When the sun’s on the cusp of petering out from the sky and the breeze is finally cool on the cheek, people switch their porch lights on, anticipating the darkness in the offing. In Daly City, sundown is at 8:27 pm. For Beth*, this means rest. Her room is small and she has no door, save for a curtain that drapes where the doors should have been. It is a clean, well-lighted place.
In the morning, Beth hauls herself from her single mattress and prepares breakfast not meant for her to eat. “It’s for for my alaga,” whispers Beth from the other side of the phone. It’s now l am in the Philippines, but in San Francisco, it is only 10 am.
Most of Beth’s days are done in routine. She gets up at seven morning and prepares the necessary sundries needed for breakfast. If she finishes early, she just might take a quick trip to the groceries and do a bit of deaning before her patient wakes up.
“Pagkagising niya lilinisin ko siya, papalitan ng diapers, kukuhaan ng blood sugar, i-exercise, then ilalagay siya sa wheelchair. After that, toothbrush, and then ihaharap ko siya sa TV at maghahain na ng breakfast. Araw-araw yan.”
Beth left the Philippines in 2012 with a tourist visa, leaving behind two daughters, an ill husband, and a failing water station business. She hasn’t been back since. When she first stepped foot on American soil, the immigrations officer asked her what her purpose was for visiting. Beth, like the others before her, said it had always been her dream to see Disneyland. With stamped passport, she made her way to Florida, and there, overstayed and became a TNT to work as a caregiver.
TNT or Tago nang Tago, which translates to “always hiding”, is what Filipinos call fellow Filipinos who are undocumented immigrants or illegal aliens. “Iba ang tingin nila sa’yo—sobrang mababa—kapag TNT ka,” says Beth.
Beyond the blinkers of family
When Romy’s not walking with his head down, he is constantly looking over his shoulder. According to him, some Filipinos become whistleblowers and report TNTs to get monetary rewards. He figured that if he spent the rest of his days as unassuming and indifferent as he could, then he would never have to face the contempt of other people.
Romy served in the Philippine military for almost three decades before he retired. Upon retiring, he went to America to work as a caregiver. “I came to work in San Francisco for the sake of my family, even if I am undocumented. I’ve been here for seven years. I want to give them a good life, especially my grandchildren, and will keep working until I cannot anymore,” says Romy.
Whenever Romy finds himself missing his family, he window-shops in downtown San Francisco to amuse himself and while away the hours. Most times he just walks around Target and Costco, and buys Boy Bawang and chicharon from Asian groceries for himself. These cold comforts are enough to keep his mind off of his thoughts until he has to work again the following week.
“I am very lonely here,” expresses Romy. “But I pray and it helps me survive my situation here. This is for my family, not for me, after all.”
Beth, on her part, mentions that wasn’t the workload that made things difficult for her, but the crippling depression and loneliness. Being homeless and faceless in a foreign land, she spoke of nights when she’d cry herself to sleep, consumed with longing for her daughters and husband.
When Beth left, her youngest daughter was only in fourth grade. Her daughter, caught up in something beyond her understanding, couldn’t comprehend why her mama was leaving. But for Beth, choosing to leave meant giving up the chance to see her daughter grow up—a compromise to her own compromises.
“Lumaki sya nang wala ako. Yung yung pinaka-nakakamiss. Yung anak mo di lumaki sa’yo, lumaki siya sa ibang tao. Iba pa rin kasi ang alaga ng sariling ina.”
Out of desperation, she would do and buy things that reminded her of home. She subscribed to TFC (The Filipino Channel), and there she rifles through telenovela after telenovela to talk about with her daughters. On Sundays she would cook her beloved adobong pusit for lunch and halayang ube for dessert, and in her cupboard she stowed jars tuyo fish. Mang Tomas and salted eggs sat among yogurt and 2 percent milk in her tiny fridge,
On weekends, Beth would make her way factory outlets and scour through racks and racks of reduced clothing, searching with pigheaded devotion for overrun designer shirts and bags that she would then cram in overfilled balikbayan boxes—treasure chests, her youngest daughter calls them—to send back home. *Beth figured that if she couldn’t be physically around for her family, she could at least give them a chance to have a nip at luxury.
Imagined homes of the diaspora
It took several more months before Beth finally moved to San Francisco. She now cares for Chit, an elderly woman and a dual Filipino-American citizen. Beth finds consolation in caring for Chit; like her husband, Chit suffered from a stroke and is almost always confined to her wheelchair or bed. Having experience from caring for her husband back home, she finds caring for Chit does not take as much toll on her.
Twice a week they would attend church service together, where the majority of the attendees are Filipinos just like them. It doesn’t seem to matter that some were legal migrants and possessed green cards of their own, or that some were dual citizens, and others were TNTs. It was home, her light in the midst of despair.
Here, Beth discovers a space made out to be haven for people like her. The church becomes their enclave, their site for convergence and free expression, their home in place they didn’t belong to. Other than the companionships she created and nurtured, she was able to connect to other Filipinos who understand her and longed for the same thing: the world and lives they left behind.
Tiis Nang Tiis
Undocumented immigrants such as Beth and Romy work long hours, and earn just enough to support their families back home. With their precarious and haphazard status, they are left with no choice but to take whatever job is available—sometimes, even the dirtiest of jobs. But, as told by Beth, the dirty job is rarely the problem and is often met with no complaint; confronting homesickness and depression seems to be the bigger struggle here. Meanwhile, their overall estimation for authorities remains to border only on two things: fear and apprehension. The moment the are discovered, they will be immediately deported and blacklisted with no question—and so they continue to remain the periphery of things like the unknowing chameleons that they are, knowing better that one slip, one mistake, would turn everything contrariwise. Such is the unsteady life of a TNT, when walking on tiptoe and being invisible are things they are required to be good and to be able to survive. Otherwise, they would not last.
But Beth doesn’t find the term TNT derogatory, and begs to differ when it comes to its meaning. Given the chance, Beth defines the meaning of TNT for herself: “Para sa akin, ang ibig sabihin ng TNT ay Tiis Nang Tiis. Mahirap man ang trabaho namin dito at wala kaming kasiguraduhan, ginagawa naman namin ang lahat nang ito para sa aming pamilya.”
Most times, however, it feels like living in a cage: Toiling in a house but not a home, caring for people that are not their own, people they do not know, when they should be caring for their own families instead. Regardless, their efforts haven’t been futile. It is what puts food on the table, after all.
Dirty may the work be, Beth believes her work isn’t dirty in principle. “Proud ako sa work ko. Kahit sabihin pa ng mga tao na marumi ang trabaho ng caregiver kasi taga-hugas lang kami ng puwet, hindi ako nahihiya. Hindi masama ang trabaho namin.”
Recently, however, reports of undocumented immigrants being deported spread terror among Beth’s community. It isn’t an isolated case. Earlier this year, the Department of Foreign Affairs released a report: Out of the three million Filipinos the United States, more than 300,000 are undocumented immigrants. Beth and Romy are just two out the multitude who have yet to be deported.
They are stuck limbo, says Beth, because while President Trump has been adamant about deporting illegal immigrants, President Duterte, on the other hand, expressed his unwillingness to help and support any of them. Beth doesn’t deny her wrongdoing; she respects the law, and if she were to be arrested, she would willingly home.
Going back home the Philippines, however, would mean returning to dreams that have come to naught, of joblessness, and crippling amounts debt. There was nothing the Philippines could do for her, and back home her failures and resentments continue to persist. At this moment, Beth and Romy are left wringing their hands over their predicament. With unabashed stubbornness, they continue to hang on to the sliver of hope that only undocumented immigrants with criminal records deported.
“Ang inuuna ng Trump admin ngayon ay yung mga illegal immigrants na may criminal case or record and I’m just hoping na tumagal pa ako dito,” says *Beth.
Romy dreamt of returning home to the Philippines someday, but only if he was certain his family can keep on without his support—a lifelong aspiration that still remains unfulfilled. Due to the recent deportations of undocumented immigrants, however, Romy ponders if he’s better off going home anyway, instead of waiting to be arrested by the authorities.
Beth has grand plans to come home and reunite with her family, too. There was just one problem: Her eldest daughter, Lianne, flew to San Francisco and overstayed to be a TNT like her. Unbeknownst to Beth, Lianne was pregnant.
With a grandchild ow in the picture, Beth’s reunion with her family has to wait, and her unbidden stay in the stateside—extended even more.
*Names with asterisk (*) are pseudonyms