Gift Boxes Help Migrant Filipinos Keep Ties to Home Nearly one in 10 Filipinos works abroad. Traditionally, these immigrants send gifts home to their relatives through the balikbayan box, stuffed with clothes, toys and other consumer goods. Beyond their cargo, what the boxes really carry is a way for emigres to connect with family members back home.
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Gift Boxes Help Migrant Filipinos Keep Ties to Home

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Gift Boxes Help Migrant Filipinos Keep Ties to Home

Gift Boxes Help Migrant Filipinos Keep Ties to Home

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Today we begin a series about the many ways that immigrants in America give back to their home countries. We'll hear how some immigrants pool their money to build new institutions and shake up old ones in their hometowns. We'll find out about people who shuttle between time zones, trying to bring change as they go. This morning, a more basic kind of giving. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco reporting from two places, the Philippines and California.


In her one-bedroom apartment in South Pasadena, Gladys Price listens to holiday songs on the radio.

(Soundbite of "Winter Wonderland")

Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS: (Singing) Gone away is the bluebird...

DEL BARCO: 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, early morning Mass. Two years ago, Gladys left her son, Lance, and her relatives in Manila for more opportunities in the US. 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.

Ms. GLADYS PRICE (South Pasadena, California): Balik means returning, bayan is country; returning to the country. If I could only put myself in the box and I can, you know, ship myself back to the Philippines, that would be really nice. But what can you do? There are no opportunities in the Philippines. So this balikbayan box is a way of still being there.

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

Ms. PRICE: That kid has, you know, a special place in my heart. So, you know, it's the least I can do, ship that box.

(Soundbite of car horns)

DEL BARCO: Two weeks later and more than 7,000 miles away, I'm riding in a minivan through the notoriously bumper-to-bumper traffic in Manila with two delivery men from Forex, a Filipino cargo company. We've got Gladys' balikbayan box, which just arrived here by cargo ship. We finally get to a modest stucco house in a middle-class section of Manila, and on the big front-porch patio is Gladys' mom.

ESTER: Oh, good morning.

DEL BARCO: Good morning.

ESTER: Welcome. Come in.

DEL BARCO: Are you Ester?

ESTER: I'm Ester, yeah.

DEL BARCO: Nice to meet you.

ESTER: Glad to meet you.

DEL BARCO: I met your daughter.

ESTER: Gladys?


Most of Gladys' family are there, too. Her son, Lance, who's nine years old, and here's her nephew, James, who's carried in his dad's arms.

Unidentified Man: Oh, wow! This is the box.

DEL BARCO: As with most balikbayan boxes, this one will not sit under the Christmas tree waiting to be opened. They unwrap it right away.

(Soundbite of paper tearing)

ESTER: This is for Lance. What is that?

LANCE: This is PlayStation CDs. Cool!

DEL BARCO: Lance runs off to play with his new video game and his Uncle Nonoy begins assembling the new chair for James.

NONOY: Wow, James, look!

DEL BARCO: It looks something like a high chair with springs, which will enable him to sit up on his own. Nonoy, James' dad, says such a chair is nearly impossible to find in the Philippines and certainly unaffordable. While he unloads more from the balikbayan box, I play a greeting that Gladys, who sent the box, recorded in California.

GLADYS: (From recording) I just want to say Merry Christmas to all and I love you very, very much.

DEL BARCO: Gladys' mom tapes her own message for me to take back to her in California.

ESTER: Thank you so much for providing us with things which we cannot afford to buy and wish you were here. Thank you ...(unintelligible). Thank you, my dear.

DEL BARCO: Beyond just shipping balikbayan boxes, Gladys also wires money to her family back home. Last year, other Filipino immigrants in the US sent nearly $5 billion to their relatives, and for their generosity, they're called heroes. There's even a pop song written in their honor.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

DEL BARCO: 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. Some people scoff that the boxes often have items that can easily be found here--bags of rice, sneakers, candy and cans of Spam. 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. Two weeks ago, back in northern California, Filipino immigrant Gilbert Corpus(ph) was surrounded by balikbayan boxes. This is his job, loading the boxes onto shipping containers. And over the past eight years, he's sent many of his own boxes to his wife and four kids he left in the Philippines.

Mr. GILBERT CORPUS (Filipino Immigrant): I really missed their formative years 'cause right now they're 16 and 14. And, you know, I missed their ages when I could coddle them and carry them in my arms. Well, now they're as big as I am.

DEL BARCO: Back in the Philippines now on Monday, the delivery drivers carry Gilbert Corpus' balikbayan box to his family nearly two hours south of Manila. Lance, who is 16, hasn't seen his father since he was eight. He speaks in Tagalog, translated by his 13-year-old brother, Virgil.

LANCE CORPUS: (Tagalog spoken)

VIRGIL CORPUS: `My father goes to America. Every Christmas, he's not here and that really hurts for us.'

DEL BARCO: You want to give him a greeting in Tagalog?

L. CORPUS: (Tagalog spoken)

V. TAGALOG: Thank you for the box and Merry Christmas and be happy.

DEL BARCO: As they unpack their 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. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Manila.

MONTAGNE: And you can learn more about other ways that Filipinos in the US are helping their hometowns at

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