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I had a friend tell me once that “All art is relative, but relatives are seldom art.” Filipino families, particularly my wife’s, are complex in their simplicity even more so in a small barangay deep in the provinces.
A few months ago I wrote about the joy my wife and I felt in having my wife’s brother’s infant daughter come to live with us, as her guardian, as her caretaker. The parents are 17 and 18, and as it is in the province, they are cousins of some type. Not first cousins, but someone’s grandmother is the sister of someone’s uncle or something like that. I really think there are only a dozen families and surnames in my wife’s Samar barangay of 1200. We hope that this would be a long custody arrangement. They both signed a document, fingerprinted and written by an attorney. We were elated and during the last 4 months have been parents to little Zia.
We discovered she had health problems; she was malnourished, in the bottom 5% in the Philippines. Also, she had parasites. We got her the medical care she needed in Cebu City. They put her on special formula and over the past 4 months she has become a healthy and happy baby. Of course, we had a lot of fun buying her things and giving her our love.
Shortly after Baby Zia came to us, the trouble began. As the people in this barangay do, and I’m sure other places, the baby’s grandmother started bad mouthing her daughter on Facebook, publicly. The baby’s aunts joined in. They said she was a slut who sold her child for 5000 pesos. They said she would burn in Hell. They called her names. This is pretty powerful for a 17-year-old girl who was trying to do the right thing.
In reality, they had nothing. The grandmother had been against the relationship from the start. The “Kids” have no place to live, no jobs, no education and perhaps 10 pesos between them. Zia’s medical care and special formula are expensive, perhaps 10000 pesos per month. These kids will never have that kind of money to spend on a child, so we had some hope that they would see the wisdom of their decision, that they knew that allowing us to take care of the baby was in her best interests.
But to be ostracized, to be shunned, by any group you belong to and especially by your own mother, is a most powerful punishment for a human being. The kids had no chance, “Losers, Sluts and Baby Sellers.”
The rumors started about a month ago, that the grandmother was going to come to Cebu and take the baby, and though we were worried, we didn’t think this would really happen.
The kids moved to Manila, to find work and to live with one of my wife’s sisters, but they didn’t find work. The brother really didn’t want to work. “It makes me tired.” They fought with each other; they’re still fighting; they have no money; they were even less capable of taking care of a child than before.
My wife visited them two weeks ago and had a face to face, about Zia, about the situation. She asked them, “If I bring her to visit you, what would you do? Would you try to take her back even though you have nowhere to live, no jobs, and can’t afford her medical and health needs?” The young mother reassured my wife. She said that she knew that Zia was better off with us and all they want for her is to be healthy and in our care. So Rachel, my wife, though she knew.
On Monday we flew to Manila with the baby so that the teenage parents could see her and say Happy 6 Month Birthday. Zia cried when she was out of my wife’s arms, but within a day, the young 17-year-old mother decided she wanted the baby back. Rural Samar is a part of the world and a segment of Philippines society in which legal matters largely don’t exist. We talked with them. We explained to them, but the pressure from her own mother, the shaming, name- calling grandmother is too powerful. They took the baby; we are heartbroken, especially my wife.
I can see that the girl’s motivation is as much about getting her own mother’s and aunt’s love back as it is about the baby, but there are maternal feelings too. There is simply nothing to do. Zia is back with her teenage parents. We gave them all the stuff we bought for her: clothes, a stroller, baby sling special formula, and medicine. You know, stuff that parents with some means buy for their children. We are afraid because they have no means; the girl’s family, as poor as they are will take her back now. They will also push to break up the relationship between the child’s mother and my wife’s brother. That has already begun. All we can do is watch, cry sometimes, try not to think about it so much. I will go home from Manila to Cebu a couple of days early to get rid of all the baby stuff that is there before my wife comes home. She really can’t stand to see it.
We fear for the impoverished life the child will have in rural Samar, that most children have, living day to day and hand to mouth, malnourished and quitting school like most of the kids do there. Samar is poor, but these barangays on rural Daram Island are even more so. There is a school, but values that are a part of being middle class, hard work, goals, honesty, and even religion do not get passed on to the children. Bahalana I guess, but these people don’t even think of such things consciously. People there just sort of existing and they are most content with it.
Photo: Typical girl’s life in rural Samar
There are many very nice people in Samar, however, in Samar Province, 64% of children attend only elementary school, 11% have no schooling or only pre-school. Only 23.8% complete high school. 5.7% graduate from college. My wife is the only member of her family to graduate from high school and attend college.
In the rest of the Philippines, in order to get any job, you need a high school diploma. Because so many young people drop out of school and have no high school diploma, they cannot get work, except in part-time “construction sites” (carrying bags of cement only) for young men or in the sex trade for young women. This is a very sad reality for the children of Samar. The barangay is filled with stories like this, and this may be what the future holds for this sweet child. While we had “Visions of Sugar Plums Dancing in Our Heads…” ballet lessons, social amenities and good schools, the truth of this was always calling for her.
Our friends have been consoling to us; they have said things that you say when someone dies or in those situations where there really is nothing to say and do. And we will just go forward and be thankful for the blessing we had to be surrogate parents to this sweet little girl for 4 months.
I am afraid my wife’s family has other situations that they deal with in these ways. This is their way. Right now there is a raging argument about 1000 pesos. Everybody is in on it with anger and bad mouthing others. To me, it is such a shame, but culturally there is nothing else to do there but live life like this.
And so, though you don’t know them, please think a good thought for this child, and for my wife; say a prayer for them if that is your way, and if not, a good thought would be just fine. And don’t forget to hug the ones you love.