By Mynardo Macaraig
Mabini, Batangas — On an isolated hillside in the Philippines, a tiny slice of Italy has risen from among the vegetable patches and coconut trees, the product of thousands of overseas workers.
Large stone houses — often with brand-new vehicles in their driveways — cover the district, even though the narrow streets can barely accommodate more than one car at a time.
This is a sharp contrast to the lifestyle in the 1980s, recalled district chairman Raymundo Magsino, 63.
“Back then, we depended on farming: vegetables, fruit and corn. We were the poorest district in the province. These were all just thatch huts,” Magsino said, pointing to the pastel-colored houses that dot the hilly area.
This new wealth comes from the remittances of residents — including entire families — who have gone to Italy to work, turning a district of subsistence farmers into a relatively prosperous community in a generation.
About 6,300 people from the town’s total population of 47,000 have made the trip, said Aileen Constantino-Penas, program director of a non-government organization for migrant workers in Mabini.
The money sent home from Italy by Filipinos doing mostly domestic work and laboring has completely changed the face of Mabini town, located about 65 kilometers (40 miles) south of Manila.
Those who have left have brought touches of Italy back with them.
“The accents of their homes are no longer typical of Filipino homes,” Constantino-Penas said.
Italian-style large terraces or wrap-around porches with marble balusters proliferate in Mabini, some with exteriors covered with artificial stone. Other houses look like mini-Pantheons, complete with Roman-style columns in front.
Traces of Italy can also be found inside the houses, even in the bathrooms. Bidets are common here even though they are unheard of elsewhere in the Philippines.
And when speaking among themselves, those from Italy sometimes use Italian words including the occasional “Mama Mia” exclamation, said Constantino-Penas, whose relatives are also among the workers in Italy.
Going abroad to seek higher-paying work is nothing unusual in the Philippines: nine million people, or about 10 percent of the population, are currently laboring abroad.
They work as sailors, nurses, construction workers, musicians, maids and in dozens of other professions in almost every country in the world.
But the people of Mabini have found Italy to be especially welcoming.
District chairman Magsino said some people made the journey to Italy as early as 1977, at a time when this meant sneaking into the country illegally.
Working in Italy really caught on in the 1980s as word spread of the opportunities there, luring even more Mabini residents.
People who have relatives there talked to (prospective) Italian employers and told them that (their relatives) will work for you so they fixed the papers to bring them in,” Magsino said.
Luciana Hernandez, 81, said she was one of the pioneers of the exodus to Italy, having helped arrange for her daughter to go there to work in 1986, back when that meant sneaking into Italy from Austria or the former Yugoslavia.
“An agency took her by plane (to Europe). Then by speedboat, then they crossed the mountains on foot, hiding all the time,” she recalled.
Once her daughter was established in Italy, she was able to petition for the rest of her siblings to go there, where they also obtained jobs, said Hernandez.
Eventually all but one of Hernandez’s 10 children went off to work in Italy. Most of them are still there and have taken their own children with them, she said.
“When they first left, I cried every time I thought of them. But I am used to it now and these days, they can call very easily with these new phones,” she said.
Life as a foreign worker in Italy is easier than in other countries, say those who have worked there. While tales of abused Filipino maids proliferate in many countries, Filipinos in Italy enjoy legal protection and many of them get along well with their hosts, they say.
“Italy is a better place, even if you are just a domestic helper. They treat you well and even give you insurance for hospitalization,” said Alona Solis, 39, who first went to Italy when she was 16 years old.
“They are not allowed to hurt you. You can complain about abuse, unlike some other countries.”
Since she left for Italy in 1986, she has returned to the Philippines only twice: once in 2005 to get married and last December for a vacation that she is still enjoying. But she plans to go back to Italy soon.
“I am used to working there. My boss there already sees me as his child,” she said.
Her husband also has a job in Italy and they share an apartment with her two young children, said Solis, who can speak Italian.
Solis can earn as much as 1,000 euros a month ($1,350) as a domestic helper if she works overtime, far more than she could ever get in the Philippines as a high-school drop-out.
“If the educated people have trouble finding a job here, how much more the uneducated,” she said.
Despite the wealth brought by the Italian ventures, officials concede that there are costs to having so many people from the community working outside the country.
Magsino, the district chairman, said family members left behind had become dependent on the remittances of their relatives.
“Many don’t want to work in the farms anymore. They just play cards and go to cockfights,” he lamented.
Constantino-Penas said her non-government organization, Atikha, had been working to teach the overseas workers how to manage their money and to make sure their relatives at home didn’t suffer the ill-effects of separation.
“There is a social cost of migration. Children left behind don’t want to study. Their mindset is they should go abroad and not study. We see a lot of drop-outs, most of them among overseas workers’ children,” she said.
Her organization is teaching children to stay in school, to save their money rather than spend it, while also helping their guardians learn how to budget and invest the money that is sent home from Italy.
Meanwhile, Mabini tourism officer Pacencia Casapao has struggled against the apathy lingering over the town in her effort to give it more touches of Italy.
“I’ve been asking for someone to come back and set up an Italian restaurant for tourists. But no one wants to do that,” she said. (Agence France-Presse)