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Emet Comodas (left) and his wife Tita in 2016. Emet was forced to leave the Philippines and work in Saudi Arabia to provide for his family. Their story forms the basis of ‘A Good Provider is One Who Leaves’.

How migration lifts poor from poverty explored in Filipino family’s 30-year journey

  • Jason DeParle explores global migration through a Filipino family who went from living among rats in a Manila shantytown to migrating to the US
  • In the book, ‘A Good Provider is One Who Leaves’, he explains that ‘migration is the world’s largest anti-poverty programme’

A Good Provider is One Who Leaves, by Jason DeParle. Published by Viking. 4/5 stars

The Philippine economy has, relative to both its history and many other parts of the world, seen something of a recent boom. Yet although the poverty rate plunged by about a third in the three years to 2018, many Filipinos still leave their country for a future abroad.

Long-time New York Times reporter Jason DeParle explores global migration through a tightly woven biography of a Filipino migrant family in A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century.

Back in 1987, DeParle, a young and struggling reporter who wanted to cover shantytowns, went to Manila without a concrete narrative in mind. After some unsuccessful attempts to find a place for field work, a not-so-eager nun who was escorting him was able to find him a home with Emet and Tita Comodas’ family in a shanty in a run-down Manila street.
Jason DeParle and Tita Comodas in the 1980s.

DeParle would live with them periodically for eight months, wedging himself between Tita’s nephew and the scampering rats. Then he would devote a good three decades documenting their journey out of poverty.

DeParle couldn’t possibly have known when he started that he’d still be following the family 30 years later. Indeed, DeParle explicitly stated that migration was not on his mind when he went to live in the slums. He was focused on understanding the poverty and realised that “migration was part of the answer”. He was absorbed by the Comodas.

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Living below the poverty line, patriarch Emet Comodas was forced to leave his wife Tita and his children to work in Saudi Arabia. After years of working overseas cleaning pools, he was able to lift the family out of squalor. When DeParle went to live with Tita, her shanty finally had a bathroom.

After eight months in Tita’s shanty, DeParle eventually left but stayed in touch – especially with the middle child, Rosalie.

While the book also dedicates significant coverage to cousins Tess and Ariane, who also find success in faraway lands, the bulk of the reportage focuses on Rosalie’s journey, beginning as a nursing student in the Philippines to becoming a high-paid nurse in the US state of Texas. From her college years until her marriage to husband Chris, DeParle’s storytelling – based on both “immersion journalism” and secondary sources – is rich and intimate.

But his tight relationship with the Comodas leaves the reporting open to question: far from being an objective observer, he is neither. As DeParle takes readers from Manila to Abu Dhabi to Texas and back, he inevitably gets involved. He vouched for Rosalie at the US Embassy in Manila, assisted her with the visa interview, and helped find Chris a job once they arrived in Texas.

“At times my presence shaped events, but I don’t think it altered them greatly,” he writes. “While I helped Rosalie from time to time, the determination that propelled her from the slums to the States is hers alone.”

The family’s saga is nevertheless a page turner, evidence of DeParle’s compelling writing. And while the book is already dense with several simultaneous narratives, it is not so much a biography of the Comodas as a treatise on global migration.

The number of people living in poverty in the Philippines fell significantly in the three years leading up to 2018. Photo: James Wendlinger

The Comodas often take a back seat as DeParle delves into the political history and effects of global migration. His reportage, however large a grain a salt one might wish to apply, depicts migration as somewhat of a global phenomenon by focusing on real-life narratives. He then explains that “migration is the world’s largest anti-poverty programme”:

“This is not a book about one family. Their experiences across three generations can only be understood as part of a broader epoch of migration that is transforming much of the world,” he writes.

He goes on to discuss its role in politics, economics and history. He attempts to explain the abundance of Filipino nurses, like Rosalie, in the United States. He dives deep into Philippine history and politics from when it was taken over by the US from Spain in the 19th century, saying that the US “forged the path” for Filipinos by setting up the first Philippine nursing institution in 1906.

The close relationship between author and subject aside, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves is riveting, intelligent and enlightening.

Asian Review of Books