Time to Breathe (Confessions of an Alien) #16

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.

(16th installment)

CHAPTER 15

Pasadena County extends its New Year celebration through the annual Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl. Now on its 112th year – 52 floral floats, 24 marching bands and 27 equestrian units joins the world famous celebration. The colorful parade starts at eight in the morning and trudges along the stretch of Colorado Boulevard, exciting both the march participants and sidewalk onlookers.

Hoping to have a good view of the parade, Bob, Anna and I went up to the ninth floor of 2 North Lake Building, which the Law Offices of Robert Reeves and Associates occupies. But when we got there, the windows facing the parade route were already filled up with people, mostly staff members of the immigration law firm.

Reeves suggests that we go down the second floor, assuring us that we would have a much better view than what his office could offer. Finding the windows of the second floor offices also occupied, we join the street crowd instead. Surprisingly, it gave us a closer feel of the parade and the people.

The Rose Parade grew from an idea of Charles F. Holder in 1890, (Wikipedia, 2012), that California is a better place to dwell in than the states in the east coast where people had to struggle with severe winter. Holder was then president of the Tournament of Roses Association in Pasadena.

“With California’s beautiful weather, fruits and flowers grow in abundance. The Rose Parade is actually a harvest festival.”

* * *

I agreed to meet Serg in his San Fernando Valley home to edit his thesis.

Serg is a chemical engineer but devoted much of his life teaching mathematics, chemistry, physics and chemical engineering principles. He taught in the Republic of South Africa, Ethiopia, and Zambia before migrating to California and was president of Lions International Club of the Los Angeles district.

Once inside his four-room gated townhouse, Serg broke the news that our friend Marilyn is in the hospital.

“She’s now in the ICU due to renal failure.”

I just shook my head in sympathy for I can’t say anything out of my sadness for our friend. We went upstairs to his room on the second floor. Books and other reading material are strewn all over the room. There are two computers and a printer beside the bed.

As Serg left, I settle to work and is done by three in the morning. When Serg returns, he hands me USD$200. Not bad for a ten hour work.

* * *

January 7 is quite memorable.

Susan calls while I was in the office to say that my brother-in-law, Adoy, husband of my second elder sister, is in the hospital. He had a stroke. Unfortunately, that was all Susan knew. She does not know whether my brother-in-law is still alive at that time.

“It’s an overseas call from Susan,” I told Crisologo, who overheard me talking on the phone.

“My brother-in- law had a stroke.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Is the room you want to rent still available?”

I stared at him in disbelief. I didn’t think he would bring up the matter again. I told him a couple of months ago that a room is available for rent and that it is a short walk to our office. He knew what that means and said outright he couldn’t afford to give me a raise. He is clear that he can only pay USD$500 a month.

“What changed your mind?”

He smile without replying so I said, “I will see if it is still available.”

But then he spoke again.

“You can start paying rent next month. You can also use the computer in the office. I’m sorry about what I said last time that you couldn’t use the computer. I’m sorry.”

I must admit I was surprised by Crisologo’s sudden change of heart. But even as I wonder what is going on in his mind, I told myself that he is still human after all.

* * *

It rains the whole day. A winter storm is drenching Southern California. It is the biggest storm of the season with LA. getting 3.84 inches of rain.

From the bus stop, I ran across the street, braving the chilling rain. Panting hard and out of breath, I reach the doorstep of Bob and Anna’s apartment shivering so I start rubbing my hands together. The rain is all over me.

For a moment, I stood by the gate and recall my earlier conversation with Crisologo. I smile and I look up to the sky thinking God is with me today.

* * *

Bob’s second extension of stay is going to expire in February. There is no way he could get a third extension. Anna, his girlfriend, is on an H-1B petition and the only way to save him from going out of status is to marry her so he can be on H-4 visa, as her dependent. That’s exactly what he did.

* * *

I went to Las Vegas with them. On a short stopover at Barstow, Bob and Anna rushed to a jewelry store. They were shown a handful of wedding rings, found what they like and bought it without hesitation. It cost them no more than a hundred dollars after which we are back on the road to Las Vegas. As we travel, we saw snow covered mountaintops.

“This is America!” Anna suddenly blurted.

“This isn’t LA anymore.”

Her remark sent us laughing.

Anna is right – snow is somehow synonymous with America. At the same time, her out of the blue remark also reminds me how I imagine America when I am still a child, the US is a country with lots of snow. It is my dream that if I ever set foot in America, I will walk, roll and play on snow. That is my childhood fantasy. Unfortunately, whenever I came here, I always land on the West Coast where it doesn’t snow except in the mountains.

It is a common joke among Filipinos that LA is not America because it does not snow here. It is the states in the east coast that’s America because it snows there.

* * *

We arrive in Vegas in the mid-afternoon. A number of roads leading to the City Hall are impassable because of an on-going parade. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We are forced to take a detour along the side streets to be able to get to the parking lot of Binion’s Horseshoe building, the Clark County Courthouse where marriage licenses are issued.

Once inside the courthouse, we are greeted with a long line of couples wanting to get married. To our relief, the long line is slowly inching its way to the building. As a particular number of couples came out of the building, an equal number or maybe a little bit more arrive to join the queue. I think this is what the “Law of Equivalent Exchange” is.

The couples emerging from the building have their marriage permits in hand. They were all smiles. A marriage license cost USD35.

No wonder Vegas is the wedding capital of the world.

* * *

Bob and Anna came out of the courthouse and I followed them down the road. Stopping at a bank’s automated teller machine, Anna withdrew a few hundred dollars after which they start walking toward the nearby Marriage Bureau building. Although Bob and Anna want a serious church wedding in the Philippines, as they had earlier intimated to me, they opted for a simple civil marriage in Vegas to save Bob from going out of status.

“You’re a few steps from getting married,” I half-jokingly said.

At the marriage bureau, we login our names in the registry ledger following the instruction of a security guard. Moments later, Deputy Commissioner Judith Caplinger-White enthusiastically bade us in.

“Come in, come in.”

White wears a black robe like those worn by judges in a court session but she is not holding court. Rather, she is officiating wedding ceremonies.

Anna is in a cream blouse that is too tight for her and a comfortable brown slacks. She has obviously gained weight over the last few months. With her five-foot frame, her “healthy” appearance didn’t please her that she decides put on a black overcoat.

Bob is in cream pants, a light blue polo shirt and a darker blue jacket. He is much taller than Anna, bulkier and heavier.

From the smiles on their faces, there is no doubt they are in love with each other.

“So, you’re getting married…nice. And you, what’s your name, Sir?” White asked, glancing at me and the camera I was holding.

“Romeo.”

“Rommeoo! I want you to print your name on this paper as you’ll be their witness. You can take pictures as many as you want.”

Soon after the deputy commissioner started solemnizing the wedding. It didn’t take long for Bob and Anna to say their ‘I do’s’ after which Ms. White said “you may now kiss the bride.”

The wedding is over in about ten minutes.

It takes only 30 minutes or less from the time they got their marriage license up to when they were wed. What a wedding! It takes us almost four hours to reach Vegas for a ceremony that is over in just half an hour.

The newly wed spent a total of USD170 for their Las Vegas style marriage, including the USD35 wedding ceremony fee and the cost of their wedding rings.

* * *

The clock said it is two-thirty in the afternoon, indicating that there is plenty of time to go around the Sin City. Nobody wants to go back to LA. yet. The newly-weds want to celebrate. Bob got us two rooms at Circus-Circus Hotel. He gave me a room adjacent to theirs..

In the evening, I went out on my own. I went to the card tables and play my favorite card game – blackjack. I gave myself the usual one hour of play time limit. Win or lose I will have go back to my room.

However, I am already playing for more than an hour because my USD100 is still not making much. There are times when I am down to only USD40 or USD25, I will bet it all and wins. The table beckons for I want to recoup my losses, even as I break my self imposed time limitation.

I am staying longer than I should. I began betting in smaller amounts – USD20, USD15 and slowly my money grew. I am now in luck – winning five or six times in a row.

The winning streak continues until it was almost four in the morning, way past my time limit deadline. I started counting my money and found out that I am ahead by USD1,300. I decided to quit the game and went up to my room to sleep until the sun shone into the 21st floor of the hotel, directly on my face. Time to go!

At the lobby, Anna carries a big Snoopy stuffed toy while Bob mills around. The couple is waiting for me. Anna beams with pride as she breaks the good news that she won.

“I made it too at the card game. Let me buy you lunch…anywhere,” I said with pride.

After lunch at Excalibur, we hit the road again towards LA. We were all smiles as everybody is a winner.

* * *

My brother-in-law dies after being released from the hospital. My second elder sister Carmen calls from Manila and relays the sad news.

Adoy is taking his morning coffee and cigarette ritual when he suffers a stroke. A loud thud is heard as he slumps on the floor. His son rushes him to the hospital not realizing his father suffers a stroke. Neither did my brother-in-law knew what happen. He got eight stitches for a cut on the forehead.

Regaining consciousness, he told his son he is fine. The attending physician wants him to stay in the hospital for further observation but my Adoy insists on going home.

I knew my brother-in-law is stubborn and hardheaded and always want to prevail. But I understand him at that moment. He knew they didn’t have money for the hospital bills and he surely didn’t want to burden them. He got his way. They went home as soon as his son signed a waiver releasing the hospital from any responsibility.

My sister Carmen recounts: “Once at home, he called his friends, telling them he is all right…that he didn’t feel anything. I thought he is okay. In the afternoon, while he is in the front yard, he again collapsed. I didn’t hear anything. I later find him lying face down on the ground. Again we went to the hospital but this time he is already gone. Had he stayed in the hospital, where the doctors could have further examined him, he still will be alive today.”

“I am sorry,” I said.

I then changed the topic and ask “how’s your papers?”

“They sent me a biographic data form to fill up. In two months, maybe, I could leave for the U.S. and join my children,” Carmen said.

“That’s good. Will you still have time to visit Mother while you’re still there? Please tell Mother and Zeny to see that Stephanie takes her medicine for primary complex.”

“I’ll tell them.”

* * *

Just the other day, the peso-dollar exchange rates went up to PhP53 to a USD$1. Back home it will definitely be much higher, perhaps PhP54 to a dollar or possibly more, especially in the black market.

On January 19, the exchange rate suddenly changes. It became PhP47 to a dollar.

News reports discloses “that President Joseph Estrada’s cabinet members, except Edgardo Angara and Ernesto Maceda, resigned from their posts. Even Estrada’s most trusted police officer, Philippine National Police chief Panfilo Lacson, abandons him. The military is also reported to have withdrawn their support for Estrada.”

A half hour later, the peso became stronger further dropping to PhP45 to a USD1, the same time while it is being reported that Estrada’s Vice President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is about to be sworn in as the country’s new president.

The Senate, voting 11-10, decided to keep the seal of the documents which could prove or disprove that Estrada owns the PhP3.3 billion bribe money deposited under the fictitious Jose Velarde bank account. The Senate’s decision keeping the document sealed amounts to the acquittal of Estrada in the impeachment trial.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel and all the 11 prosecutors from the House of Representatives resigned after the voting. The anti-Estrada movement led by the late former president Corazon Aquino, former president Fidel V. Ramos and the late Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, for their part, went to the street to pressure Estrada to step down.

Incidentally, the time when Estrada bowed to the people’s pressure coincides with the time when President-elect George W. Bush is sworn into office.

Estrada is the second highest elected official to leave in disgrace after the late former dictator President Ferdinand E. Marcos is banished to Hawaii in 1986.

A popular action-movie star, Estrada wins the presidential elections in 1998 with a very large mandate from the poor or the so-called Bakya crowd. He is the first Asian leader to be impeached after Ilocos Sur Governor Luis Chavit Singson, his drinking buddy, accuses him of accepting PhP220 million (USD4.5 million) in illegal gambling profits and PhP130 million (USD2.6 million) in kickbacks from cigarette tax revenues1.

Curiously, Estrada and Marcos were deposed in almost identical fashion.

However, whether it was people’s power or a military coup that oust Estrada as later alleged, “it sets a dangerous precedent which will serve to undermine the foundation of Philippine society as a constitutional democracy,” (Sandoval, 2001) especially when people power is used while Congress is still determining whether Estrada should be removed or not.

In countries like Indonesia, South Korea, Romania, Russia and Yugoslavia, heads of government are removed with the use of people power. In 1986, the Philippines did the same when it ousted Marcos. The same people power is used again against Estrada.

In a Los Angeles Times article, writer Jim Mann quoted Stephen J. Solarz – former Democratic chairman of the House subcommittee on Asia – as saying that the way Estrada is booted out could have been greatly preferable had it been “through the constitutional process of impeachment and conviction.” He further writes the method used is highly unusual for a democratic country like the Philippines.

Thus, in Mann’s “A Risky Move by Filipinos,” he wrote “we are witnessing the use of people power against a leader who was a winner of a legitimate democratic election. No matter how understandable it was, this outbreak of people power doesn’t seem like an advance for the cause of democracy; quite the opposite.”

By stopping the impeachment proceedings, the Filipino people will never know whether Estrada is guilty of the charges or not. In the same way that when the United States Supreme Court stopped the recounting of votes in Florida for the 2000 presidential election, it guarantees that the true winner of the election between Al Gore and George Bush Jr. will never be known to the American people, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Removing Estrada by people power instead of through the constitutional process meant that democratic rule had bogged down. It is no different from a mob rule.2

“An elected official that becomes unpopular and who had been perceived to have lost the support of the people is booted out.”

On the other hand if Estrada had been overthrown by a military coup, it wouldn’t also speak well of the Philippines – a democratic country.

“By a coup d’état, the military may have embarked on a wrong notion of removing any elected official who had become unpopular. If such were the mind- set of the military, no elective official can be as confident or as independent as they can be—there will always be the military to please.”

Thus, when Macapagal Arroyo is allegedly offered the presidency, her reluctance is reportedly met with the blunt statement, “It’s either you or someone else.”

Arroyo desired and got the highest position but it came with the cost of always pleasing the military establishment.

* * *

Teri Red is in Los Angeles all this time. Since I came here, I hope to find her or any of her two closest friends and former colleagues – Cecil Castaneda and Beng Marquez.

My niece Teresa Hernandez Plapp, who works at Loma Linda Hospital in Riverside, became a friend of Cecil Castaneda. During one of their conversations, my name is mentioned and one thing led to another, and it led me to Teri.

Teri and her friends used to be reporters of People’s Taliba, one of the bestselling Filipino language based tabloid newspapers published by the PJI. They obtained their tourist visas in 1990s. One after the other, they left for the US. never to return. Teri is the last to leave among the three.

Before their departure, I, the Tres Marias, as I affectionately call them; and two-other fellow PJI reporters – Janet Rebusio and Anne S. Tiangco – usually cap a day’s hard work by going to karaoke bars and nightclubs in Metro Manila where we sing our heart’s out.

Our karaoke sessions made us close to one another to the point that Teri, in times of financial distress, would come to me. I am always there for all of them to extend a helping hand.

Teri, before she left for the U.S. is able to get her husband hired by PJI.

* * *

I have no idea where to start looking for them in California but with the “Tres Marias” always in my mind, I have this gut feeling that if I could just locate one of them, I will find the rest.

One mid-afternoon, my niece asked me if I knew a certain Cecil Castaneda from PJI. She narrated a conversation where Cecil asked her if she knew me. Of course, I said, I know Cecil and she knew me. With that turn of events, reconnecting with the rest of the Tres Marias became a possibility. I immediately contacted Cecil, who already works with the San Bernardino Police. She marries a U.S. citizen and is the first in the group to legalize her status.

After we talk and catch up with each other, Cecil gave me Teri’s number.

Soon Teri and I met. I gave her a box of chocolates and she treated me to a dinner at a famous Thai BBQ Restaurant at Third and Normandie. She hasn’t changed, except that she aged a little. She is still petite and slim, and still smokes a lot too. Her hair is still shoulder-length, the same as when she before left the Philippines.

She says she expects her green card sometime in October as her application for political asylum is approved. She says she sweat out a two-hour interview with an immigration officer who grills her to determine if she is telling the truth.

“It’s good I am able to remember everything. I told him about the death threats I received from the military due to the articles I wrote. I am interviewed on my fifth year of stay here in the US. I am already feeling hopeless and thinking of trying a fixed marriage with a Filipino-US citizen when I got the interview. Luckily, I made it through and the fixed marriage isn’t an option anymore. Had it pushed through, I don’t know what could have happened since my church is very much against divorce.”

Teri is a devout member of Iglesia ni Cristo, a religious sect that prohibits its members from marrying a non-member and having a divorce. But I have known a number of them, who defied the teachings of their church for the simple reason that it’s a choice between being deported and being able to legalize their status.

Teri works in the jewelry business in downtown LA. She has changed her employers a number of times but remains in the jewelry business.

St. Vincent Jewelry is her fifth job until retrenched. She survives on unemployment benefits. On the side, she operates a cargo (balikbayan box) business that also saw her through. Now, she is into care giving.

Beng is married too but is not able to fix her status. She now has two children and lives in San Jose. She hopes that someday, one of her US. citizen children will bring her out of the dark so to speak and legalize her immigration status.

* * *

It has been three days since I felt a discomfort in my left arm, near the elbow. Whenever I am pressing it hard, I feel tremendous pain, like it is coming from a torn or pulled ligament. I haven’t had any accidents involving my left arm thus the cause of the intermittent pain, which is sometimes unbearable, is a mystery to me and it frightens me.

When one is getting old, we experience pain without knowing it’s cause. Since I lost my job from the Baltic Publication, I no longer have a life insurance. Now, I thought of getting a life insurance because I don’t want to die without leaving anything to my love ones. That’s the main reason I want a life insurance.

* * *

I thought of following up with Crisologo, the labor certification I ask him to file so I can benefit from the 245(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act which has been revived. The revived law allows the grandfathering of those who have either worked illegally, jumped ship, sneaked across the border or used fictitious name in coming to the country.

Although I came here legally on a journalist visa, I knew I may need the 245(i) protection someday.

“Would you want me to prepare the papers for my labor certification now?” I ask when there are no more clients in the office. He smile, a half-forced smile, which I interpreted as bad news.

“We haven’t discussed that,” Crisologo said.

But we did thus his reluctance sticks like a knife into my heart. We the matter two or three weeks ago and I was just following it up now, lest he forget. Although he was noncommittal when we first talked about it, he gave me enough reason to hope when he said “let’s see.” Maybe I just didn’t fully understand what he meant by it.

Anyway, it now appears that he really isn’t interested in filing a labor certification for me. I am his only employee and I am of tremendous help to him. Maybe he just didn’t recognize it or probably he thought I should just be thankful that he gave me a job despite my illegal status. That is the same way Thalia felt about us illegals in the Baltic Publication.

Yes, when Crisologo hired me, filing a labor certification had never been part of our agreement, although we discussed the possibility of him filing one for me.

“I can’t afford to sponsor you. I’ve read that if I file a labor certification, it would mean I would pay you the right salary.”

So that was it, he just didn’t want to pay the right wage!

“But there’s a way to go about it,” I said, still hoping to encourage him.

Although what I was implying is a violation of immigration rules, which in some aspects could lead to a denial, it is a common practice in the industry. Many employees under petition are not actually paid the prevailing wage despite what it says in their applications. On paper and for immigration purposes, they are being paid but that is just an arraignment. In some cases, employers even ask to be paid for filing a petition on behalf of the poor wannabe immigrant.

“That means I would be lying in our application?”

That made me realize it is useless convincing him. It would equally be pointless to continue working for him when I cannot expect to legalize my status. I should do something to avail myself of the benefits of 245(i) immigration law before the window of opportunity lapses.

From the stack of business cards I have, I fished out one that bore the name of Francis Tanyu.

The office address is in Paramount City. I cannot recall how I came to possess his calling card and was further intrigued when I saw his office’s advertisement in some Filipino community newspapers. My desire to get a possible employer-petitioner and avail of the 245(i) is that strong that I thought I must see Tanyu soon.

* * *

While having coffee at Starbucks, I read an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association which says coffee may help prevent Parkinson’s disease. It suggests that heavy coffee drinkers have brain compositions that may make them resistant to Parkinson’s. The article further stated that the benefits maybe due to caffeine.

More caffeine the better.”

1 Dr. James Putzel, A Muddled Democracy-“People Power” Philippine Style, November 2001. Retrieved from http://www2.lse.oc.uk/ internationalDevelopment/pdf/wp14.pdf

2 William Overholt, Hong Kong-based economist described the ousting of President Joseph Estrada as a mob rule. Edsa Revolution of 2001, Wikepedia, the Free Encyclopedia, April 2009. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EDSA_Revolution_of_2001

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