A book review of Jason DeParle’s ‘A Good Provider is One Who Leaves’

The shantytown of Leveriza, Manila (left); Emet and Tita Comodas with their five young children in Leveriza.

“A good provider is one who leaves,” an interview subject told the author. For the majority of Filipinos who work abroad, it is the only way to provide for their families.
In 1986, Jason DeParle, a reporter with the New York Times, wanted to study poverty and asked Sister Christine Tan to help him find a place to stay in Leveriza. A homeowner, Tita Comodas nee Portagana, allowed him to sleep on the floor of her house, between her nephew and the rats.
In the process, the writer became embedded in the Portagana family. He lived in the house in Leveriza (one with a toilet, made possible because Tita’s husband, Emet, was working in Saudi Arabia) for eight months. He ended up writing this book, a study and a narrative of the migrant’s life.
Nine out of the 11 Portagana siblings (or a spouse) went abroad to work. Of the next generation, 24 out of 41 are migrant workers. The migrants went to work in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Qatar, Taiwan, United States and on cruise ships.
DeParle’s book is a close examination of one extended family, but it also presents the bigger picture. The migrant story is not just that of Filipinos.
All over the world, migrant remittances to their home country total $477 billion (P24 trillion) a year, it is an effective antipoverty program raising millions from poverty. In the Philippines, it represents 10 percent of gross domestic product.
DeParle’s book is exceptional in his access to his subjects. Over 30 years, he became a friend, and he often intervened to help the family, as he did for example, to help Rosalie obtain her US visa in time for her departure. (After all, he is a Kano, he told the consular officer.)
The writer-subject close relationship also meant the family laid bare their life to his scrutiny. He had access to their letters, diaries, bank statements, tax returns, text messages, social media accounts and even report cards.
As he put it, “We’ve washed dishes, watched movies, gone to church, gone swimming, shopped for groceries, played UNO, clicked selfies and toured rooster farms from Southeast Asia to East Texas.”
In the process, this book is the most comprehensive account of an immigrant family as they traveled through the twists and turns of an immigrant’s life.
When the writer first met Tita Comodas, her daughter Rosalie was 15. This book is mainly Rosalie’s story. Her father cleaned swimming pools in Saudi Arabia, which made it possible for her to study nursing.
The book details the difficulty of getting those nursing credentials. At the end of second year, the school required students to have a score of 80 percent in order to continue on. Rosalie had a score of 79.5 percent, but the dean decided to round up her score to 80 percent. Saved! (DeParle is a compelling writer and the book reads like a novel. I found myself wanting to stop and high-five Rosalie!) She passed the nursing boards. Her goal was America.
But then she went on to fail the US nursing test three times. She also failed the English language test several times. (I lost track of the number.) She finally passed after discovering, may lusot pala! She was allowed to pair the passing score of one part in one test with the passing score of another part in another test.
But, America was still decades away.
She passed the Saudi Arabia nursing test, and at age 24, she left home to work on foreign soil in order to send money home.
But though she ended up in Saudi Arabia, she still had her eyes set on America. She found out that an alternate test called NCLEX was easier to pass, but it was offered only in the US.
An agency sent her to Saipan, an American Commonwealth, to take the test. Once again, it wasn’t a one-shot deal. But as before, she persevered.
At last, after so many tests and failures, she finally had the credentials to go to the US. She then spent another eight years on the queue to obtain a visa. Twenty years after graduation, she finally made it to Galveston, Texas in 2012.

The author with Tita Comodas and Rosalie in 1987.

In the intervening years, Rosalie worked in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, got married to Chris Villanueva who was also a migrant worker, gave birth to three children. Her sister Rowena loomed large in the book as Rosalie’s children called her Mama Wena and she was their surrogate mother.
A large part of the book centered on the ‘push-and-pull’ children in such situations face. During all the years of working as a migrant, there were the calls for money and the ingrained responsibility to family and the resentment at the demands. Again, it was all laid bare.
And over the past 30 years, communication technology evolved and changed. Airmail letters, which took weeks to arrive, was suddenly replaced by AOL’s “You got mail!”
And then, there was Skype, and other social media access. One migrant mother watched her child’s birthday party live on video, but everybody was busy, and soon, they all left the computer.
It was her working abroad which made that party possible. It was just a sad, sad tale. While technology made it easier to communicate, it also exposed the fragility of long distance relationships.
The author’s decision to write this book coincided with Rosalie’s move to Galveston. And over the next three years, he was in near daily calls with the family and visited frequently. He followed closely the arrival of Rosalie’s husband, as well as those of their children – aged nine, seven and six – whom they left with Rosalie’s parents to raise when she started working abroad.
So closely did the writer follow the family, he not only interviewed the teachers, he was allowed access to the classrooms. He described a math teacher ruling her class “with a commanding mix of warmth, authority and hard candy.”

The Villanueva family represents America’s overlooked story of immigrant success (left); Rosalie’s house in the Houston suburbs.
(Photos from https://twitter.com/JasonDeParle/media)

He shadowed Rosalie at work – a chapter called “A Good Nurse” is a very good account of a nurses’s work. As it turned out, passing or failing the nursing test does not determine whether one is a good nurse. Rosalie turned out to be a very good nurse.
At the end of the book, the Villanuevas had purchased a new house in a subdivision where there were other Filipinos. And, one can assume, they would go on to the next phase of their American experience: keeping up with the Santoses.
Aside from the story of Rosalie, the book also explored in depth the plight of a cousin Tess who worked as a nanny. And the case of Manu, a cruise ship worker who lost a leg in an accident on the ship.
This is an exceptional book. DeParle is a good writer, paired with subjects willing to expose themselves, warts and all.
It is doubtful that a Filipino could have written it. In writing about Rowena, for example, another writer might have hesitated in airing family dirty laundry like that. But DeParle had no such qualms – after all, he never has to go back and see the Portagana clan again! The writer not only interviewed the subjects, he lived with them. He traveled with them.
On a trip to the Statue of Liberty, he wrote, “Rosalie spent as much time in the boat gift shop as she did at the statue; it was run by a Filipino!”
After 30 years, DeParle has become a Filipino! Exclamation point and all.

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