PARIS—The box was the first thing I noticed when I stepped into Hermie Lagpao’s cramped bedroom in her apartment outside Paris. It sat in the center of a room that was cozy by default, because of its size, and made homey by years’ worth of pictures stuck in the edges of the dresser mirror.
Lagpao had spent months, using whatever money she could spare, collecting the food, gadgets, and clothing she now packed carefully into the box. She laid the cereals on top, arranging packets of biscuits and other snacks around them. She stood back to study her handiwork. She had filled every little space in the balikbayan (which literally translates to “return to your country”) box, which would now travel for at least a month by sea before reaching its destination: her children in the Philippines. “Heavy items like canned goods and shampoo go at the bottom, clothes in the middle, and the most delicate food items go on top so they don’t get crushed,” Lagpao explained.
In the 25 years that Lagpao has been working as a nanny and domestic helper in the French capital, she has packed many of these balikbayan boxes. The care packages have become something of a symbol of the Filipino diaspora as millions of women like Lagpao have gone abroad for work while their children remain at home. As of the latest estimates in 2012, there were more than 10 million Filipino migrant workers around the globe—some 10 percent of the Philippines’ population—making the country one of the world’s largest labor exporters.
It’s a distinction the Philippines has gained over four decades of state-encouraged labor migration. In what was meant to be a temporary measure to address growing unemployment, in the 1970s the Philippine government began promoting the export of its workers, particularly young men, who found jobs in the booming construction sectors of the Gulf. Today, migrant workers send back some $24 billion in annual remittances, around 8 percent of the country’s GDP. And nearly half of these workers are women, many of them in the caregiving industry. This often means they have left their own children behind to look after the children of others.
Lagpao left the Philippines for Paris in 1989 with her husband, Arnel. The two had decided to try their luck abroad after finding only sporadic work and low pay at home. They left their son Tristan, then nine years old, in the care of relatives. When their daughter Aira was born in Paris a few years later, they sent her back to the Philippines with a friend. “We had no choice,” Lagpao explained. “We had no [work] papers, and it was a precarious time for undocumented migrants then.” The girl was only five months old. “When I think back to my failures as a mother,” Lagpao said, “that moment was one of them.”
The Commission on Filipinos Overseas, the Philippine government agency that deals with the diaspora’s affairs, estimates that there are more than 50,000 Filipino migrant workers living in France—some 80 percent of whom are undocumented.
Many have to wait as long as 10 years to regularize their status and get a work permit. During this period, they cannot go home to their families for fear of not being allowed back into France. For Lagpao and her husband, this meant raising their children from a distance, through monthly remittances and at least one balikbayan box a year, marking the passage of time through the gifts inside.
Opening a balikbayan box starts a kind of treasure hunt. Trinkets and smaller presents are tucked into bigger ones. Among grocery items and shampoo bottles, tubes of lipstick are concealed in stylish handbags hiding pocket money. Perfume bottles are stowed inside brand new shoes. Shiny new toasters and blenders bought on sale—or occasionally used appliances donated by employers—are bundled up in new clothes.
The ordinary food and personal-care products could just as easily be bought in grocery stores in the Philippines. But Clement Camposano, a migration anthropologist at the University of Asia and the Pacific in Manila, called the process of filling up the box, sealing it, and sending it an important ritual—a form of “diasporic intimacy.”
“These are everyday items or things that cleave to the body,” he said in an interview. “It is the migrant mother’s way of performing her parental duties even while time and distance separate her from her children.” Lagpao, who began sending balikbayan boxes home shortly after moving to Paris with her husband, continues to do so even now that her children are adults, in addition to sending home up to 600 euros—about a quarter of her income—each month.
“It was Arnel’s idea to first start sending balikbayan boxes to the children,” she said of her husband, who died in 2011. “He taught me everything I know about packing and stuffing everything into a box.” Like many migrant women from the Philippines, Lagpao has watched her kids grow up through the changing contents of the balikbayan boxes. "When my son was small, I would buy him robots,” she said of Tristan, who is now 34. “Now, I buy him gadgets. My girl, I used to buy her school bags. Now I buy her ladies' bags that she can use for work." When Aira first got her period, Lagpao began sending her sanitary napkins; she still does so now that her daughter is 22. “Yes,” Lagpao said with a laugh, “her napkins are from Paris!"
She soon turned serious. “When they were growing up, I was not around to hold them or hug them. When they were sick, I could not take care of them. Sending a balikbayan box is the only way I can show them how much I love them even if I am far away.” In contrast, Lagpao has spent years taking care of other people’s children. She recalled an episode when her wards refused to eat a meal she had prepared for them. “I cried in frustration because I could cook, care for, and even love these strangers, but cannot do the same for my own children,” she told me.
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In a 2012 study of migrant mothers and balikbayan boxes, Camposano found that as the children receiving the boxes grow older, some hint that they would prefer money to care packages. In their mothers’ absence, they have developed their own tastes, and they don’t necessarily want the gifts that come in the mail. Rowena Corpuz, 37, who moved to Paris two years ago, is experiencing this now with her two children, ages 16 and 17. "I don't want to just send them an allowance,” she told me. “I want to shop for them.” She spends most of her weekends looking for out-of-season sales and two-for-one supermarket specials. “I need them to know that I have not forgotten about them.” Yolanda Tapang, another Filipino domestic helper in Paris, described receiving a thank-you text from her children after sending the balikbayan box her “happiest moment.” She said, “I imagine how my son must look in his new shirt, all grown up.”
“It is not about the money, that can easily be sent,” noted Camposano. “Money can buy anything, but it cannot buy intimacy. It is the laborious process of shopping for her kids and the performance of this ritual that allows the migrant mother to somehow recreate her presence and secure her place as the decision-maker in the home.”
The Philippine government, too, has recognized the importance of gift-giving among migrants. In 1987, then-President Corazon Aquino issued an executive order waiving some taxes on items returning workers brought back from overseas, citing the “need to recognize the magnitude of the contribution of the overseas contract workers” and their “lonely sacrifices.” More recently, the country’s Bureau of Customs launched an online tracking system specifically for people expecting balikbayan boxes. Meanwhile, a whole industry of freight-forwarding companies has sprung up around getting some 5.5 million balikbayan boxes a year to the Philippines from wherever they originate. Services also exist to accommodate a migrant mother’s budget, with “send now, pay later” plans along with a delivery plan that offers at-home pick up when boxes are ready to be shipped.
At home, Lagpao closed her box and started the other laborious process of sealing it and reinforcing the sides. As she has all these years, Lagpao will anxiously watch the cargo-delivery guy maneuver the box down the narrow flight of stairs of her small top-floor apartment in Asnieres Sur Seine, a suburb just outside Paris. She will ask him to please be careful handling it, and remind him to make sure it gets to her children safely.
As one balikbayan box is sent off, the process of filling another one starts. It is also the process of filling a migrant mother’s need to make up for all the years she missed with her children, and all the years she will continue to miss while she is away.
This story was supported with a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C. under the Persephone Miel Fellowship.