I used to work as a Tagalog-English interpreter on a freelance basis and still do assignments on occasion. The jobs are few and far between because almost all Filipinos speak English. Half of my clients were foreign guys from Nebraska or Virginia with Filipina wives who needed documents written in Tagalog translated.
Years ago, I was assigned to translate for a client at a deposition at a nice-looking law firm in downtown Houston, in one of the city’s arrogant skyscrapers towering like an old rich dude’s dick on Viagra.
It was a human trafficking case involving a group of Filipino men who were conned into paying thousands of dollars to fly them to the United States, get an enthusiastic stamp of approval for work by Uncle Sammy, and then get hooked up with labor work. The human trafficking ring posed as job agencies in Houston and Manila.
It wasn’t hard to believe this type of scam because numerous legitimate agencies have been recruiting Filipinos/Filipinas to work abroad for many decades. This is the reason why you see so many Filipino nurses in America, laborers in Dubai, nannies in Hong Kong and engineers in Saudi Arabia.
The man who was being interviewed was in his late-50s and had the look of a former soldier who had aged with a certain degree of humility. He was very nervous, but determined to bring justice to him and his companions.
He had a cough and it worried me that his health might not be too stellar. This was a stranger and yet I felt protective over him because his streaks of white hair reminded me of my uncle Rey, who used to bring us live chickens in the province for tinola or adobo. I asked him if he was all right and if he wanted some hot tea. He politely declined and immediately began talking to me in Tagalog.
He told me about his daughter, who just graduated college; how his wife won battles against cancer but still had poor health; finding out that his youngest son was gay but loving him for who he is. We had this conversation, filled with secrets spilling out, in front of everyone and yet it remained private. The language we spoke was like Navajo code to them.
I’ve always loved the company of older people. I have infinite patience for them, even when I was a lava-tempered teenager. To be honest, I wanted to forget about the deposition and just listen to his stories all day.
My client, the man’s lawyer, sat across from me and asked a series of questions, which were followed by the prosecutor’s own inquiries. I was the literal and figurative man in the middle. I was the lovechild of two adoring divorced parents–America and Pilipinas–and I was stretched between them like an extension bridge. Through my tongue, I was able to be a diplomat for both cultures and yet I was still the kid with no name, no country.
I looked towards the man and I gave him a smile every now and then to assure him that he had a tag-team partner in his corner.
I thought about how different our lives were. I came to America on a first-class flight with my wealthy godmother, where my parents and a decent apartment in New York City waited for me. I later grew up like any first-generation Asian-American that rose from the middle-class immigrant struggle to the affluent suburbs. I even went to a prestigious Catholic high school near my hometown in the Philippines. I divulge these things not to pat myself on the back, but to remind myself just how lucky I am and how hard my parents had to work to grasp that elusive American Dream.
Next to me sat a man who came here with debt, a bad back and fragile hope. To this day, he still didn’t make any profit because of the traffickers’ exploitative practices. They forced him and his comrades to work as miscellaneous laborers across Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, New Mexico and Louisiana, yet the money all went into the bank accounts of their “employers.”
After the deposition, he went back to his family—whose lives literally depended on him—with nothing to show. He broke down and cried at the end of the deposition when his lawyer asked him if he had suffered emotional damage. It was pretty heartbreaking to hear him talk about his wife and how it affected her the most due to stress and worry.
“‘Please don’t forget to eat while you’re there’ she would tell me whenever we were able to sneak in a prepaid phone and calling card in our apartment,” he said to me during the break.
They were all crammed into a tiny apartment in Northwest Houston. An armed man was always present in a van in the parking lot to make sure they didn’t try to escape.
When his lawyer asked if he would ever try to come back to the United States with a legitimate work visa, I saw the resentment and hurt in the old man’s face. He shook his head firmly and said, “I never want to come back to this country again.”
I remained objective and professional, but I did feel and hear my voice quiver every now and then when I translated, filtered and articulated his raw emotions into All-American English. Even the eyes of the prosecutor, who was there to make sure he gets deported (as well as gather enough testimony to make sure the human traffickers get put away for a very long time), showed that certain things need no translation.
I admired the old man a lot and I’m saddened that a bunch of crooks had to give him such a bad impression of America and its people. Unfortunately, there are many individuals who feel it is necessary to exploit others, especially those who are poor and defenseless.
When it was all over, I asked for his email address. I told him that maybe someday, whenever I make it back to the Philippines, that I’d come visit him and meet his large beautiful family. I told him that perhaps he could treat me to some of his home-cooked meals.
He smiled and said, “I hope you knock on my door one day, son.”
Yeah, one day.