If she hadn’t fainted on the hospital corridor, things might have remained the same in her life. If the nurse at the Northridge Medical Center in L.A. didn’t suspect something was not right with her—this woman who fell, who had for days been watching over a lady undergoing dialysis—her journey to freedom might not have taken its first step.
In July 2019, news websites reported that an 83-year-old Filipina living in the United States was free at last. After 65 years of being enslaved, working for four generations of her original employer's family who maltreated her and never paid her for her services, Fedelina Lugasan will finally know what rest felt like.
She was rescued by the FBI and the Pilipino Workers Center in California in 2018, from her trafficker, Benedicta Cox, the woman in the hospital undergoing dialysis. Fedelina was suspected to be a victim of abuse after she stepped out of Cox’s room and collapsed. This led to the FBI being informed of Fedelina’s situation, followed by months of investigation.
Small town girl
Fedelina was born in Samar in 1936. She was the second youngest child in a brood of 9 kids. Her father was a fisherman, and they had a simple life by the sea. Play would be running around the shore, or swimming. Growing up, Fedelina—Fedeling to her family—started going out with friends who liked to go to dances and wear pretty clothes. As she grew older. she also started thinking about a life outside of Samar.
Her mother was not the type to let her children just leave the house, but Fedelina was not one to be stopped. She was the kind of woman who wanted to forge her own destiny. One day, the Lugasans just found out she was already in Tacloban, on a boat to the country’s capital.
It turned out she was recruited to be a domestic helper in Manila, at the young age of 16. When Fedelina’s mother died, Luz, one of the grandchildren ventured to Manila and lived with her aunt Fedelina for months. Childless, Fedelina cared for Luz like the girl was her own child. When Luz got married, Fedelina would visit her and take care of her kids.
But after a few months, it seemed it was time for Fedelina to leave again. This time, however, someone was going to bring her to the US. Luz was excited for her aunt. “Wow, ang tiyahin ko makakarating na sa ibang bansa,” she remembers saying.
Arriving in America
Fedelina recalls the day she arrived in the US. It was very early in the morning. “Hindi ako tinanong, Hindi ako hinanapan ng papel,” she recalls, wondering. She was told she would be brought to the person who sent for her. “Hindi ako kumibo, hindi ako nagtanong.” She had no idea what her life would be like.
Her employer turned out to have two children. Both grownups. Both teachers. The elder, Benedicta, was rude and cruel and always fought with her mother. The other sister was nice to Fedelina. For a time they would give the latter money every 15th and 30th of the month—until Benedicta found out and stopped the practice. When the matriarch and the nice sister died, Fedelina had to work for Benedicta.
Life was hell with Benedicta. She would send Fedelina to her kid’s house so the Filipina maid can clean that, too, and attend to the rest of the family. Back at home, she would go straight to cooking. She cooked outside because her amo didn't like the house smelling of food. It didn’t matter if it was raining and Fedelina would get wet.
Benedicta would often scream at Fedelina, throw things at her. She would take food away from her, too. “Wag kang kakain diyan dahil wala kang binibigay na pera pambili ng pagkain,” Fedelina remembers being told. She cleaned, cooked, took care of the children, of the sick and elderly, of the garden. “All without any pay and no days off,” said the Inquirer. “She lived in a house with four bedrooms and three bathrooms but slept on the floor. She did not have a bed.” One time, she just fainted in the kitchen and after a while was made to lie down in the garage floor in full view of the neighbors. “Marami naawa pero hindi sila makalapit,” Fedelina remembers.
There was a time early on when she would still send letters and pictures and gifts to Luz and her family. But Fedelina was eventually barred even from using the phone. “Pag lumabas ka dito sa pinto, sasalubungin ka ng pulis,” she was told. “Sasabihin ko ninakawan mo ako ng pera.” Benedicta also took her passport and birth certificate.
“Magsisi ka man”
Fedelina had nowhere to run. Her papers have expired. She had no family or friends in the US. “Tiniis ko lahat yun ng ilang taon,” she says. “Magsisi ka man, wala na eh, huli na.” She was too scared to talk to anyone to begin with. She told her story to no one. Even that day in the hospital, she lied when the social worker began asking her questions: Was she being treated well? Do they alllow her to go out? Do they give her money? “Ayoko ng gulo, ayoko ng away.” Her struggle to reply only convinced the people around her that she indeed needed rescuing.
How Fedelina finally convinced herself to tell the authorities about her decades-long ordeal and how she took her first steps to freedom is at the heart of the documentary, “Fedelina, A Stolen Life” The ABS-CBN DocuCentral production was shot in the US and the Philippines and tells the story of the enslaved domestic helper from her days in Samar to her life in Los Angeles.
“Fedelina: A Stolen Life” is now available to stream on iWantTFC.