Xyza Cruz Bacani has just come from the human crush known as the Traslación, and has seen what happens when Filipinos come together—I mean really come together. The phenomenon can fill the streets of Quiapo with four million devotees, screw the very real threat of harm either overhead or side to side. It’s a common despair that drives them, Bacani says, and remarks on what Filipinos can really accomplish if they come together as they do every year during the feast day of the Black Nazarene.
Based in Hong Kong and New York, Xyza Cruz Bacani was “discovered” by documentary photographer Rick Rocamora, when he encountered her black and white pictures on Facebook. Soon after came the New York Times profile which shot her to fast fame and carved out a niche which she faithfully serves—it’s safe to say that she’s the leading documentary photographer of Filipino migrant workers around the world.
“My friends say I’m an accident waiting to happen. I did not dream of being a full-time photographer. It wasn’t on my to-do list. My to-do list was survive, help my family, work, and then do it all over again,” she says.
But in 2009, Xyza picked up a camera— something she hadn’t done since her unfinished days at university. “My goal then was to show my mother what Hong Kong looked like. She never went out. She worked seven days a week (in her employer’s home) because she chose to get paid instead of going out and taking a rest, ” Xyza says, recalling the days when she was her mother’s “eyes” in the city, and would bring home photographs of Hong Kong’s streets, mega malls, and skyscrapers to show her mother what she’d been missing out on.
The Story of Georgia Bacani
Bacani’s mother, Georgia, counts among the staggering number of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong (a figure that comes out to approximately 210,773 people, according to the latest statistics from the Immigration Department in HK).
Xyza was eight years old when her mother left the country to become a domestic worker in Singapore. Prior to her departure, she worked as a laundrywoman in her native Nueva Vizcaya. Like countless Filipinos, the wages she earned couldn’t support her three young children, forcing her to join the endless wave of Filipinos for whom migration was the only option.
After an unhappy stint as an illegal in Singapore, Georgia came back home to Manila, but didn’t stay for long. She left for Hong Kong and started working for her current employer, the wealthy widow of a transportation magnate.
In her two decades of employment, Georgia and her employer have become friends—a relationship documented in two pictures Xyza shows me. “This is my mother in 1999, when she arrived in Mrs. Louey’s household” she says, showing me a shot of Georgia sporting her signature “boy’s cut,” and wearing a generic domestic helper’s uniform (candy stripes, white collar). “This is a picture of my mother in 2016,” Xyza says showing me another picture of Georgia and her employer sharing a meal. “From wearing a uniform, they now eat together like friends.” It’s a unique story, almost one of equals—a far cry from the relationships most Filipino domestic helpers have with their employers overseas, downcast stories riddled if not with abuse then unfair play
(it doesn’t help that the HK live-in requirement lends itself to bad behavior). Georgia’s case remains the exception, not the rule, and is about as rare as finding a skeptic at the Traslación.
Xyza recounts the time Georgia started sending her family in Manila pictures—photos she found confounding. “That’s when she started showing us photos of her smiling and all of that,” she says, “my young brain didn’t understand that my mother left us because she needed to. I thought she left us because she wanted to, so I didn’t understand it.” It goes without saying that Xyza’s sentiments are the sentiments of most Filipino children whose parents leave for overseas and send home smiling photos that mask many of their everyday realities.
We are like air
It was her mother’s story that inspired Xyza’s latest offering—a book of photographs documenting the migrant experience entitled We Are Like Air.
“I’ve been doing a lot of stories on migrant workers since 2014,” Xyza says. “I started in Hong Kong, and then I went to New York, Abu Dhabi—everywhere around the world. And then I realized there was something missing in my stories, and it was the story of my mother.”
A lot of the book, Xyza says, has to do with her and her siblings’ relationship with their mother. It’s perhaps the one story Xyza feels vulnerable telling. “I’m always private about family matters. This time I felt like when I started photographing my family, I was looking at a mirror.” Sometimes you don’t like what you see, she continues.
Comprised of eight chapters that marry text and photos (taken and written by Bacani herself), Xyza tells eight different stories about the lives of migrant workers abroad.
“A lot of the book is the relationship of our mother with us, and what happened to her children, and what happened to her,” Xyza says. From that central story, Xyza moves on to stories about other migrant workers. “The stories in the book are intertwined with each other so it’s not just about my mother. We have eight chapters in the book— eight different stories— so that when you look at it, it’s like weaving.”
Xyza says that the common thread that weaves through these stories (essentially one story told eight different ways) is how love for family is always the impetus behind the migrant worker’s choice to work abroad. “No mother will ever want to leave their children,” she says.
She also hints at every migrant worker’s double life, and about how they’re the scaffolding that holds two households together—the one abroad that allows their employers to work and support their families, and the one back home that supports children, spouses, even hovering relations.
“My book is not just about the sad stories about migrant workers,” Xyza clarifies. “It’s actually about hope, it’s about love, because I think with all the noise of the world around us today, we need to notice these little wins— like my mother’s relationship with her employer.”
Beyond the migrant worker’s impact on the bigger picture (his earning power and its economic implications) is the smaller picture—the close-up and not the panorama. It’s about the families left behind and the fractured relationships they have with parents who work abroad. “When I started photographing my family, we revisited a lot of memories, a lot of pain, a lot of traumatic situations that we’ve been through. It also opened a lot of wounds that I thought were already healed. Apparently not.”
Xyza says she belongs to a typical Filipino family. “We don’t talk about things that are painful, we just bury it in the pits of our soul, until it explodes,” she says. “But with this book, we were able to talk about this stuff, to forgive each other. We were able to understand each other better.” It was only through the writing of this book that Xyza discovered how abandoned her sister felt when she left to work in Hong Kong. “I didn’t know she was angry—not because my mother left, but because I left. I only realized that when I was doing the book. I was like damn girl; I was crying.”
Xyza shows me one last photograph from the book. It’s a photo of her small niece saying goodbye to Georgia at the airport. The little girl has been captured mid-bawl—it’s a scene you could take out of hundreds of thousands of Filipino albums. The photo has been taken by Xyza herself, master of camera settings, the odd as well as the comfortable angle, shots she’s won awards and grants for, but the picture isn’t a masterpiece. It’s blurry. It was taken by a shaking hand. Bacani says she saw her youth flash before her in the scene. “I was crying so I wasn’t able to check the settings of the camera; I was so emotional myself.”
This is the great Filipino story and it’s being told by a master storyteller. Intrigued by the title of the book, I ask Bacani about its provenance. “It’s called We Are like Air because I believe that migrant workers are like the air. They are necessary to every society—can you imagine life without air? It’s the same with migrant workers, they’re unseen but important.”
The language is evocative and almost borrows from an Atwood poem—perhaps the most popular of her verses, the one where the poet dreams of being the air inhabiting her beloved. “I would like to be that unnoticed & that necessary,” Atwood writes. But we aren’t talking about beloveds here, we’re talking about Filipinos as unseen and as necessary to their children as they are to their employers. I think I did well with the title,” Bacani says. She laughs.
We Are Like Air was published by WE Press in 2018. It is set to launch in Manila in early 2019. The book is currently available in Amazon.