Filipina women were part of a great Australian migration, but they had to overcome the mail


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Jun 03, 2023

Filipina women were part of a great Australian migration, but they had to overcome the mail

I can't exactly remember the moment Mum told me she was off chemo. Done. As in forever. My memories of my last months with her are like the end of a film reel, where the frames flicker and switch off.

I can't exactly remember the moment Mum told me she was off chemo.

Done. As in forever.

My memories of my last months with her are like the end of a film reel, where the frames flicker and switch off.

There are flashes of moments, like the squeak of my boots as I walked to the palliative ward. The cab we caught home when it was all done, blasting Cher's It's In His Kiss. The pink polka dot thermal socks that were still on Mum as dawn rose and her life ended.

Jesusita Querobines Weedon died in June 2022, after 15 years of living with breast cancer.

I retreated from the world after that. I spent days — then weeks — sitting on the couch, immobilised, wearing Mum's pink socks, staring into space.

On her death certificate, I was asked to state her occupation in one word.

Officialdom wanted to keep things to a page. But I was desperate to communicate the breadth of her life, which, like so many other migrants, had been both hyphenated and truncated.

Mum was among the first in her family to leave her rural fishing village to pursue higher education and received an accounting degree. She later became a clerk in Manila.

But when she moved to Australia, these qualifications weren't recognised.

She became another Filipina cleaner.

Before that, she was seen as just another "Filipina bride".

It's that stereotype that rolled around in my mind as I sat on my couch. It's also what helped me get off it.

In grief's aftermath, I wanted to know more about Mum.

I wanted to trace the contours of her life before she had me, and how they shaped her journey to Australia.

Because, to borrow the words of renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen: "Migrations don't just happen — they're produced".

And so to understand how Mum got to Australia, I needed to go back in time.

Filipinos have been in Australia since the 19th century, when scores of men arrived in northern Australia to work in the pearling industry.

But the Manilamen — as they were then referred to by colonial authorities — weren't welcomed into White Australia.

New and compelling histories from Australia and around the world.

It wasn't until 1973, when the Whitlam government formally ended the White Australia Policy, that Filipinos began to migrate south once more.

After an initial trickle, thousands of Filipinos began to arrive in Australia each year after that. Women consistently outnumbered men and at its peak in 1988, Filipinas outnumbered Filipino arrivals by 42 per cent.

This was at a time when the Philippines' mass emigration was in full swing.

"The whole country experienced so much hardship, poverty, inequality and human rights abuses," Melba Marginson, a Filipina-Australian activist, tells ABC RN's The History Listen.

"Many, later on in the 80s, would leave the Philippines [of] their own volition. But, systematically the government itself, the Marcos government export[ed] people outside of the Philippines."

Migration was the Philippines' national policy.

In the decades after World War II, the Philippines had one of South-East Asia's leading economies.

But by the 1980s, it was defined by economic stagnation and systematic corruption. It became known among economists as the "sick man of Asia".

This coincided with then President Ferdinand Marcos I plunging the democratic Philippines into an autocracy, or "constitutional authoritarianism" as he once referred to it.

There was rising unemployment and social security had been hollowed out. Essentially, the Philippines was broke.

The solution that the Marcos regime devised was a policy of labour export.

"It was an entire apparatus that literally manufactured migrants to work abroad," Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, a Filipina-American scholar and activist, says.

At the time of the policy's introduction, it was anticipated the labour scheme would bring in substantial remittance revenues. And it did, as many families sent portions of their pay cheques home to the Philippines.

Until the pandemic, remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) made up about 10 per cent of the Philippines' annual GDP for about 30 years.

In 1980s Australia, those Filipino workers headed to construction sites or into the automotive sector, while Filipinas were entering caring roles.

But then another type of people-export began to emerge.

Mum and Dad's romance started in earnest via mail. They had been introduced by a mutual friend in 1990, and their correspondence began.

After a year of letters back and forth, she decided to pack up her belongings and move to Melbourne in 1991 to be with him.

Mum's move was towards the end of a great wave of Filipina migration to Australia, a substantial portion of which had been mediated through marriage.

From the late 1970s, the Philippine state had encouraged the idea of "the Filipina beauty", promoting Filipinas in beauty pageants.

In the 60s and 70s, Imelda Marcos, the wife of the then dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was actively promoting Filipino women in beauty contests.

And later the country earned a reputation as a "pageant powerhouse".

The figure of the beauty queen — along with the migrant worker and the sex worker — were representations of the Filipina that were "all deployed as part of an economic strategy" by the Philippine state, Dr Rodriguez says.

Over time, the idea of the Filipina beauty queen fed into a different kind of export: the Filipina bride joined the ranks of the Overseas Filipino Worker.

In either Australia or the Philippines, you could visit an introduction agency and pay anything from $30 to hundreds of dollars to get names and addresses of a prospective partner and communicate by mail, Ms Marginson explains.

As a result, thousands of Filipina women migrated to Australia via marriage in the 1980s and 1990s. A third of Filipinas living in Australia between 1996 and 1998 were married to a "long time Australian", according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

But amid this great migration, the stereotypes of Filipina women — in particular, that they were mail-order brides — had tangible consequences.

Ms Marginson recalls being solicited within months of moving to Melbourne in 1989.

"I was just walking in the street and a guy approached me and said, 'Hi, do you have a partner?' And I said, 'Yes, I'm married. Why?' [And he said] 'Oh, well then do you have a sister?'.

"The accessibility of 'the Filipino woman' to the Anglo- or European-Australian man was very visible."

Ms Marginson, who had been a teacher and later secretary-general of the National Teachers Federation of the Philippines, found that when she left her home country, her identity was flattened.

"You're just seen as another Filipino woman, who arrived here and married an Australian," she says.

"There was no understanding [of] who you are. You are all back to zero."

Just like my mum.

The two-dimensional perception of Filipinas like Mum or Ms Marginson quickly seeped into the Australian media — like the Filipina bride in the 1994 movie, The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert.

When the film's three protagonists hit the outback, they meet Cynthia, a hapless, hyper-sexualised and hysterical Filipina woman, who shoots ping pong balls out of her nether regions.

"When we saw that scene, we really walked out of the cinema," Ms Marginson says.

"The next day we immediately sent out a complaint. And the answer by the director was that 'You don't know how to take a joke'."

Then there was the treatment of Rose Porteous, the former wife of late mining magnate Lang Hancock. Porteous was frequently positioned as a "gold digger" by the media.

"Rose's behaviour and activities were heavily reported," Kristine Aquino, a Filipina-Australian sociologist at the University of Technology Sydney, says.

"She was portrayed as the former maid escaping poverty, but as well, this predatory woman taking advantage of an ageing employer."

The Filipina bride had become the butt of Australian jokes.

But they spoke to something more sinister: that the Filipina bride was disposable.

By the 1990s, this was no laughing matter.

Ms Marginson arrived in Melbourne in July 1989, and within months, three Filipina women had been killed in her new home city.

"That really sparked outrage amongst us," she says.

It prompted her to co-found the Centre for Philippine Concerns Australia (CPCA), an advocacy body designed to champion and amplify the rights of Filipina-Australians.

"When we all brought them together, there were 18 murders and two disappearances of Philippine women. And out of the 18, there were two children killed," Ms Marginson says.

"They were not just being victims of domestic violence, but were being murdered and some had disappeared."

Research commissioned in 1996 found that Filipina women aged between 20 and 39 were 5.6 times more likely to die of spousal homicide than that of Australian women in the same age group.

The CPCA kickstarted a broader national campaign to halt the abuse and create safeguards for the Filipinas who had chosen to migrate to Australia, largely on their own, via marriage.

Tighter regulations followed.

In 1990, the Philippines passed the Anti Mail Order Spouse Act, which prohibited introduction agencies in the country.

However, it hasn't stopped agencies from operating abroad. Today there are still various websites dedicated to "finding" Filipina women.

In Australia, the Howard Government tightened spousal and family immigration programs, and by 2000, Filipina migration to Australia had plunged.

That's partly why there's much less discussion about the Filipina mail-order bride today, although violence against newly arrived Filipina women hasn't gone away.

Historical perceptions linger.

"I definitely think ... that exoticisation of Asian women [and] Filipina women [still exists]," Dr Aquino says.

"But we can't forget that there has been historically important work done by the first generation to counter the stigma."

Women like Ms Marginson and my mother.

They have both — in their own way — spoken back to that stigma, by rejecting the perception of being docile, subservient women.

"I was constantly trying to bring back the dignity of the Filipino woman," Ms Marginson says.

"We Filipino women, we've come from histories of fighters and women who stood up for liberty and freedom."

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