Thursday, March 22, 2007

6. KAYABE: Of Service and Servitude

AT HER BECK AND CALL: An aristocratic Kapampangan mistress of the house poses with her Indian maids-in-waiting, circa 1920s.
This early 1920s picture speaks graphically of the status of this aristocratic Kapampangan and the social milieu she lived in. You see her dressed in her finery, comfortably posed between two Indian maids in traditional Hindu costumes. The picture of a dolled-up mistress of the house, healthy and smiling, provides a sharp contrast to the short, thin, emaciated-looking “imported” maids wearing identical blank expressions on their faces. How did they come to the Philippines? Why did they become household helps? Were they sisters entrusted to the family by a debt-ridden father? As for the Kapampangan doña, why did she choose foreign maids over local ones? Did she have this picture taken to flaunt her wealth and show off her “property”? Or was she genuinely attached to her maids, treating them as part of the family?

Muchachas, muchachos, ipus, boy, utusan, chimay, kayabe.
Terminologies for household helps have evolved through the years but the work culture has remained practically the same. Slaves have always been part of the old Kapampangan village social strata. Beneath the timauas (freemen) were the alipins or slaves, further classified into namamahay (those who worked at home) and the saguiguilid, the lowest of the low. Slavery meant debt peonage more than anything else, and so it was nothing permanent-- you could be freed as soon as your debt was paid. But while a slave, you were bound by strict laws to serve your master to the fullest lest you get severely penalized.

Large Spanish homes employed a whole brigade of household helps—majordomos, cusineros, lavanderas and cocheros. Everything beyond these specialized duties, the muchachos and muchachas practically did : from running errands, cleaning stables, fetching water to dozen other odd jobs like even fanning the mistress of the house as she took her siesta on hot afternoons. During the time of the American Occupation, local helps remained part of the household. When it was time for American families to sail back to the U.S. mainland, their muchachos tagged along, and with that move came the promise of a better life. There are stories of Filipino helps being educated by their masters abroad and building a new life for themselves in their adopted country.

The 19th century sugar boom, which saw the rise of elite plantation owners especially in Pampanga, perpetuated debt peonage through the casamac system. Under this arrangement, farmers entered into contractual agreement in which the owner would provide credit if he could not bring his tools or animals to work on the field. If the harvest was bad then, the farmer had to make more loans. Those who borrowed heavily from their landowner were bound by this lopsided set-up to pay back what they owed through personal service oftentimes provided by children, sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old. No child labor laws existed then, and for thousands of peasant kids, it meant years and even decades of being an ipus (servant)to pay off a father’s debts, even after his death.

Not just provincial girls and boys were hired as househelps. Aetas or young Negritos were sometimes employed as household helps because they were a hardy breed, with little need for attention, not choosy with work and eager to please. But always, discrimination colored the way people viewed Aetas, eyeing them unjustly with mistrust and suspicion. Chinese amahs were also favored because they required cheaper wages and believed in such concepts as spinsterhood, while Indian maids were noted for being watchful and for their intrepid ways.

A second irony becomes apparent as one reviews the picture of this well-heeled Pampangueña and her maids. Today, of the 1.7 million women employed as foreign maids throughout Asia and the Middle East, over a quarter of a million are Filipinas. The Philippines is still the number 1 source of domestics for these regions since 1992. Singapore and Hong Kong continue to be the major importers of English-speaking Filipino maids. While wages are relatively high, working conditions range from difficult to severe. The Flor Contemplacion travesty in Singapore is still fresh in our minds.

International media has not been very helpful too in helping raise the plight of Filipino maids. Instead, it chooses to play up the unfair stereotyping of a Pinoy as an eternal domestic. Not too long ago, it was reported that the term “Filipina” was included as an entry in a Greek dictionary to mean “maidservant”. The 1967 Elizabeth Taylor-starrer movie “Reflections in a Golden Eye” featured a Filipino muchacho, Anacleto. And still a hysterical Pilipino-spewing maid made an unflattering appearance the 1989 movie, “Her Alibi”.

Indeed, a thin line separates service from servitude. For thousands of Filipina maids--like the ipus, muchacha and kayabe of yesteryears—this modern-day form of slavery is but a small sacrifice to endure in order for her to redeem her decent place in society and secure a future free from want, for her family. She is indeed a real hero, proudly Philippine maid.
(30 July 2002)

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