“You can do anything without batting an eyelash.” My third grade teacher Ms. Brenda saying this to me is one of my few distinct memories from childhood. My reaction to it was similar to what I would experience 25 years later when Debra, who was my femtor at a prestigious national foundation, told me that she selected me for the fellowship that brought me there because she thought I was brilliant and have something to contribute to the institution. Both times I felt confused and wondered if they were exaggerating, but took their words to heart. Only much later that I would realize the tremendous effect of hearing that kind of validation from people I respected and admired.
I come from a large family where parents were mainly providers and caregivers. Not much was said and things like eating out on special occasions and vacations were the tangible expressions of love. I was also raised not by one, but four, mothers. My parents made the sacrifice most immigrants do of leaning on extended family to raise their children in the Philippines while they toiled away in the Promised Land. I grew up with my uncle’s family, whose wife, Auntie Laida, was the one who would attend parent meetings at my school and be with me for events like family day. She was the most cheerful elder I knew and someone I actually got regular hugs from. My dad’s sister, Auntie Let, was a fixed presence in my childhood. She was on the quiet side but fun, generous, and very prayerful - I don’t ever recall an instance being in a car with her and not seeing her praying the rosary, no matter how short the ride. My Auntie Vining, my dad’s older sister, dedicated her life to raising all of his kids; she was known for her tough love and amazing cooking, especially kare-kare. I was the last child my auntie cared for and six months after I graduated college and moved to the U.S. to finally be with my “real” parents, she passed away. I’m grateful that I had the maturity during my college years to see past her being solely a strict disciplinarian and spent most Sundays with her which led to us having a closer relationship. I once attempted to tell her I loved her but what came out was, “Thank you for taking care of me” but I think she knew what I meant.
As for my birth mom Ruby, I got to be with her growing up when I spent summer vacations in the U.S. When I was seven, she took me to my first ever roller coaster ride in Great America and over the years, I also got spoiled by her home cooked meals like adobo and sinigang whenever we were together. I lived with her briefly as an adult before she and my dad retired and spent most of the year in the Philippines. After my dad passed away in 2019, my siblings and I became full-time caregivers for mom as her memory continues to fade, but her humor, love for dance and devotion to family and her faith are unwavering.
This is a partial list of the women who have taught me the many faces of love and generosity, instilled in me courage and self-confidence, and shown me all the different ways of being a woman. Who I am today has also been shaped by sisters and cousins who also helped raise me, managers and colleagues who saw more than I did in myself and opened doors for me, friends and life teachers from my school days, as well as, from my dance, capoeira, community service circles and the Filipina Women's Network, to name a few. I carry their names, along with their lessons, in my mind, heart and my being in this month of honoring women, like I do each and every day.