The Story I Couldn’t Stop Writing

How I came to chronicle three generations of a single family—from a Manila shantytown to suburban Texas.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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Thirty-two years ago, I stepped off a plane from the Philippines and started a job as an editor at the Washington Monthly, a position renowned for its mix of high purpose, low pay, shabby quarters, and mad-genius editing by its founder, Charlie Peters. Then I sat down to write a long story about living in a Manila shantytown.

The article revolved around Tita Comodas, the woman who had taken me in during my year in Manila. I had found her captivating—a mother of five with a sixth-grade education who read English newspapers using a Tagalog dictionary, took seriously the command to love thy neighbor, and poked fun at herself for her lowborn status. The months I’d spent sleeping on the floor of her hovel were my version of graduate school, a crash course in poverty and resilience.

I poured myself into the story and gave it to Charlie, who tore it apart. He called it treacly here and contradictory there, alternately self-indulgent and turgid. He mocked and berated. In Monthly lore, a hazing session like this was known as a “rain dance.” As the new guy, I got one with special thunder. I was told it was a compliment.

I seethed and brooded, especially where I saw that Charlie was right. (To this day, I edit myself with his prosecutorial voice in my head.) Setting aside my wounded pride, I went back to writing, and Charlie did something few editors would have done—he put a long story about a Manila slum on the cover of the magazine. The story was both a character study of Tita and an exploration of the Philippines’ fragile democracy. I wrote it as a tribute and an act of catharsis, and after more than 8,000 words I figured I was done as Tita’s chronicler. 

Fortunately, I was wrong.

I don’t know who was more frightened the day we met, Tita or me. I was a twenty-six-year-old reporter in Manila on a year-long fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation. Interested in shantytowns, I asked a nun who lived in one called Leveriza to help me move in. When she told me to return in a couple of days, I figured she would use the time to approach a family or two. Instead, she led me through the alley and auctioned me off on the spot. 

I understood just enough Tagalog to know that the first prospect was horrified. So was the second. Tita, the third, was simply struck mute. Her thin patience exhausted, Sister Christine stomped off. “If you don’t want him, pass him on to someone else,” she said. “And don’t cook him anything special—if he gets sick, too bad.” Tita stalled for as long as she could, then offered me a place on her floor, deciding that Sister Christine’s introduction had left her no choice.

For the first few days, language gaps and excessive politeness kept us strangers. Then Tita sought my help with a glue-pot project, turning newspapers into paper bags. I botched the job so badly she laughed and threatened to mark them “Made in the USA.” My incompetence put everyone at ease. I stayed on and off for eight months, lending a hand here and there but mostly just observing shantytown life through Tita’s eyes.

The oldest of eleven siblings raised on a farm, she had moved to Manila at sixteen to work in a glove factory. Then came marriage and five children, including one with a heart defect. To buy medicine and patch the leaking roof, Tita’s husband, Emet, a pool maintenance man, had taken a job in Saudi Arabia, while Tita raised the kids on the money he sent—ten times what he had been making in Manila. 

Half of Tita’s life revolved around drudgery. I’d be lying on my floor mat before dawn, listening to her boil the breakfast rice, and back there again at midnight, listening to her wrestle the laundry. The other half revolved around slum solidarity as a lieutenant in Sister Christine’s uplift group, Alay Kapwa. With a mix of Bible studies and livelihood projects, the group was built on the notion that Jesus had a special love for the poor—a radical thought in a place where conditions suggested the opposite. As the manager of the co-op store, Tita was responsible for buying 2,000 eggs a week, which she stacked beneath a fluorescent light in an effort to keep away the rats. 

Tita had faced crushing poverty without being crushed. Our relationship was so unlikely I didn’t know what to call us. Reporter and source? Ten­ant and landlady? Friends?

Though Tita had arrived in the slums as a timid young woman from the provinces, the group had pulled her out of her shell and given her the confidence to ask questions. Some she directed at me. Are all Americans rich? (No.) What do they think of Filipinos? (Most don’t.) Did I like the fish head she bought me for breakfast? (I lied.) Her curiosity encompassed big matters. She told me she’d been asking God, “Why, if you love your Son, are so many people poor?” It’s the central dilemma of faith—why does an omnipotent God allow suffering?—and one with special immediacy in a place that suffers as much as Leveriza. I asked whether God had answered. “Not yet,” Tita laughed.

My time as the shantytown’s journalist in residence, if that’s what I was, proved formative, but I can’t quite say what it formed. Certainly no five-point plan. It was more like an encounter with grace. Tita had faced crushing poverty without being crushed. Our relationship was so unlikely I didn’t know what to call us. Reporter and source? Tenant and landlady? Friends? One night a group of Alay Kapwa women and I walked past a hotel dining room, gleaming with white linens and chandeliers. The women laughed and teased me: I could enter, while they could not. I laughed, too, but the real joke was class itself—however fleetingly, the divisions seemed absurd. To subvert them was rare good fortune. I’m not sure what I expected to find in the Manila slums. But it wasn’t a woman in a worn housecoat trying to live out the gospel beneath a tower of eggs.

Poverty had claimed Tita’s teeth. But she looked resplendent with her dentures in.

I left the Monthly after two years, in 1989, to cover poverty for the New York Times. New attention was being focused on the American underclass. Experts debated what mix of forces kept people from seizing opportunity in a society of plenty. 

Tita’s life had posed a different question: How do people find opportunity in places where it scarcely exists? Her example stayed with me and shaped the questions I asked. Yes, I wanted to know about poverty’s structural causes—about job flight, racism, and torn safety nets. But I also wanted to know about people’s inner lives, their search for meaning and purpose. What did they ask God? What did they make of the answers?

I spent seven years following a group of families on welfare for my first book, American Dream. The main character, Angela Jobe, presented herself (to me and the world) as a jaded veteran of ghetto life. Certainly she had much to feel jaded about. She had dropped out of high school to have her first baby. Her children’s father was locked up for murder. Her late-night accounts of her life, flowing beside Colt 45s, were offered in bursts of excitable swearing that could peel the paint from the walls. The hard face was real, but also a mask. One night, after I’d known her for years, she dug out a poem she’d written as a struggling young single mother.

I’m tired

Of trying to understand

What God wants of me

Recoiling from her own irreverence, Angie had then substituted “the world” for “God,” and hidden the unfinished page in the back of a closet in a satchel of journals and love letters. Stories of street fights she was happy to share, but the bag was so secret no one knew it existed. “Don’t you know I like looking mean?” she said. “If people think you’re nice, they’ll take your kindness for weakness. That’s a side of me I don’t want anybody to see. That way I don’t have to worry about nobody hurting me.”

Maybe Angie would have shared her inner seeker anyway. But my experience with Tita helped me sense it was there.

Tita and I stayed in touch but didn’t see each other for nearly twenty years. In the meantime, all five of her children became overseas workers like Emet had been. What started as an act of desperation became a way of life, and the lens through which I saw the family switched from poverty to migration. The child I knew best was Tita’s daughter, Rosalie. A shy fifteen-year-old when we met, she combined her two chief assets—her father’s overseas earnings and her own quiet tenacity—to make the leap from the slums to nursing school. She spent years working in Abu Dhabi while hoping to get to the United States.

I knew that migration loomed large for the family. But my lightbulb moment in grasping its global importance was learning that remittances—the sums that migrants send home—are three times the world’s foreign aid budgets combined. In 2006, I returned to the Philippines for the New York Times Magazine to write about the family and the rise of migration. I took a car from Manila to a small-town restaurant near the family farm where Tita and Emet had moved after leaving the slums. I waited nervously. Then an aging couple walked in, wearing familiar grins. In an instant, I felt home again.

But what a different home! A dozen houses sat in a rough semicircle in the family compound, each belonging to a different relative who had worked abroad. Like an ocular form of carbon dating, a quick look yielded a fair guess at how long each owner had been away. The home without paint or windowpanes belonged to the worker who had been sending money home for just two years. A tile roof and second kitchen suggested an absence of a decade or more. Tita and Emet occupied the compound’s jewel—a pink bungalow with a private water tank, paid for by Rosalie. She and her husband both worked abroad, while Tita and Emet looked after their kids.

Eventually I decided to write a book, using the family as a vehicle to explore the rise of global migration. For all my enthusiasm, the story line had a problem: A tale about Filipinos in Abu Dhabi would seem peripheral to American life. Then the narrative gods smiled. Rosalie got a job in Texas.

I met her in Manila in 2012 and joined her on her initial flight to the U.S. Her husband and three young children followed, and I spent years reporting on their adjustment. My book, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves, tells the family story across three generations and charts the rise of global migration. It starts improbably, with Tita adopting me in the slums, and ends more improbably still, with her grandchildren flourishing in a Houston suburb. It’s the greatest poverty success story I know—a change in life circumstance so vast it defies the imagination. Faith, grit, and family bonds fueled it, along with the opportunities afforded by migration.

I haven’t seen Tita in three years, since I accompanied Rosalie on her first trip back from the States. Thrilled to have everyone home, Tita bustled about and beamed. “Kain na! she shouted all day. Come eat! What could be happier than a family so large they had to come to the table in shifts? Emet, who had suffered a stroke, sat in a wheelchair and held Tita’s hand. They marveled at pictures of Rosalie’s house and how quickly their Americanized grandchildren had forgotten Tagalog. “Amazing, amazing changes,” Tita said.

Emet died this year. After a half century of marriage, Tita is now a widow, with most of her children living abroad. At seventy-three, she is lonely and in uncertain health. We communicate, imperfectly, on Facebook and in Skype calls punctuated by rooster crows. Perhaps after two magazine pieces and a book, I should feel like I’ve fully told her story. But I don’t exactly. Perhaps writers never exhaust their favorite subjects. Her life is entering a challenging new stage. I still marvel at her grace. And she still looks resplendent with her dentures in.

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Jason DeParle

Jason DeParle is a reporter for the New York Times and the author of A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century, from which parts of this essay are adapted. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1987 to 1989.