‘A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves’ is extraordinary, moving

Journalist Jason DeParle chronicles the lives and labor of three far-flung generations of a Filipino family as they forge a way out of poverty.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century” by Jason DeParle, Viking, 400 pp.

Thirty years ago, as a journalist writing about poverty, Jason DeParle moved into a Manila shantytown and slept on the floor of a stranger, Tita Portagana Comodas, alongside various relatives and the scurrying rats. Before long the two weren’t strangers: Despite her imperfect English and his even worse Tagalog, not to mention their vastly different backgrounds, they became lifelong friends. Seeing Tita’s husband, Emet, and all five of their children take jobs overseas, DeParle, a reporter for The New York Times, came to grasp the importance of migration in alleviating poverty in the Philippines. The story of Tita’s extended family, set within the larger story of global migration, forms the heart of his stunning new book, “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century.”

Courtesy of Jason DeParle
The Leveriza shantytown in Manila, Philippines, in 1980.

Much of “A Good Provider” follows Tita and Emet’s daughter Rosalie, who was 15 when the author met her and who is nearly 50 now. Intelligent and quietly ambitious, she becomes a nurse, her education made possible by her father’s years working as a pool keeper in Saudi Arabia. Though her ultimate goal is to work in America, Rosalie first finds a job in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where nearly the entire workforce is foreign-born.

She marries and has three children, but they are mostly raised by extended family in the Philippines while their parents work. At one point, Rosalie; her husband, Chris; and their daughter Kristina live in three different countries, “a family and a diaspora at once,” DeParle writes, “the national dilemma writ large.” After eight years in Abu Dhabi, Rosalie finally lands a nursing job in Galveston, Texas, and a coveted U.S. visa. Months later, her husband and children join her in America.

Courtesy of Jason DeParle
Rosalie Comodas Villanueva graduates from nursing school in 1992.

His recounting of Rosalie’s path to the U.S. makes evident the author’s intimate ties to the family. At times, he goes beyond being a journalistic observer, such as when he helps Rosalie prepare for her Skype interview for the Texas position and his intervention when her visa is held up, instances that underscore the privilege he possesses in comparison to his subjects. But DeParle is also aware that the family’s experience is part of a larger story, and he deftly alternates between their compelling saga and the broader issues surrounding migration. 

Part of that big picture pertains to the special significance of migration in the Philippines. DeParle points out that “[n]o country does more to promote migration than the Philippines, where the government trains and markets overseas workers,” and with good reason: Overseas Filipino workers sent $32 billion home in 2018 alone. While the government promotes its citizens as good-natured and hardworking, DeParle also captures the intense loneliness experienced by migrants, particularly those separated for long stretches from their children.

Courtesy of Jason DeParle
Kristine, Dominique, and Lara Villanueva (Rosalie’s children) arrive in Galveston, Texas, in 2013.

DeParle also charts the history of immigration in the United States, providing useful context for our current political moment. He forcefully makes the point that there is a difference between the politics of immigration, which are broken, and immigration itself, which is successful in ways that are rarely acknowledged. Much of the divisive public discourse in the U.S. focuses on illegal immigration at the southern border. Rosalie, he notes, is “the kind of immigrant who is largely invisible in political debate but increasingly common. Since 2008, the United States has attracted more Asians than Latin Americans, and nearly half of the newcomers, like Rosalie, have college degrees.” Additionally, more and more migrants are women, as wealthy countries are increasingly in need of caregiving labor. There was a nursing shortage in Galveston in the wake of Hurricane Ike, and skilled Filipinos like Rosalie helped fill it. (Nursing is more prestigious in the Philippines than in the U.S.)

In addition to being intelligent and compassionate, “A Good Provider” is evocatively written. Describing the family matriarch when they first met, DeParle observes, “Tita faced crushing poverty without being crushed.” Writing of Emet, back in Manila after several years working in the Persian Gulf but unable to earn enough in his native country to support his family, DeParle notes that “Emet’s return to Saudi felt as inevitable as gravity.”

Courtesy of Jason DeParle
The wedding of Emet and Tita Comodas in 1967. Emet worked extensively overseas, as did, eventually, all five of his children.

Emet spent 20 years working on and off in Saudi Arabia, where he was often unhappy. “Ever since his orphaned childhood, all he had wanted was a family,” DeParle writes, “but to support one, he had to leave it.” When Emet finally returns home for good, his children continue the cycle, leaving the Philippines to work overseas to support their parents and their own children. (The money Rosalie sends provides Tita and Emet with two-thirds of their monthly income.)

DeParle accompanies Rosalie’s family back to the Philippines for their first visit after four years in America. The children have mostly forgotten Tagalog, and their grandparents struggle to understand them even as they’re impressed by their strong English and the success of their American lives. As they’re preparing to return to Texas, Emet, weakened by a stroke, weeps. “Maybe I won’t see you again,” he says to his daughter. The all-too-brief reunion – held in the comfortable family compound made possible by years of overseas labor – captures so much about global migration: the necessity, the pride, the heartbreak.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.