not knowing what a logo was. I felt offended and I didn’t like what I heard. I had a degree in advertising, had taught it in college and had worked for 15 in a Philippine based newspaper publication where logos had been part and parcel of what I do and here is someone telling me I don’t know what a logo is.
Without looking and raising my voice but perhaps unconsciously rebellious, I said “I know what a logo is.” A quick glace to where Kristina is and I saw that her face turned red. She caught my glance and spoke, but this time in a friendlier voice,…”Here are my files of logos.” She placed them on my working table.
After about 15 minutes, I went out of the building to release the pent up anger by uttering “Putang Ina!”
It took me quite a while to calm down. I went back to the editorial room to resume working. It was about 2 a.m. when we wrapped up that day. We finished all three newspapers. That was December 24. Nobody wanted to work on Christmas Day.
In the evening of December 23, Thalia showed up at the office. She customarily comes to the office in the evening to check our work. That day, she saw me in the reception area whiling away my time on the couch for I was done with my initial work and was waiting for more from the graphic artist. She handed me a $50 bill.
“Merry Christmas,” she said in a soft voice. That is how she spoke, always in a supple voice. And she was always in a hurry whenever she talks with any member of the staff she bumps into giving the impression that she really does not want to talk.
So it was Christmas, my first in the U.S. since I arrived. I missed the colorful parol, the native lanterns we traditionally hang in our home in celebration of Christmas. Some say America has a white Christmas but I say that is only true in in snow-covered areas of the U.S. For me Christmas time in America is dreary, a lonely holiday. Being away from my family, friends, and loved ones, I felt alone. Yet I was not actually alone. Joe and Fernando were around and were living by themselves and like me their families were still in the Philippines.
Fernando was an account executive, who liked to hang around after his duty. Juozapas, a Lithuanian, had his family with him here in the United States. He, however, still has to get his green card. He worked the graveyard shift, doing the negatives of the newspapers. He reported even on Christmas Day. The four of us celebrated Christmas. We downed a dozen canned beers coupled with “papaitan and kalderetang kambing,” as appetizers. Juozapaz surprisingly liked them so much. It was a very small celebration. We did it just to foster the camaraderie among us.
Later in the evening, Juozapas gave me a lift to the Greyhound station. I had to get back the things I left in San Jose. Before walking towards the waiting bus, I shoved a $30 into Juozapas’s hand as I was getting down from his SUV.
“Take it,” I said. “It’s yours. Merry Christmas!”
With the experience I had during my first few days as paste-up artist, I was having second thoughts about coming back. I thought of accepting the caregiver job for the elderly in Arizona.
Andy drove me to Redwood City not far from San Francisco to meet Kevinosh Pullman, who had considered my application to work in his facility in Arizona despite the lack of a personal meeting. I had been talking to him over the phone since I answered his advertisement and this is our first meeting.
My job, according to Kevinosh, would concentrate more on paper works, tending the garden, do some cooking, and once in a while helping the patients. As soon as I could drive, he said, I would also take care of the groceries and other errands in the facility. He would take care of my immigration paper, although he admitted he hadn’t had any experience petitioning anybody.
I had the impression Pullman’s caregivers either have working papers or were legally allowed to work. Although he said he will petition me, I was told that I will have to shoulder the processing and legal fees. I didn’t have any slightest idea how much that would cost me at that time, so I thought the arrangement was fair enough. I was starting to feel my way.
Moreover, Kevinosh had raised his offer to US $1,300, a hundred dollars more from what I would get working for Thalia.
So I started thinking, Thalia will take care of the legal fees that my petition entails while Kevinosh will not. If I were to stay with the publication where I was working like a horse, there is a possibility that I could get a work permit. Pullman’s job would be much lighter but there is no assurance that I will get my petition approved.
I later consulted with the Law Offices of Hanlon. A guy, who picked up the phone, didn’t give Hanlon to me. I told him that a facility in Arizona had offered a job as an assistant manager but my college degree was in advertising and my experience was in newspaper publishing.
“There’s no way you can get an H-1B visa. You have to get a job based on your educational background,” the guy on the other line said.
I felt like a candle slowly melting while I am inside the phone booth talking with that guy. I didn’t know enough to tell him that I had worked in a hospital for 18 years, performing tasks ranging from research to management and then administration. I was speechless on hearing I couldn’t be approved for H-1B. Ultimately, I hang up.
After a while, I lifted the receiver again, dropped in a quarter and a dime, and called Kevinosh. I reported what the lawyer said but still expressed my desire to work for him. He told me to stand by as one of his caregivers, who was vacationing in Mexico, had not returned. He didn’t want to over staff the facility.
With those words came the thought I might not be able to get the job after all if that caregiver returns. I already had made a prior commitment to fly to Arizona in a couple of days after Kevinosh booked me a flight. Telling me now to stay put while he waited for his caregiver to come, I decided to call off the trip. I would instead continue working with Thalia and I called Kevinosh back.
“I’m sorry, I cannot make it.” All I heard afterwards was a loud click. I went back to L.A.
With a $10 worth of phone card, I made overseas calls to my son and to my eldest sister. I told my son to get himself a seaman’s book and to take the exam at Philamlife in January as Mr. Khoe, my Chinese friend had assured me he could get him a job since the personnel manager was his granddaughter. During this call, my sister confided that Mother had been hospitalized for cholera. She said Mother caught the disease after I left for Canada. I felt so bad. I left my daughter under Mother’s care and now she is sick. I wanted to go back home but I couldn’t. I am just starting with my job.
On New Year’s Eve, we feasted on our leftover lunch — corned beef. It’s not that we didn’t have money to buy food but almost all the stores in the area are closed. The suffered the day with empty stomachs and lonely hearts. I had been missing my loved ones so much I am homesick.
Joe joined me in my room where we watched the world celebrate the new millennium on the boob tube.
The crystal ball in New York, made especially to mark the coming of the millennium, dropped down slowly from the top of a pole until it hit a mark representing the year 2000 on a platform. The fireworks show in Washington D.C. behind the obelisk monument was also marvelous. And so were the fireworks at the Paris Eiffel Tower, the world-famous Disneyland in California, and the landmark bridge in Australia. All that exploded were fireworks—contrary to reports the new millennium might bring untold destruction.
Prior to the millennium, almost everyone around the globe, especially computer literates are afraid there would be glitches in the computer world to make airplanes, banks, and businesses crash. Many thought there will be chaos everywhere. But as soon as the year changed from 1999 to 2000 nothing happened. It was a false alarm, it was a millennium hype.
Even so, the millennium celebration was a crazy. I wanted to see the fireworks display in L.A. but nobody wanted to go out. Joe wasn’t driving and wasn’t interested in going out much more take the Metro buses in Los Angeles in the evening. Like many other paranoids, he was also afraid something might happen while he was on the street. I didn’t insist that we go out. He went to bed as soon as he got sleepy. Just like that and the New Year celebration is over. What a lousy and boring New Year I had in this country.
I couldn’t sleep. I felt like doing something. Joe is already snoring in bed. Our small room does not have the luxury of space where I can move around. I would surely wake Joe up if I do something else other than lay in bed.
I was so awake that my mind wandered to Cavite. one of the Tagalog provinces south of Manila. Almost a year ago, I remember Stephanie had been sleeping when the fireworks begun. She was five then. I was thinking and asking myself if she is awake at this time. I guess she is and that she is enjoying the fireworks like any other child her age. She would be jumping and screaming with joy.
One hot afternoon, on my way to the washroom, I met Thalia in the hallway and she told me to go with Bob and Sarah to see the company lawyer. I had been waiting for this moment. It was my 17th day in the Baltic Publication. The cap on H-1B was running out and the INS was expected to close the quota in a month or two. I need to see the lawyer as soon as possible. There is an extraordinary volume of demand from tourists who wish to convert their visas to H-1B. Professionals and those with college degrees needed this visa to work legally.
The company’s immigration lawyer had an office at Wilshire and Berendo. It was two bus rides or 15 minutes by car from our office. The elevator brought us to the sixth floor. A man was screening walk-ins and people arriving for appointments while the lawyer talked to them one after the other. The man in the reception room was Chito Parazo, who I quickly learned was a former newsman from the Manila Bulletin. I didn’t actually know him but it wasn’t difficult for newsmen to get acquainted. Breaking the ice was easy and even easier when it turned out he knew some of my drinking buddies.
Chito was ahead of me by several years in the newspaper industry back home. He started working with the Bulletin at age 17. I was over 30 then when I joined the Philippine Journalists, Inc. There were also two other colleagues in the law firm but they were there on business.
Jun Camacho had worked with the Bulletin too. He was managing the Lifestyle magazine in Los Angeles. On the other hand, Rhony Laigo, a photographer of the Times Journal, runs Diaryo Pilipino, another community newspaper in Los Angeles. They were soliciting advertisements for their respective papers.
Earlier, I had been told that the law office appointed immigration lawyer to me is a Jew. So what, I thought. Whether he was Jewish or not, I am not interested. All I wanted was to meet my lawyer. Meeting him for the first time, I thought he is handsome with his trimmed salt and pepper mustache and beard. I am biased with mustaches—I, too, am sporting one. The lawyer went over my credentials. He told me that he will secure me my H-1B visa as editor despite me having told him that I had little experience as all I did was gather news and write them. I was allowed only a question to ask as there were other immigrants seeking consultations with him. I left his office not fully satisfied with my legal consultation.
After two days, Thalia summoned me. Upon entering her room, I told her I was on slippers which I wore while working. She curtly replied that I must wear shoes all the time. She probably thought I came to the office on slippers. As I settled down on one of the chairs, she pointed to an error in the Lithuanian Bulletin—the Thai advertisement had wound up on the front page! It was an obvious blunder, and she scolded me for it.
“That’s not my error,” I said in my defense. “That was already there when it was given to me. All I did was paste it. That’s the error of the editor. He overlooked it when he went over the dummy.”
Apparently not content with my explanation, she brought out another mistake. Instead of the latest staff box for the Tribune Weekly, an old staff box was used.
“I was not the one who pasted that on the board,” I said saying it was Sarah, the graphic artist. I sensed she was getting impatient with me.
“When we are pressed for time, she helps me paste some of the stories and ads,” I explained.
She glanced at me surreptitiously, probably analyzing my belligerence towards her. She nodded, moved her head slowly back and forth, her index finger planted on her lips, her eyes grew a little bigger behind her eyeglasses indicating I could go. I went out without looking back. I wanted to get away from her fast.
That night, my friends – Joe Cubilla, a Los Angeles based photographer, Boy Torres, a photographer from the Philippine Department of Tourism, who was in the U.S. as a tourists himself, and Rhony – invited me for a couple of beers at Max’s Restaurant in Glendale.
It was a chance to unwind and temporarily escape from the shadow of Thalia.
The following day, I had lunch with Joe at a Japanese restaurant two blocks away from office. I was surprised to hear about his frustration with the publication. He said he had no intention of staying any longer.
“As soon as I have saved enough, I’m going home. I’m like fooling myself,” he said with regrets obviously manifested in his voice.
“I worked long hours, no overtime pay. Most of the people here don’t know anything about publication. They lifted stories from the Internet and even the heads they copied as is,” he continued, recounting a litany of his misgivings with the newspaper publication.
Joe had been with the company for almost three years. He couldn’t have made it to America had he not won a raffle sponsored by the Department of Tourism. He won the right to cover the Rose Parade in Pasadena in 1997, and with the help of the DOT, he was able to secure a multiple-year U.S. visa. After covering the Rose Parade, he returned to Manila.
With a ten-year multiple visas stamped on his passport, he left the Philippines for the U.S. again and never returned. Thalia took him in. As an all-around man in the company, we thought or rather speculated that he was a stool pigeon because of his unusual closeness with the owner. He never admitted being a stooge.
Here in America, if one is given a job, one is expected to return favor with an unflinching amount of loyalty. Like I scratch your back, you scratch mine, except that Joe appeared to have scratched Thalia’s back even more than the rest of us.
One lonely evening, while we were having dinner in the kitchen of the Baltic Publication, Fernando recalled his first few days with the company. He said he was also petitioned by the publication as an account executive—soliciting advertisements for the three newspapers. He got his H-1B visa from the U.S. Embassy in Manila, which allowed him to go home now and then, unlike most of the staff who converted their U.S. tourist visa into a working one in Los Angeles that got them stuck up for how long only God knows.
Continuing his recollection, Fernando said he was on his desk one morning, singing Sampaguita’s (8) “Nosi Balasi”, a song that was popular at one time in the Philippines. “Nosi Balasi” is the reverse form of “Sino Ba Sila?” which means “Who Are They?” Halfway through the song, Franco, a senior account executive heard him. He suddenly became angry for no apparent reason.
“What are you trying to prove?” Franco shouted, his voice reverberating in all the corners of the building, like as if an earthquake with a magnitude of three had hit them. Being both account executives, Fernando felt awkward that he is being accosted with almost everybody in the office hearing it. He felt so humiliated and being a newcomer in the publication and didn’t know what to do. He just stopped singing as he realized that the senior account executive could have mistakenly thought that he is being alluded to by Fernando in that song.
Franco was a top-notch account executive, who had endeared himself to the publisher by constantly closing in big accounts. Being half Italian and half Filipino, he had a gorgeous feature—tall, dark, and blue set of eyes—that easily made him attractive to both sexes in the newspaper publication. He had an attitude though; he easily blew his top in whatever he didn’t like and when he does, he was like Mount Vesuvius spewing unprintable words. He was a very reserved person or maybe he was just pretending to be one, which made him so sensitive to insinuation and gossips. Yet nobody ever dared mess up with him. He was a loud mouth too whenever he was exploding; nobody wanted to be near him. Yet he could be very friendly if he liked to be one.
Washington showed it preferred to give Elian to his father Juan Miguel Gonzales once he has substantially proved his claim. This was not a surprise development since what the INS wants to do is send all illegal immigrants back to their country.
8 Sampaguita, stage name of Tessy Alfonso, a Pinoy rock singer in the Philippines during the 1970s and 1980s. Her original composition Nosi Balasi is a juxtapose play of the phrase Sino Ba Sila?