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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Torn families a generational reality

 •  Youth aspiring to achieve the top rung

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

From left, Roly Reyes Jr., 11; Carolyn Reyes, 13; and Ronalyn Reyes, 18, prepare dinner at their Waipahu home. The girls moved from the Philippines with their mother in 1998, and Roly followed later.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Clockwise from top: Erwin Aceret, Rafael Reyes, Caridad Reyes, Nela Neda Reyes, Roly Reyes Jr., Carolyn Reyes and Ronalyn Reyes at their home in Waipahu. Like many other Filipino families who have migrated to Hawai'i, the Reyeses faced years of being separated, and they still have family members who are in the Philippines.

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From left, Ronalyn, Roly Jr. and Nela Neda Reyes work on centerpieces for Ronalyn's graduation. The Waipahu High honors student wants to become a doctor and will be the first in her family to study in college when she starts at UH in the fall.

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Nineteen years ago Caridad and Rafael Reyes left their home in Ilocos Norte, Philippines, to find a better life in Hawai'i. They moved into a house in Waipahu and found jobs, Caridad in housekeeping and Rafael in ground maintenance.

"For us, mo' better," said Rafael, now 69 and still working full time. "It's very hard work in the fields. I like come here. Better lifestyle."

In coming to the Islands, however, the couple joined one daughter but left three children behind.

Separation from family and the lasting influence of immigration are common experiences that mark Filipino family life in the Islands.

The Filipino diaspora the outpouring of workers from the Philippines in search of employment, often at the cost of leaving family members behind has been a strong influence on the Filipino family dynamic in Hawai'i.

As in other locations where Filipino immigrants settle, they face barriers of language, earning ability and discrimination. The pressures of working long hours can stress their home life, as their children assimilate a new culture and lifestyle.

Despite the hardships, Filipino immigrants are driven to succeed, to provide their children new opportunities. This drive often is passed down the generations, creating a sense of responsibility to family and a tradition of sacrifice for the greater good that has become a powerful force in shaping Filipino aspirations for the future.

IMMIGRATION AND SEPARATION

In all its permutations, family is of prime importance to Filipinos, whether new immigrants or third-generation Americans.

Filipino-Americans fly to the Philippines regularly and are the country's largest group of visitors. They send millions of dollars each year to families back home. And they will wait years, even decades, to be reunited with their families.

Mary Jane Millan, 32, remained in the Philippines for two years before she could join her husband on O'ahu in 2004.

"It was very, very hard," said Millan, who works as a guest service agent at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. "It's a challenge to be away from your loved ones."

Though Millan was happy to be with her husband, she was brokenhearted to leave behind her parents and two siblings. She calls them at least twice a week and sends money home monthly.

While family is a key facet of Filipino life, it hasn't been the easiest to maintain. In Hawai'i, a pattern of separation in Filipino families dates back nearly 100 years, to the first wave of sakada, or migrant workers.

The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 aided in restoring traditional family structure within Hawai'i's Filipino community. The law allowed relatives to migrate to the U.S. to join migrant workers already here.

In addition to boosting the Filipino population nationwide, the law helped create families in a community that had long been dominated by single men.

But not all families are brought together all at once, or ever.

Caridad and Rafael Reyes, for example, left behind two daughters, a son and a slew of grandchildren.

Their daughter, Nela Neda Reyes, brought three of her children to Hawai'i in 1998, leaving behind her three youngest sons. Two came a year later, though her youngest and her children's father stayed in the Philippines.

"It's hard," said Nela Neda, 37, a house attendant in a Waikiki hotel who hasn't seen her youngest son, Raffy, in seven years. "Sometimes I'm crying."

MISSING THE PHILIPPINES

The splitting of families is a concern for young Filipino immigrants who are torn between their new life in Hawai'i and their relatives back in the Philippines.

Lester Orsino, 18, a senior at Waipahu High School, is worried that his father will retire to Tarlac, a province in Central Luzon, and leave the family behind.

He fears that his mom, who already works two jobs, will be left alone to care for four of their five kids.

So going to college and becoming a pilot in the U.S. Air Force is more than just a personal dream. He feels it's his responsibility to his family.

"It's really up to me," said Orsino, whose two other siblings are in the military. "My mom, she's the one that drives me. I see her working so hard and I want to work as hard as I can so I can take care of her."

The call back to the homeland is strong for many immigrants.

Whether they want to reconnect with families or retire to their hometowns, many dream of being able to return to the Philippines, once they've saved enough money.

"I miss my family," said Caridad, 66, who returns to the Philippines every other year. "It's hard. Sometimes I like go back, but I don't know."

Roughly 8 million Filipinos live in more than 130 countries, including Japan, Australia and Italy. A large portion are overseas contract workers, who are expected to return to the Philippines after their contracts expire.

Many hold immigrant visas and will remain in the countries to which they have relocated, including the United States; many become U.S. citizens.

Yet while expatriate workers contribute immensely to the Philippine economy, their families can be hurt by lengthy, open-ended separations.

"The wholesale leaving for work abroad has left families broken and in a state of constant tension," said Belinda A. Aquino, director of the Center for Philippine Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "Since the family is the most sacred institution in Philippine society, this fragmentation and absence of one or both parents has an emotional and psychological toll on those family members left behind, as well as those who leave themselves."

Despite the pressures, Island families, including Filipino and part-Filipinos, are not much more likely to be headed by a single parent. In Hawai'i, nearly three-fourths of all Filipino and part-Filipino families are headed by married couples, as compared to the state average of 76.2 percent. Single mothers make up 18.3 percent of Filipino and part-Filipino households, compared to 16.8 percent for the state.

A single working mother, Nela Neda is grateful for her parents and sister, who have helped her raise five children.

And her mother, Caridad, doesn't mind pitching in, either, despite her full-time job. "It's very important to have a good life for your kids," said Caridad, who does a lot of the cooking in the Waipahu home. "I like to help my daughter take care of her kids so they can have a better life. A best life."

YOUTH AT A CROSSROADS

When Orsino immigrated from the Philippines to Waipahu in 1997, he was 9 years old and terrified.

By the time he entered intermediate school, Orsino, like most kids that age, just wanted to be accepted. His parents both worked full time his mom at two jobs leaving him to fend for himself.

By eighth grade, his craving for acceptance led him to join a gang.

"Everything just hit rock bottom," Orsino said softly.

There is often a loss of parental control when kids regardless of ethnicity are left alone without adult supervision, which is frequently the case in Filipino households when both parents work full time.

While many young Filipinos are often multiparented by aunties, grandparents, older cousins many are left to take care of themselves.

"There's a lot of emphasis on them being self-reliant and independent," said Dean Alegado, associate professor and chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department at UH. "Kids begin to learn on their own and in a lot of instances, outpace their parents."

Children tend to acculturate at a faster rate than immigrant parents, widening the cultural and generational gap. And as with any ethnic group, parents start to lose authority as their kids choose peer social groups over family.

"The biggest challenge for parents is that loss of authority," Alegado said. "Once that happens, it's pretty tough."

Sometimes this loss of parental control leads kids down the wrong path. Teen pregnancy and juvenile crime and truancy have shown a rising pattern within this ethnic group, experts said. Domestic violence also is becoming more prevalent.

Aquino suspects that the lack of parental presence at home could be the culprit: "The younger generations are left to fend on their own, leaving the home environment vulnerable to all kinds of dysfunction."

But parents who work long hours to support the family also provide a role model of responsibility and sacrifice and that example also is being followed.

Experts point to the large and growing number of young Filipinos more focused on going to college, ascending the ranks at work and raising healthy families.

"For the Filipino community, their strong family (values) have served as a safety net in a lot of ways," Alegado said. "The kids begin to learn they need to work together or understand more what their parents are going through. Of course, that's easier said than done."

A feeling of obligation to the family is common among young Filipinos.

Nela Neda's oldest child, Ronalyn, feels a lot of pressure to set a good example for her five siblings. The 18-year-old honors student at Waipahu High School will be the first in her immediate family to go to college when she starts at UH in the fall.

"For me (education) is very important because my parents, they want big dreams for me," Ronalyn said.

She wants to be a doctor, a neonatologist, and, like many young Filipinos, hopes to make enough money to support her mother and future family.

"I don't want my kids to struggle," Ronalyn said. "I want to be able to provide for my family. I want to be able to give them what I didn't have."

Orsino struggled, but after he was suspended for a semester during 10th grade at Waipahu High School, he turned his life around. He re-focused on school and athletics, raising his grades and setting clear goals for himself after graduation: to study aviation and become a military pilot.

His turnaround earned him the Youth of the Year award from Adult Friends for Youth, a nonprofit agency that counsels high-risk youth.

"I know what I won't be now," he said. "Expectations are high."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.