The tradition that keeps my grandmother’s memory alive

My mother and I spent an afternoon unrolling my lola’s apartment a few days after her death, in 2017. In her closet, my grandmother had stored a large cardboard box with an address in Manila written on it. thick felt side. Inside the box were neatly stored tin cans, bags of rice, drugstore makeup, and clothes she had bought on sale. Some of the items were labeled with the names of our loved ones, and the package was left open in case something else needed to be added as she went through her days.

Sending a box filled to the brim to the Philippines every Christmas was a precious routine my lola had settled into long before I was born. But instead of mailing it that year, she had waited until she could ceremoniously bring it home herself. Carrying him to the airport would have been physically impossible for such a small and aging woman, but I imagine she considered hand-picking up children and grandchildren she hadn’t seen in years as proof of his love. What I didn’t know at the time was that this beloved tradition of sending or bringing home oversized care packages, called balikbayan boxes, had started as an effort by an authoritarian regime to stem the Philippine economic crisis in the 1970s.

In Tagalog, balikbayan means “homecoming”. Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos coined the term to inspire nationalism in Filipino expats and encourage them to return with their income, initially requiring them to pay funds to their families before relaxing the policy. Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs), especially those living in the United States, were offered discount flights, land to purchase once they arrived home, and the option to return with duty-free boxes and without taxes. At the end of Marcos’ reign, the Philippine government codified the balikbayan program in law. But over the years, what was initially meant to be a solution to the country’s financial instability has evolved into a cultural practice cherished by the entire Filipino diaspora.

Although Marcos may have started the program to strengthen expats’ ties with the country, he simultaneously denied the rights of those still living in the Philippines. In his book Migrants for exportRobyn Magalit Rodriguez, professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis, writes: “The Marcos administration’s valuation of the balikbayan on the one hand and its policies requiring remittances from migrants on the other, while seemingly contradictory, in part reflect the nature of dictatorship. Gradually, then, the boxes became a way for expatriates to help feed, clothe and care for their loved ones who remained. They have become a way for women, who make up the majority of OFWs, to continue with their family duties, no matter where they are in the world. Today, some 400,000 balikbayan boxes are sent to the Philippines every month – and that number increases dramatically over the Christmas period – by nearly 10 percent of Filipinos living abroad. Balikbayans have become a lucrative industry: some shipping companies across the United States devote themselves entirely to transporting cartons, which can weigh up to 130 pounds. On Amazon, you can even buy fabric covers to make sure your balikbayan arrives intact.

Beyond their economic implications, balikbayans can also keep families emotionally linked to each other. “A lot of times when I think of a balikbayan box, I think of the moment the family who receives it comes together to open it,” Clarissa Aljentera, a Filipino-American writer from Fremont, Calif., Told me by email. “And if you’re not there, someone will put the article aside and make sure you get a piece … from the United States.” They remind many that they are not alone and that they have not been forgotten. When government aid fails to provide resources such as clothing and food to those in need, families can show the stranger’s love and support by serving as a safety net.

While completing his doctorate, Anthony C. Ocampo, professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and author of Asian Latinos, carried out an ethnographic research project on balikbayans. He rode with a balikbayan-box business – first, picking up boxes from homes in Los Angeles, then delivering them to families in Manila. “I visited a number of Filipinos [American] houses where the balikbayan box takes up the entire living room or apartment, ”Ocampo told me. “It’s basically an assembly line: items that will soon be packed on the floor, on the dining table, on the sofa. I felt like there was no separation between American life and Filipino life. One was an extension of another. The process of collecting the right items to send, which often takes months, is a monitoring practice all its own.

The content of balikbayans are as much a portrait of America and the Philippines as of individuals. Inventory lists tend to be the same across the diaspora: Irish Spring soap. Jif peanut butter. Colombe deodorant. Spam. Ferrero Rochers. Nike. McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys. Cafe Folgers. Colgate toothpaste. Bath & Body Works Lotion. Hanes underwear. The wealth gap between many Filipino Americans and their families at home is significant, but the mere fact that the box is from America may engender an optimistic interpretation of the immigrant experience that may not be the reality of the country. sender. “The balikbayan boxes… [are] also some kind of currency, ”Cherry Lou Sy, a Baguio City playwright who lives in Brooklyn, told me by email. “Those who receive balikbayan boxes are ‘rich’ because they have someone to turn to and ask when the going gets tough. Ocampo echoed this notion: “A lot of the things people send can easily be found in the Philippines, but there is something about the mailing box that conveys to loved ones back home that we send to us. remember you. “

I didn’t have the same meticulous sending ritual balikbayans as ma lola did – first and second generation Filipino Americans, especially those who have never been to the Philippines or are not close to their parents there, tend not to. But embracing this routine of mailing boxes every Christmas, starting with this one, is a way for me to continue to love my lola even after she dies. I kept a large cardboard box in my own closet, regularly filling it with the same food, clothes, and toys that she always made. I wrote the address in thick marker, taped the box and sent it. As generational and cultural differences across the diaspora grow deeper over time, traditions based on ongoing community care are worth preserving.

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