Page last updated at 11:24 CST6CDT, Thursday, 08 August 2019 PH
Like the vast majority of those who helped build Philippine society as professionals among the baby boomers (born after the Second World War) and Generation X (born between 1965 to 1982), my siblings and I belonged to the middle class. We were fortunate that our parents earned enough to have been able to send all of us to private universities to pursue our respective professional careers. Like the children of middle-class households, we all owe a great deal to a person who helped our parents take care of us in our childhood. I am sure that many of those who belong to our generation were able to identify with Academy Award-winning Director Alfonso Cuaron (of Gravity and Roma fame) who won Best Director in the 91st Oscar Academy awards for a semi-autobiographical film about a Mexican maid who worked for an upper middle-class family living in the district called ‘Roma” in the Mexican Capital. The film also won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. The main character of Roma, Cleodegaria Gutierrez or “Cleo”, was inspired by the real-life nanny of Alfonso Cuaron named Liboria Rodriguez. In a film review that appeared in the Financial Times (February 23, 2019), John Paul Rathbone, FT’s Latin American editor, comments that the role of a nanny or as we call them in the Philippines, yaya, can appear almost humdrum to those in Latin America (we can add in the Philippines) who still employ servants such as Cleo. Although Roma is unmistakably Mexican, every country has its own form of domestic help, with all the dramatic possibilities that it provides.
Our own “Cleo” just passed away at the age of 86. Her name was Remedios and nicknamed “Meding.” She not only helped our parents in bringing up all seven of us. She continued on as the second mother to the seven children of one of my sisters and subsequently some of her grandchildren. Actually, she was always considered as a member of the family, not only because of her complete and unselfish dedication (she never got married) to us and the next two generations but also because of the fact that she was a blood relative. She was the natural child of one of the brothers of my mother, who decided to adopt her into our family when she was nine years old. Thanks to her ever present and loving care, my mother was not only able to cope with the challenging task of raising up seven rambunctious toddlers but to also excel as the chief dentist of the Assumption Convent in Malate, Manila (probably the equivalent of Roma in Mexico City).
I am sure many professional men and women over thirty who are reading this article must have memories of their own “Cleo” or “Meding.” As the FT article comments on the role of Cleo in the film Roma, “Cleo cooks and cleans…she sweeps the floor and makes the beds while singing to the radio,…ensures the house runs smoothly, and answers the phone for the family matriarch…fetches the children from school, tends to their bruises and hurt feelings, sings them to sleep and wakes them every morning with gentle tickles and caresses.” Our own Meding was especially loved by my three sisters who considered her as a second mother. Despite the many other alternative jobs she could have obtained after my siblings and I grew to adulthood, she freely chose to continue being there to the children of my eldest sister until they also all grew up. In fact, the testimonies of these nephews and nieces of mine are very touching, describing in great detail how persons like Cleo and Meding have served as silent nurturers of future leaders in many societies all over the world.
The testimonies of these nephews and nieces of mine, all very accomplished professionals now in their thirties or forties, attest to the great good that they derived in being helped by their Tita Meding as they were growing up in a middle-class household in Manila. One of these nieces is now occupying a leadership position in an educational NGO in the Ivory Coast. She was quick to point out that Meding, more than being a yaya to them, was really a second mother who, among many other favors, made it easy for her to overcome the weariness of getting up every morning to go to school. She would wake them up gently and would already have prepared their school uniforms all laid out, a hearty breakfast waiting on the table and the lunch “baon” packed to be brought to school. In fact, when my niece told some of her closest friends about Meding’s passing away, they sent their condolences and remembered how as school children, they would trade their meals for those which Meding prepared, e.g. her famous cheesy hamburger or chicken alexander. This niece in the Ivory Coast was quick to point out that she learned from Meding about the joy that comes from serving and always considering the needs of others before hers.
A nephew, the oldest of the siblings, refers to Meding as one with a calm countenance and quiet demeanor. He remembers how in family gatherings, parties and other celebrations, Meding would always make sure that everyone had eaten and was well fed before she herself partook of the meals for which she was mainly responsible for cooking and preparations. When he would come late for the celebrations, Meding always made it a point to set aside portions of his favorite dishes so that he could still enjoy her specialty dishes, i.e. spaghetti with meat sauce, lechon kawali, lumpia, etc. He also remembers how Meding would be very particular about how they behaved socially. In family gatherings, she would whisper instructions or give him a nudge about assisting an older relative up the stairs or engaging a shy cousin in conversation. She had the knack for genuinely willing the good of others. There was always the timely advice to show respect and attention to elders. Meding, like many others in her position, disproved the claim that the Filipina yaya pampers children and develops the “senyorito” complex, especially among the boys. On the contrary, they contribute much to the character and values formation of children of many middle-income households like the one I had and those of my siblings. (To be continued).