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Published September 16, 2020

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A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves
A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves
One Family and Migration in the 21st Century
by Jason DeParle

Paperback (18 Aug 2020), 400 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 9780143111191

The definitive chronicle of our new age of global migration, told through the multi-generational saga of a Filipino family, by a veteran New York Times reporter and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

When Jason DeParle moved in with Tita Comodas and her family in the Manila slums thirty years ago, he didn't expect to make lifelong friends. Nor did he expect to spend decades reporting on Tita, her husband, siblings, and children, as they came to embody the stunning rise of global migration. In his new book, DeParle paints an intimate portrait of an unforgettable family across three generations that dramatizes how the international movement of labor has reordered economics, politics, and culture across the world. At the heart of the story is Rosalie, Tita's middle child, who escapes poverty by becoming a nurse, and lands jobs in Jeddah, Abu Dhabi and, finally, Texas--joining the record forty-four million immigrants in the United States.

Migration touches every aspect of global life. It pumps billions in remittances into poor villages, fuels Western populism, powers Silicon Valley, sustains American health care, and brings one hundred languages to the Des Moines public schools. One in four children in the United States is an immigrant or the child of one. With no issue in American life so polarizing, DeParle expertly weaves between the personal and panoramic perspectives. Reunited with their children after years apart, Rosalie and her husband struggle to be parents, as their children try to find their place in a place they don't know. Ordinary and extraordinary at once, their journey is a twenty-first-century classic, rendered in gripping detail.

Finding Jesus in the Slums

Thirty years ago, I was a young reporter in Manila with an interest in shantytowns, the warrens of scrap-wood shacks that covered a third of the city and much of the developing world. I called the Philippines's most famous nun, who lived in a slum called Leveriza. Though I didn't say so, I was hoping she would help me move in.

Sister Christine Tan was a friend of the new president, Cory Aquino, and busy on commission rewriting the constitution.

"Call me back a few months," she snapped.

Hoping for a quicker audience, I explained that I worked with another nun in her order. Apparently, they weren't friends. "That's a mistake!" she said. "Meet me tomorrow morning, outside the Manila Zoo."

Raised in affluence, educated in the United States, Sister Christine had gained her renown as a critic of Ferdinand Marcos, the American backed dictator who had proclaimed martial law in 1972 and plundered the country with the help of his shoe-happy wife, Imelda. "I hate their deceitfulness, their sham, their greed, their avarice, their lies, the deliberate trouncing of our rights and the burying of our souls," she once said. The Vatican had told her to tone things down. The police had threatened arrest. Sister Christine had defied them all and gone off to find Jesus in the slums. At fifty-six, she had a smooth, grandmotherly face, which made her look gentle, though she wasn't.

"Are you CIA? ... You wouldn't tell me if you were, would you?" she began. When she called herself " anti-imperialist," it sounded like an accusation.

"The poor are magnificent people, unlike the rich," she said, but boarding in Leveriza wouldn't work. Most of the shanties lacked toilets, and Americans can't live without them. A host would feel obligated to serve pricey food. I'd be a burden. She denounced the United States for keeping military bases in the Philippines, then suddenly waved a hand above her head. "That's all up here," meaning her views of American policy. "Somehow, we have to build links between the First World and the Third World." If I returned in a few days, she'd see what she could do.

Sunk into a mudflat near Manila Bay, Leveriza held fifteen thousand people in a labyrinth of alleys behind the whitewashed walls of one of Imelda's old beautification campaigns. Children played beside listing shacks. Women squatted over tubs of laundry. Roosters crowed. Sanitation mostly meant saucers," bundles of waste wrapped in newspaper and flung in the surrounding canals.

I figured that Sister Christine would use the time before my return to approach a potential host or two. Instead, she led me into the maze and auctioned me off on the spot. I knew just enough Tagalog to realize our first prospect was aghast. "Hindi pwede, Sister!" It's not possible. The second candidate smiled more but ducked as rapidly. The third was too astonished to respond. Tita Comodas was forty years old and sitting at her window in an old housedress, selling sugar and eggs. A scruffy American looking to rent floor space had the appeal of a biblical plague.

Her thin patience exhausted, Sister Christine left. "If you don't want him, pass him on to someone else. And don't cook him anything special—if he gets sick, too bad!"

I don't know who was more frightened, Tita or me. Neighborhood entertainment was scarce; we drew a crowd.

"Ask him if he eats rice!"

"Ask him if he knows how to use a spoon!"

"Ask him if he wants to marry a Filipina!"

Tita had a boisterous neighbor who fed her questions and whooped at the answers. But Tita struggled to see the humor— after all, it was her house. The reasons to decline were many. Her husband was working in Saudi Arabia ... she was busy raising five kids ... she already had two relatives sleeping on the floor ... her English was limited and my Tagalog was worse ... Who knew what problems strange foreigner might cause? Then she surrendered to what she took as Sister Christine's request and said I could move in. I stayed on and off for eight months and made a lifelong friend.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves by Jason DeParle. Copyright © 2019 by Jason DeParle. Excerpted by permission of Viking. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

New York Times reporter Jason DeParle weaves one Filipino family's immigration saga into a broader analysis of the complex economic, political and social forces driving migration around the globe.

Print Article Publisher's View   

A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves follows three generations of the Portagana Comodas clan, a family Jason DeParle first met in the 1980s when he convinced Tita Portagana to rent him space in her single-room shack in a Manila shantytown—the sprawling slums where millions of the Philippine capital's poorest residents live. DeParle was a young journalist researching poverty. Tita was matriarch of a large extended family whose members were scattered across the globe. Seven of her ten siblings worked outside of the Philippines. So did her husband Emet.

At home in Manila, Emet had scraped by on wages of $50 a month—far from enough to support his family of seven. When Emet accepted a job cleaning pools in Saudi Arabia, his earnings increased tenfold. The money he sent home kept his family fed, provided vital medicine for an ill daughter, and paid for previously unheard of luxuries, such as an indoor toilet and the family's first bed. "I was ecstatic we could lie on something soft," Tita tells DeParle. Yet these gains came at a steep price. Emet's overseas work kept him away for almost 20 years. To provide a better life for his family, he had to leave them behind—the bitter tradeoff summed up in the book's title, a quote from Tita's sister Peachy.

It's a point vividly brought home to DeParle when he visits the Portagana Comodas family again in 2006, on assignment for the New York Times. Emet has returned from Saudi Arabia, but Tita and Emet's home is no longer a rundown shanty in the Manila slums but a three-bedroom pink bungalow with faux-marble floors. The opulence is made possible by their daughter Rosalie's overseas job as a nurse—a career path open to her in the first place only because Emet's own long years abroad made nursing school affordable.

All five of Tita and Emet's children grew up to be overseas workers, but it is Rosalie—the middle child, just 15 when DeParle first met her in 1987—who gets the starring role in the book. Her path from poverty in the Philippines to a middle-class life in America forms the narrative backbone of A Good Provider, anchoring the book as it winds through the experiences of cousins, grandparents, in-laws, aunts, uncles and other members of the clan to tell the larger migration story of the extended family across three decades.

Rosalie entered nursing school with an overriding goal: to make it to the United States, her ticket to a better life. After working for almost two decades in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Rosalie finally achieves her dream in 2012, landing a coveted nursing job in a Texas hospital. With novelistic detail, DeParle sketches her journey from the slums of Manila to the suburbs of Houston, chronicling her experiences in the Middle East, the ordeals of getting a visa and the challenges and pitfalls of assimilating to life in the U.S.

Until moving to the States, Rosalie's three children had mostly lived apart from their parents, cared for by other relatives. "They had to learn a new country and form a new family at the same time," DeParle notes. Rosalie's husband Chris chafes at the inversion of traditional gender roles entailed by his wife's breadwinner status, while their homesick children pine for the Philippines and struggle to adapt to American schools. But by the end of the book, Chris has found a job, the kids are blossoming at school, and the family has set up home on a quiet cul-de-sac nearby other Filipino families. Four years into their American life, the family flies home to the Philippines to visit for the first time since their arrival in the States. When it's time to leave the Philippines, there are tears of farewell but also feelings of eager anticipation. "I feel like I'm going home," Rosalie says. "The U.S. is my home."

In some ways, Rosalie is an unlikely heroine for a story about 21st century immigration. "Little about Rosalie, a four-foot, eleven-inch nurse, evokes the main American controversies," DeParle remarks. "She's the kind of immigrant who is largely invisible in political debate." Yet as a college-educated Asian woman, Rosalie epitomizes American immigration today to a growing degree. Asian immigrants have outnumbered Latin Americans since 2008. More than one-third of all newcomers have college degrees. And despite the national focus on illegal border crossings, three quarters of immigrants to the U.S. come through authorized channels, like Rosalie. As DeParle says, "Every corner of America has an immigrant like her."

DeParle is a good storyteller, and A Good Provider is an absorbing read. The personal journeys of Tita, Emet, Rosalie and other family members—fleshed out in rich detail—are seamlessly integrated into broad reflections on the history, controversies and debates surrounding immigration worldwide. An astute observer of current events, DeParle is adept at drawing connections to larger global trends, such as the political backlash against immigration in Europe and the U.S., the role of social media in immigrant communities, and the feminization of migration—the increase in female migrants as the global demand for caregiving labor grows. Both as a personal account of one family's experiences and as a general discussion of immigration trends, the book is an illuminating look at how immigration today is reshaping politics, cultured and economics around the world—and transforming America.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Herschbach

Minneapolis Star Tribune
[An] ambitious and successful book . . . DeParle has a frank, amiable and plain-spoken virtuosity as a writer.

The National Book Review
DeParle humanizes the politics of migration and the powerful forces of assimilation...immigration may be a hot button issue today, but in his profoundly wise, insightful, and eloquent book, DeParle goes behind sloganeering and conveys the vast and tangled obstacle course navigated by those who dream of lifting their families out of poverty

The New York Times
A sweeping, deeply reported tale of international migration that hopscotches from the Philippines through the Middle East, Europe and eventually the United States . . . DeParle’s understanding of migration is refreshingly cleareyed and nuanced.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
This years-in-the-making, panoramic story follows the Portagana family from the slums of Manila across four continents. A humane epic of real people in search of better lives.

The Washington Post
DeParle’s examination of how the two daughters adapt to U.S. elementary schools, seeking to become more all-American than the Americans, even as their parents find solace in Texas’s Filipino immigrant networks, is a minor classic of the assimilation experience....The book is packed with insights

The Boston Globe
A remarkable book . . . DeParle offers us a brisk history of immigration and immigration policy and wise reflections on contemporary migration.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
DeParle excels in both intimate details and sweeping scale...This well-crafted story personalizes the questions and trends surrounding global migration in moving and thought-provoking fashion.

Library Journal (starred review)
DeParle delivers a remarkably creative, enlightening, and empathetic book about international migration's personal and public impact…[a] well-informed analysis, of immigration's history, benefits, and downsides, demonstrating his mastery of the subject.

Booklist (starred review)
A remarkably intimate look at migration's impact on both a single family and the global community.

Author Blurb Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted
No matter your politics or home country this will change how you think about the movement of people between poor and rich of the best books on immigration written in a generation.

Author Blurb Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World
A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves is an exceptional accomplishment: sweeping, vivid and complicated in all the right ways. Just when we are about to lose hope, there is a moment of beauty or humor or grace that saves us from despair.

Author Blurb Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
It's hard to imagine a book better timed; after decades of work, Jason DeParle delivers this masterpiece of reporting and insight at precisely the moment when America is making the most basic decisions about immigration. His storytelling is so vivid, granular and alive that, once you've read it, immigration can never be a bumper-sticker controversy again. An American classic.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Migration, Labor, and the Philippines

As a young teen in the Manila slums, Rosalie, the central figure in Jason DeParle's A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, dreamed of a path out of poverty. "Nursing, that's my choice to help and curing sickness," she wrote to DeParle. "And to earn money and go abroad."

When Rosalie scored her first overseas job almost a decade later—at a hospital in Saudi Arabia—she became just one of an estimated 10 million Filipinos who work abroad. As DeParle explains, no country promotes overseas work as heavily as the Philippines. The government facilitates oversea placements, marketing its workers to other nations. And a vast industry of vocational schools and training institutes has sprung up to channel thousands of hopeful graduates every year into fields with high demand.

Every year, more than two million Filipinos flow out of the country, taking jobs overseas to escape poverty and lack of opportunity back home. Roughly one out of every seven Filipino workers is employed abroad, the majority as temporary guest workers in the Middle East. Collectively, the money they send home to their families adds up to $32 billion USD—10 percent of the island nation's gross domestic product (GDP). These remittances—the sums migrants send home—help to lift families out of poverty and prop up an economy hobbled by extreme inequality and a legacy of political corruption. Yet overseas jobs can bring not just opportunity but peril. Horror stories of exploitation and abuse abound, especially among domestic workers—nannies, cooks, drivers, and maids—in the Persian Gulf.

Like Rosalie, many Filipino women see nursing as their safest and surest bet. Each year, roughly 19,000 Filipino nurses ship out to jobs in hospitals around the world. Less vulnerable to abuse than domestic workers, nurses also earn higher wages—especially if they are lucky enough to land a job in the United States. Pinky, a cousin of Rosalie's husband, sums up the sentiment: "Every family should have one person outside the Philippines to send money," DeParle quotes her as saying. "That's why I went to nursing school. It was our ticket out."

Rosalie's journey from a Philippine nursing school to an American hospital is rooted in a long precedent. "Migration is history's ripple effect," DeParle writes. And the preponderance of Filipino nurses in the U.S. is one ripple from its history as an American colony from 1898 to 1946. After acquiring the Philippines from Spain during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States established the first Philippine nursing schools. These schools followed an American curriculum and used English as the language of instruction—making Filipino nurses particularly desirable candidates for jobs in the U.S.

By 1920, a trickle of Filipino nurses had already begun arriving in the States. Their numbers then surged during the Cold War period as hospitals took advantage of the newly created Exchange Visitor Program—an effort aimed at cultural diplomacy—to solve nursing shortages. The program attempted to combat anti-American Soviet propaganda by allowing foreign workers to reside in the U.S. for a period of two years. More than 11,000 nurses from the Philippines came to America between the late 1950s and 1960s. Many got waivers from their employees or found other ways to stay beyond two years.

Today, thanks to chronic nursing shortages, Filipino nurses continue to be in high demand. Nationwide, roughly eight percent of America's registered nurses were born and trained overseas. More than one-third of these nurses are from the Philippines. The U.S. is far from the only country where they are so well-represented. Visiting a London-area hospital, Prince Philip joked to the nursing staff, "The Philippines must be half-empty—you're all here."

At least in the U.S., foreign nurses are an interesting counterpoint to the argument commonly voiced by the immigration-wary—that immigrants will take jobs away from Americans and depress wages. Nurses like Rosalie are filling vital unfilled jobs, rather than taking jobs away. And because they tend to have more education than their American-born counterparts, they often command higher salaries—they are the opposite of cheap labor. "I hear a lot of flak about these people taking jobs," an employee at Rosalie's hospital said. "Well, if we had qualified nurses, they wouldn't be coming here."

Filed under Society and Politics

By Elisabeth Herschbach

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