Gift Boxes Help Migrant Filipinos Keep Ties to Home

Cousins Lance and Daniel Floresca

Cousins Lance (seen left) and Daniel Floresca and the balikbayan box that Lance's mom, Gladys Price, sent from California. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Gladys Price

Gladys Price sends her love in a balikbayan box from her home in South Pasadena to her son Lance and her extended family in Manila. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR

About This Series

U.S. immigrants use myriad ways to stay connected to their communities of origin and make a difference back home. Some follow the traditional path of sending cash and consumer goods back to relatives. Others steer their efforts toward public works like the building of wells, roads and health-care clinics.

In a four-week-long series called "Global Returns," NPR explores the many ways in which immigrants in the United States give back to their home countries — and sometimes, become forces for change.

The Floresca Family i i

The Floresca family on their front porch in Manila: Top, left to right: Jeffrey, Lance and Gen. Bottom, left to right: Joshua, James, Nonoy, Ruth, Daniel and Ester. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
The Floresca Family

The Floresca family on their front porch in Manila: Top, left to right: Jeffrey, Lance and Gen. Bottom, left to right: Joshua, James, Nonoy, Ruth, Daniel and Ester.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR
A driver for Forex

A driver for Forex, a cargo company, makes his way through Manila's bumper-to-bumper traffic on his way to deliver a balikbayan box to Gladys Price's family. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

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The Corpuz family in Manila i i

At their home in the Philippine province of Cavite, Virgil, Lance, Gilla and their mother receive two balikbayan boxes from their father, Gilbert Corpuz, who lives and works in Northern California. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
The Corpuz family in Manila

At their home in the Philippine province of Cavite, Virgil, Lance, Gilla and their mother receive two balikbayan boxes from their father, Gilbert Corpuz, who lives and works in Northern California.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Gilbert Corpuz

Gilbert Corpuz loads balikbayan boxes for Forex in California. He also sent boxes to his family in the Philippines. "I don't know when I'm going to be able to come back," he says. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Forex cargo company warehouse

At the Forex warehouse in Manila, workers sort through thousands of balikbayan boxes arriving from overseas and distribute them, door to door, throughout the Philippine islands. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR

In her one-bedroom apartment in South Pasadena, Calif., Gladys Price listens to holiday songs on the radio. But it can't quite compare to her Christmases back in the Philippines, when she'd wake up before the roosters to attend the misa de gallo, or early-morning mass.

Two years ago, Price left her son Lance and her relatives in Manila for more opportunities in the United States. She now works for a pharmaceutical company and is married to an American. But this year, she sent her love home in a large cardboard box — what's known among Filipinos as a balikbayan box.

The Balikbayan Tradition

"Balikbayan" means returning to one's country. Sending balikbayan boxes, says Price, is the Filipino way of staying connected to relatives scattered across the globe.

"During Christmas time, you'll never see so many boxes in your entire life in the airport," Price says. "Because most people who come home bring a lot of stuff. And those who cannot come home, they send it through cargo forwarders."

Last month, Price shipped to her family a typical balikbayan box full of goodies: a bag of M&Ms, perfumed lotions, pants that didn't quite fit her husband. But most of the box was reserved for a special chair and a car seat that were donated to Price's nephew, James. He was born with cerebral palsy and has trouble breathing on his own. James is 8 years old and unable to talk. Just thinking about him changes her mood.

"That kid has a special place in my heart," Price says. "So I say it's the least I can do, to ship that box."

Two weeks later and more than 7,000 miles away, Price's balikbayan box is making its way through Manila's notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic, with the aid of two delivery men from Forex, a Philippine cargo company. Its journey ends at a modest stucco house in a middle-class section of Manila.

On the big front porch patio is Price's mom, Ester Floresca. Most of Price's family is there, too: her son Lance, who is 9 years old, and her nephew James, who is carried in his father's arms.

As with most balikbayan boxes, Price's will not sit under the Christmas waiting to be opened. Her family unwraps it right away.

Lance runs off to play with his new video game. His uncle Nonoy begins assembling the new chair for James, the boy with cerebral palsy. It looks something like a high chair with springs, which will enable him to sit up on his own. Nonoy, James' father, says such a chair is nearly impossible to find in the Philippines and certainly unaffordable.

Ester Floresca records a message to send back to her daughter: "I'm so happy," Floresca says. "Thank you, Lord — always providing us with things we can't afford to buy. I wish you were here. Thank you, my dear. Thank you so much."

The Filipino Diaspora

Filipinos live and work around the world: Most are in the Middle East and throughout Asia; about 1 million live in the United States. From the United States alone last year, Filipino immigrants sent nearly $5 billion to their relatives back home. For their generosity, they're called heroes. A pop song was even written in their honor. It urges them to come home.

The Philippine government encourages Filipino immigrants to send gifts and spend money in their homeland. Overseas workers are offered tax incentives, duty-free shopping, and discounted vacations back home. And Filipinos are allowed to ship balikbayan boxes duty-free. Global cargo companies make it easy and cheap to ship them door to door.

Some people scoff that the boxes often contain items that can be found easily in the Philippines: bags of rice, sneakers, candy and cans of Spam — a delicacy introduced to the islands by American soldiers stationed here for decades. But even people who say they don't want to be a dumping ground for Americans' used clothing understand that what's inside these boxes isn't as important as the idea of them: connecting family members far away. For many of them, the tradition eases the pain of separation.

Filipino immigrant Gilbert Corpuz knows that pain well. Over the past eight years, Corpuz — who makes a living loading balikbayan boxes onto shipping containers — has sent many of his own boxes to the wife and four kids he left in the Philippines.

"I don't know when I'm going to be able to come back," Corpuz says. "And I really missed their formative years. I cannot bring it back any more. Right now they're 16 and 14 and 12. I missed their ages when I could cuddle them and carry them in my arms. Now they're as big as I am."

Back in the Philippines, Corpuz's 16-year-old son, Lance, and his brother Virgil, 13, open the box their father sent home. Lance hasn't seen his father since he was 8. He speaks in Tagalog; Virgil translates: "Every Christmas he's not here," Lance says of his father. "And that really hurts for us. He's not here with us for Christmas."

As they unpack the brand-new sneakers, canned ham, chocolates and packages of Top Ramen noodles, it's clear that what Lance and Virgil really want for Christmas won't fit in a 20-by-20-inch cardboard box.

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