Brief Chat, Big Insights: Eleanor Guerrero-Campbell and the Filipino Diaspora

stumbling through paradise
Source: Friesen Press

This was a very brief and unexpected moment as I paid a visit to one of my regular spots – Propaganda cafe – when it appeared the there was a volunteer appreciation event for a recent book launch. The book was called Stumbling Through Paradise: A Feast of Mercy for Manuel del Mundo, written by Eleanor Guerrero Campbell. I was intrigued by the title and a quick research on Google brought me to Eleanor’s fascinating story.

Eleanor is originally from the Philippines and moved to Canada in the ’80s when she managed to secure a job as a planner for the City of Edmonton in Alberta. She holds a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and was working for Metro Manila prior to her move. Upon her arrival in Canada, she was surprised to find many highly skilled Filipino immigrants who were only able to find work as taxi drivers and cleaners. Desiring to close the gap between their qualifications and profession, Eleanor set up multiple non-profit initiatives to help new immigrants with their employment and ensure that they are properly matched to a job.

Eleanor’s observation of the Filipino diaspora differed slightly from that of mine. I have always thought that the Filipinos were one of the few thriving Asian communities abroad. The Filipinos have a strong presence wherever I’ve been to and I have especially noticed that during my time in Singapore – a country with a large community of Filipinos working as domestic helpers, nurses and retail assistants. And since my move to Canada, I have noticed that the success of the Filipino diaspora has not been limited to the aforementioned jobs. The are many Filipinos here, whether being a recent immigrant or a first/second generation, who hold highly skilled professions such as those in medicine, law and education.

Filipino convenience stores and remittance services are a common sight in Vancouver. Source: Carmine Merinelli/Vancouver 24 Hrs

Hence I approached Eleanor and offered my perspective on the Filipino diaspora. And I asked her: what contributes to success of the Filipino diaspora? What is it about the Philippines, despite being a developing country, that has allowed its people to succeed abroad in a manner that cannot be matched by other developing countries in Southeast Asia?

According to Eleanor, there are three factors that contribute to the success of the Filipino diaspora:

1. English language

In the Philippines, English is compulsory in their schools throughout the elementary and secondary levels. You could certainly get by with English in the metro areas of the country and it is common to hear a mix of English and Tagalog being spoken together on the streets, radio and television. This is obviously an advantage to their migration to the West, especially to North American countries where the immigration policies are much more relaxed (compared to European ones) and where English is the lingua franca. Language proficiency is certainly the one asset that makes or breaks your ability to not only attain a job but also to receive the appropriate immigration status.

2. American culture

Another slight advantage that Filipinos have is its familiarity with the American culture (note that I am not saying the American occupation of the country.) The Philippines have been described to be situated in the “Western episteme” along with bearing “Westernised lifestyles and pro-Western socio-political outlooks” (Huffington Post).  American style of Western consumerism has dominated the country with the average Filipino being exposed to elements such as shopping malls, fast food and foreign luxury brands. That sense of familiarity definitely provides Filipinos with some sense of ambition, and perhaps a bit of a push, to move to the West.

3. Catholicism 

This was the most surprising fact that Eleanor brought up but she stressed the importance of Catholicism in Filipino lives. Catholicism (and Westernisation) arrived in the Philippines with the American occupation of the country from 1898 to 1946. According to Eleanor, the religious values that Filipinos were raised with contributed greatly to the success of her fellow countrymen abroad. 86% of Filipinos identify themselves as Catholics and the religion is taken very seriously in the country (Pew Research). Pope Francis is a celebrity there too.

Pope Francis
Papal visit to Philippines, 2015. Source: AP

But as Eleanor reminded me – it is not all a success story. It can certainly appear that the Filipino diaspora is thriving because we only see and hear of the remarkable and newsworthy stories. In fact, there are many of those who have attained degrees and certificates in highly skilled profession but are forced to settle for jobs which they are “overqualified” for and are not able to apply the specific skills they have acquired.

And part of Eleanor’s effort is to help those people make the cultural leap and succeed in their desired professions in the West. I really admire Eleanor’s dedication and creativity in helping the immigrant community in Canada but my highest regard for her is reserved for the fact that she is tackling one of the most critical issues we have today as a result of globalisation and a shrinking world. She is emblematic of a lot of the Filipinos abroad I have known who consistently contribute back to the community they call their new home. Perhaps, that has been the ultimate trait that has led to their success.

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