The beauty contest audience of nearly one hundred twenty individuals -mainly of Asian origin- stared stunned at the rowdy Colombian family, so dissimilar from them, screaming to the top of their lungs: “Razel, Razel, Razel!” while waving a homemade poster. The event: “My Fairy Princess 2014”, a Singaporean beauty contest in which thirty contestants of Philippine, Indonesian, Burmese and Malaysian origin, who work as domestic helpers, leave aside for a day their duties to dress in satin and sequins.
Our dearest Razel Bagaoisan Corrales, a splendid Philippine in her mid-thirties, robust, dark complexion, average height, white smile and black hair -who helped us for several years with our house chores- participated as one of the contestants. Her preparation lasted several weeks; she attended several rehearsals, carefully selected her dress and purchased custom jewelry that looked just like fine jewelry. A few days prior to the ceremony, she showed me the high-heels she would be wearing, a shoe tallness comparable to her high integrity. My daughter Lucía even tried them on as I was making room in the closet to accommodate her trousseau.
Razel did not win the beauty contest, but she was honored as Miss Aloha, which suits her perfectly as she reflects the meaning of such Hawaiian word: love and respect. And I can assure you, without doubt, that she was the best part of our life experience in Singapore, and I say this not because she kept our home sparkling clean, dinner ready and ironed clothes, but mainly because of her love and affection hence teaching us a tremendous life lesson.
Just like her, hundreds of women arrive to Singapore from the Philippines, an exotic country in Southeast Asia, whose population speak English, have Spanish names, and travel two thousand four hundred kilometers in searching for the “Asian dream.” Their objective: to work as domestic helpers in a country where one of every five families hires someone to help them with the house chores, in order to earn a salary that is four times what they would earn in their home country.
I first met her when she went to our home for a job interview. In the prior days, I had interviewed over twenty applicants and none really fulfilled my expectations. I turned down applicants without children as I required children skillfulness, and I acknowledge that given my training in mental health, I formulated unexpected questions that caused some discomfort amongst applicants. I accepted interviewing Razel because her agent insisted, even though she did not fulfill the main requisite: she was not a mother. When I interviewed her, I felt something different. I was surprised by her verbose conversation and her tidy appearance. I liked her humbleness when responding to each of my questions and she charmed me with her sincere affection towards my children when they approached her. When asked if she had experience with dogs, her answer was by far the best: “I have no knowledge, I have never been responsible for taking care of a dog, but if you teach me, I will do my best.” Her honesty amazed me. We hired her the day after and ever since then, she became another member of our family, the best companion of my children, and one of my dog’s favorite persons.
Razel is originally from Ilocos Norte, a small agricultural province on the Northwestern part of Luzón, the largest of the three groups of islands forming the Philippine Archipelago. She is the second amongst a humble peasant family of six siblings. When she was very young, she left doll play aside to start using the hoe, and during vacation periods she worked as a maid to pay for her school supplies. Upon graduating from high school, she moved to Manila, where she registered to work as a domestic helper in Singapore. This is how, almost thirteen years ago, she became part of the labor force exported by a country whose minimum wage averages one hundred fifty dollars a month, where twenty-eight percent of its population is under the extreme poverty line and where one out of every ten Philippines works abroad, hence contributing to the nation ten percent of the gross domestic product from foreign remittances.
The Singaporean law forbids these women to work in occupations different from domestic help. Many of them are nurses, teachers or hold technical degrees in different areas. The law also forbids them from bringing along their families, also from living in a home different from their employer’s home, from getting married or getting pregnant. If the latter were to occur, they shall abandon the country to have their child abroad or resort to abortion, which is a legal practice in Singapore. Despite these, it is worth for them as with the money they earn, they can pay for their children’s education, provide for their home, build a home or save for a less harsh future.
We realized Razel had learnt Spanish one day when my husband was telling a joke and she roared with laughter. Her desire of interacting in our native language and her particular interest in each word we said lead her to learn the language in a short time, hence leaving speechless our fellow Colombians when she would ask them: “would you like a coffee?” Likewise, she memorized to perfection our favorite meal recipes thus flaunting in each gathering where there were plenty of flattery for whom had made mouth-watering arepas, empanadas or the delicious bandeja paisa. My visitors were always welcomed by Razel with great joy and kindness and they still remember her; and for the family, that considered her as another member, there was no bigger worry when we left Singapore than thinking what would be of us without her and what would be of her without us.
Although she dreamt of becoming a doctor, the fact that she paid the higher education for three of her siblings and is still providing for her parents, relieve her from any frustration. Instead, she longs to return to her home country one day, build her own family and have her own bakery business with sweet creations. And precisely sweetness is something she overflows. It is impossible to forget her warm hugs, or the flowers she would bring me for Valentine’s Day, or the posters and colorful balloons she would use to decorate our home to welcome us after a long trip, or the gifts and kisses she would use to inundate my children on each special occasion, or the typical food she would bring for my husband from the Philippines, or the moving Christmas cards she would prepare for us. She, who had to abandon her family to go and take care of a different one, did not win the beauty contest, but all the special care, the cuddles, the warm dedication, and the great affection that she professed made her cling to our soul and we proclaimed her our queen, a queen without crown and scepter but with a heart filled with treasures. 🌸