Monday, December 14, 2009


SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME. A Kapampngan yaya holds one of the newborn twins of an American military wife stationed at Camp Stotsenburg, ca. 1924. From a private album.

Our family was a big one; we were eight in all—six boys and two girls. My paternal grandfather too, lived with us in a big house with a big yard that demanded regular cleaning and upkeep. My stay-at-home mother was an excellent cook and a thorough house cleaner, so in those departments, she was pretty much self-sufficient. But in hushing crybabies and running after unruly kids, my harassed mother needed obvious help, and so the family decided to hire ‘yayas’ for high maintenance babies, that included me.

As a baby, I had delicate health and was very fussy, and that’s how Atching Daling came into my life—my own personal nanny or simply, my “maningat”. I still have a couple of pictures of me and Atching Daling, although I can’t recall our first meeting. In one taken in Baguio, I was a 10 month old baby in her arms, looking very much like a hyperactive child who can’t keep still. I was told by my late Ima that I was a sensitive child, prone to tantrums and crying fits, and I could only imagine the stress and torture I subjected my Atsing Daling to. I must have tried her patience to the bones, for she left right after I learned to walk. But she would come back periodically to our old Mabalacat house and check on me, until grade school.

Then, as now, househelps with specialized “children” skills were sought after by large families of means. Chinese ‘amahs’ offered their services to take care of infants and toddlers, and some even worked as nursemaids. Expatriated American families stationed in Camp Stotsenburg employed not just local ‘yayas’, but also live-in Japanese and Chinese maids who traveled with them wherever they were assigned.

My father himself, had his own ‘maningat’, a thin, dark but feisty old woman he called Atsing Buru (short for Ambrosia), who looked like Aling Otik, but whom we addressed as Ati Bo. My father’s family recognized the invaluable years of service Ati Bo rendered and so she was rewarded with a home of her own at the back of our house when she got married. Even with her own two daughters to care for, Ati Bo would always be on-call, ready to assist the household in whatever capacity. When our parents had to go to Manila, Ati Bo would be asked to look after us in their absence. She would also be tasked to help in the cooking and preparation of fiesta food—stirring inuyat (molasses), wrapping bobotu (local tamales) and serving guests.

On the other hand, my Ima also had a short stint as a nanny of an American toddler, a child of a military couple based in Bataan. She hardly spoke of this phase in her life, but I am sure it prepared her for her life ahead as a mother, equipping her with skills to care for a brood of whiny children. But then, a super busy mother could only take so much.

And so, the nannies continued to come. We had Belen, our chubby yaya from Tarlac whom we sincerely loved; she was not just an excellent all-around help, but was also a nice playmate, always willing to take on the role of a captive hostage while us Cowboys roped and terrorized her. We also had a male nanny, Boy by name, the son of another househelp from my mother’s side of the family. His basic duties were to bring and fetch us from school, feed our meals and look after our toilet needs. Come playtime, he was expected to play with us, and I remember him gathering spiders and insects for our amusement. Poor Boy was also in charge of rocking our hammock to make us sleep, but more often than not, he would slumber first.

When you are young and self-absorbed, you can never fully realize how cruel life could be for some people, ‘yayas’ included. Looking back now, our ‘yayas’ led difficult lives, victims of circumstances, of poverty, trapped in an eternal cycle of debt and servitude. Boy’s three siblings for instance, were dumped in our house by their mother, forced to work for us to pay for her debt. They were only kids just like us, but instead of enjoying their childhood, they ran errands and worked odd jobs for long, lonely hours. In the case of Belen, she was uprooted from her family at a young age, out of a desperate desire to help her parents. Transplanted in Pampanga, she worked for us while battling homesickness.

It’s not too far a stretch, but somehow, my ‘yaya’ stories remind me of the same personal sacrifices that modern-day OFW domestics go through in their search for greener pastures. Each day, thousands of would be-yayas leave their own children behind to care for somebody else’s babies in strange, distant lands, sometimes, under a punishing work culture that can drive anyone to the edge.

Looking back, if only I had that kind of heightened awareness then, I would have been kinder to our house helps. I would have cried a little less, curbed my tongue and made fewer “sumbongs” (telling on adults) to my father, who was rather severe with them . But then I was just a little, bratty kid, who believed that the world should be designed me and me alone. Every now and then, I often wonder what had become of Atsing Daling, Belen and Boy and all the other househelps who spent a good part of their lives in our family’s service. I hope it’s not too late for me to say “Dakal a salamat kekongan” (Many thanks to you all) and I sincerely wish that you found the good future you have all been searching and woking hard for.

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