Five dollars in my pocket (Part 1)

The author as a newly arrived immigrant in Italy.

The author as a newly arrived immigrant in Italy.

By Ana Bel Mayo

While I was in Iraq, an Iraqi woman read my future in my cup of coffee and told me that I would find my destiny in a country with many flowers. It was 1984. At the middle of the Iran-Iraq war that started in 1980. I worked at the Information Center of the Meridian Hotel in Baghdad. Despite the war, or maybe because of the war, I obtained a working visa. It was my first overseas experience. I became an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in order to improve the future of my children.

Learning to be resilient
I was born in Pasig, Rizal. My father, Ramon Mayo, was a supervisor of a construction company and my mother, Milagros Lumibao, a housewife who attended to five children. Due to financial difficulties, my parents allowed my grandparents to take me to the province and live with them. I remember afternoons when I missed my parents so much I cried a lot. I have many fond memories of growing up with my grandparents, Lola Baing and Lolo Juan. My childhood days started with Lolo Juan’s homemade breakfast made of fried rice with egg, freshly brewed local coffee with carabao’s milk, and big hot pandesal from the nearby bakery. Since there was no potable water in the house, fetching water from the water well was one of my daily chores to help my grandparents. There was no electricity, so we used a kerosene lamp. Moonlight from a full moon was joyous to my childhood friends and me as we could play patentero until late at night, followed by midnight snacks of rice cakes, pinipig, and other Philippine snacks. I remember that at age five, I started attending elementary school as saling pusa [a temporary pupil]. Even though I was too young to enroll officially I was allowed to because I was tall compared to other kids of my age. My lolo was very strict, and my lola was the opposite. But I loved them both equally. I remember that I enjoyed my childhood with my grandparents which was cut short because a car accident killed my Lolo Juan. I was ten years old. After my grandfather’s untimely death, I was reunited with my parents, brothers, and sisters.

Coping with marriage and two babies
I married young. My ignorance about sex education made me believe that “a kiss on the cheek can get you pregnant.” When the kiss happened, I was afraid to go back home. I thought that my only choice was to elope. As a result, I had my first child when I was 17. I thought I could still study while taking care of my first born, but that was very hard. My ex-husband was a soldier, and his salary was not enough to feed the family and pay for my schooling. So I stopped going to school and looked for a job. My first job was as a lady guard assigned as the assistant to the general manager of the Manila International Airport (MIA). I was part of the security task force, with the code-named Vigilant of MIA. I was the youngest and the only woman. I made suggestions on how to improve airport services and lower the cost of management. During my time at MIA, I worked at the international zone where arriving international passengers have not yet formally entered the country since they have not cleared arrival customs and immigration controls and departing passengers have not formally exited the country because they have not yet cleared immigration control. I learned to interact with different personalities from different cultures and to help them solve their problems because of delayed flights or problems with departure. Interaction with different people and the ability to problem solve would become building blocks for my community leadership. When I was 23, my husband and I separated. I became a single-parent with children. I questioned how I would be able to take care of the future of my children.

Ana, 3rd from left, with  fellow honorees at the 2018 Filipina Women’s Network Summit in London.

Ana, 3rd from left, with fellow honorees at the 2018 Filipina Women’s Network Summit in London.

Taking risks to start my OFW life
I made my way to Baghdad, Iraq. Working in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war presented unique challenges. There was no banking system. I was paid in Iraqi dinars which I had to convert to U.S. dollars in order to send to my children and my family in the Philippines. I had to use the black market and this meant being shortchanged. Despite the difficulties, I persevered. When I completed my contract, I had the opportunity to apply for a job in Cyprus, a country recovering from the war between the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots. In 1986 when I arrived, Cyprus was under the control of international peacekeepers. It was a relatively peaceful time. And, the Cypriots spoke English making it easier to communicate. One of the things I did was to work with a manpower agency to recruit Filipino workers to come to Cyprus. I succeeded in bringing one batch that included some of my family members.

La vida bella: Paese con molti fiori
My beautiful life: A country with many flowers

While I was back in the Philippines from Cyprus in 1988, I applied for a working visa to Italy as part of two groups, a total of 16 Filipino. I flew with the first group. Upon arrival in Rome, I thought that I would find an easy life. I was wrong. Thirty years ago, nobody spoke English in Italy, outside the immigration office. Since I did not speak Italian, communication was a problem. In Italy, my educational background was not useful. Like many other Filipinos, I worked as a domestic servant, babysitter, or caregiver. I worked as all three without hesitation since I needed to send remittances to the family. It was a double-edge hardship with long working hours and no day-offs. I sometimes felt like I should quit but I could not because of my responsibilities. With this inner drive, I just kept going and supported the needs of my family for years.

Today, home is Inzago, a municipality in the Province of Milan in the Italian region of Lombardy, located about 25 kilometers (16 miles) northeast of Milan. I am active in several associations in Inzago and in the greater Milan area in support of the local Filipino communities as well as the broader immigrant and the Italian community. Today I serve as a councillor and treasurer of the Città Mondo Association and president of the I Colori del Mondo d’Adda association. I am a member of the Inzago Volunteer Council, and member of the Filipina Women’s Network. In my leadership story, I reflect on how I took control of my life to become a Filipina women leader.

NEXT: Taking control of my life

Ana Bel Mayo is president of I Colori del Mondo d’Adda [The Colors of the World] Association in Italy. She is the recipient of the Most Influential Filipina Woman in the World recognition in 2016. This essay is included in “DISRUPT 3.0: Filipina Women: Rising” — a collection of personal essays — which is available on Amazon.

Ana and her family before the original mural painting of ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan.

Ana and her family before the original mural painting of ‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan.

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