Slowed by time, ‘Tita Nelly’ inspires others to fight for South Bay’s Filipino workers

The first of May is one of the loudest days in U.S. history.

In 1886, agitated workers in Chicago dropped the metal parts and ground meat they had been handling on assembly lines and went on strike against their employers. Socialists, reformists, anarchists, unionists and curious passersby joined the protest, which swelled from 30,000 to more than 80,000.

Their demands for an eight-hour work day launched the nation’s labor movement and marked the first May Day. More than a century later, rallies are still held in major cities on what’s also called International Workers’ Day, though the violent clashes of the past are uncommon and, some say, the cries for justice have softened.

On May 1 of this year, Michael Tayag joined one of the smallest May Day crowds he’s seen in his young life as an activist. The 23-year-old stood outside the whitewashed walls of Our Lady of Guadelupe Church in San Jose, where he joined fellow members of the Pilipino Association for Workers and Immigrants, or PAWIS.

Their faces burned with excitement as one of their leaders spoke.

“Around 4,500 [people] are leaving … every day as overseas Filipino workers, with a majority coming to the U.S.,” a voice boomed through the loudspeakers. “They are not paid for all the hours that they work, they receive bounced checks, and they are paid below minimum wage.”

Filipinos have made up a vital segment of California’s work force since the early 1900s, once sharing the fields with Cesar Chavez while boasting their own leaders. The names of Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz — and the Filipino contribution to the labor movement — often went unnoticed, despite a long list of  achievements and grievances. May Day is just another day in their ongoing struggle.

“Long live International Workers’ Day!”

The listeners erupted in applause. Soon after, they marched along East San Antonio Road in front of Our Lady of Guadelupe Church and headed toward San Jose’s city hall. Chants in Tagalog, the native Filipino language, echoed from a single megaphone that made its way into the hands of several PAWIS members.

Tita Nelly
Nelly Gonzales at her son’s San Jose home, sifting through her medical bills back in October. (Vanessa Ochavillo/Peninsula Press)

But the group was missing one of its loudest voices. Four miles away, Nelly Gonzales had just been dropped at her son’s house, where she now lives surrounded by love, after working for eight hours. She retired to the living room and sunk into a large brown couch. Her wrinkled skin was lost among the crackled leather, and exhaustion was visible in her face. She stared at the TV, one eye twitching from her diabetes.

Gonzales’s route to activism was hard-fought. Once, she was one of those 4,500 leaving the Philippines every day in need of work. Pushed by a strong export-labor program that began in the 1970s and continues today, many Filipino workers take on service jobs in the U.S. They are nannies, caregivers, maids.

Now 59, Gonzales left the Philippines when she wasn’t old enough to meet the minimum age requirement of 35 to work abroad. Immediately she felt the heartache of being separated from her four young children.

She traveled to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. Each stop felt the same as the last.

Of all the places she’s been, “America is the worst,” she said.

“But I’m alive,” she added without a quiver in her voice, delivering the words with a harsh directness that close friends and family know not to interpret as more than her normal way of speaking.

They know her as Tita Nelly, endowing her with the familiar title of tita, or “aunt,” that is customary in the Filipino culture. The name also carries with it the respect she has earned from those who know of her experiences, yet could never really know.

“My motto is no quitting, no retreat, no surrender,” she said.

When she needed to support her kids after being unable to put food on the table, she did. When she wanted to file a wage claim against one of her employers, she did. And in recent years, despite ailing health, she has attended PAWIS meetings, frequented marches, and once even boarded a tour bus to take part in rallies across the state, demanding amnesty for undocumented immigrants and humane treatment of workers.

But as she sat on the couch during May Day this year, sniffling from the unrelenting cold she caught two weeks earlier, she knew she could not go to the rally in San Jose. “I have to take care of my health.”

* * * *

It was 1980, her first year abroad. Every morning, Gonzales would wake up and knock on the bedroom doors of the two children of a Royal Saudi Air Force officer. She cooked for them and cleaned after them like they were her own.

The family paid her the equivalent of $250 a month, she said. Though it wasn’t much, she could pocket every penny, because her employer provided everything else — food, plane tickets, even lotion. “They were strict, but they were fair,” she said. She was allowed to go out on weekends. If she did not finish the house chores, she wasn’t expected to work overtime. And if something happened to her, she had $50,000 in life insurance.

Then one day she received a call from a distant relative in the United States.

“Come to America. There are lots of opportunities here,” the voice cooed from the other end of the line.

The pleas persisted for eight years. Finally, Gonzales gave in. She finished her contract and said goodbye to the Arabian royal family. When her journey to the United States was stalled for a few years, she filled the time by visiting family and taking on temporary work in Asia and other parts of the Middle East. By then, she felt ready for any job.

The day she stepped foot inside the San Francisco International Airport on November 22, 1995 remains a blur. She remembers the hugs and the excitement. Gonzales’s distant relative, with spouse in tow, drove her to the four-room bungalow where she would work and live. They gave her the biggest room in the house. In the three other rooms lived her soon-to-be patients.

For the first six months, she attended nursing classes Monday through Friday at a nearby school, where she remembers taking notes on the basics of care and standard drug dosages. Though she was not officially a caregiver, she still needed to return home in time to make dinner for the patients in the other rooms. The only time she could study was late at night while she did the laundry.

The day her certification came, she said, she was left to care for six developmentally disabled adults, all classified as having a range of disabilities in the highest level of difficulty.

“I don’t know how she did it,” said her best friend, Conchita Matias, who was also a caregiver under the same employer but was only assigned two clients.

This continued for 15 years, Gonzales said. Slowly, her small complaints started to accumulate. There was never enough milk to last the week, so Gonzales would send her husband to the grocery store. When she would ask her employer for a reimbursement, she was refused. “Who told you to get milk?” Gonzales recalled her employer yelling. “What am I supposed to do? You don’t buy enough.”

Sometimes her clients would fight. During one altercation, with no one around to break them up and a client threatening to get a knife, Gonzales stepped in and suffered a punch to the face and blacked out.

One of her clients had craved a cigarette and escaped from the house to walk to the nearby 7-Eleven Gas Station. While Gonzales heated up the stove for lunch, she heard an urgent knock on the door. It was her neighbor from five houses down. “One of your clients fell. You need to call 9-1-1, now!”

The sympathetic paramedics told Gonzales to return to the house and not to worry. But after the police arrived, one officer warned, “Tell your employer that if you cannot take care of all your clients, you need to close this care home.” All attempts to reach her employer went to voicemail, she said.

Eventually, she quit. In the seven months to follow, Gonzales remained unemployed while her employer’s care home foundered. A strange symbiotic relationship twisted them back together. They needed each other in a tough economy.

* * * *

Her routine of cleaning and cooking earned her $594 on a bad month and $1,400 on a good month. Either amount was more than she was used to earning in her previous jobs. As a widowed mother of four she would take what she could get.

Then she received a notice from the Internal Revenue Service, warning her of her negligence on tax payments. She sifted through the pay stubs she kept tucked away in a drawer that dated back to the start of her employment. There, in the itemized deductions running down every half page — federal tax, state tax, Social Security, medical insurance — was proof of her abidance with the law. But as a tax collector at the IRS later informed her, Gonzales was not always on the payroll.

“I was dying for nothing,” Gonzales later recalled, feeling deprived of her well-earned benefits as a U.S. citizen. “[My employer] treated me like I was an illegal immigrant, but I wasn’t.”

With the pay stubs stuffed in her bag, she walked through the doors of the Department of Labor in San Jose, unsure of what to do. When she left feeling foreign to the world of settlements cases and bureaucracy, she knew she needed help.

Caregivers who believe they are overworked and underpaid rarely come forward with complaints, because in many cases their employers keep them in the dark about their rights. But sometimes it only takes one news story, one commercial, one hotline number, to find a way out.

In September 2010, Gonzales saw Mara Ibarra, one of the leaders of PAWIS, on television. Gonzales listened to the stout, curly haired figure offer help to Filipino workers. Gonzales made the call.

PAWIS helped connect her to the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic of Golden Gate University School of Law, where she met the clinic’s director and her new attorney, Marci Seville. With Seville and PAWIS backing her, Gonzales was ready to bring her case to the U.S. Department of Labor.

It was an intimate group gathered at the commissioner’s office on the day of the settlement conference. Because Gonzales’s employer had kept poor records of the hours she had worked, there was no room for disagreement. The burden of proof falls on the employer to disprove the claims. In this case, her employer decided to settle.

“It’s a simple math problem. We count how many hours they’ve worked and subtract that by how many hours they’ve been paid for. It should come out to zero,” Seville said. Gonzales’s difference totaled to $90,000 over three years.

Such cases can only go back three years from when they’re filed, though. There was no way she could gain back the unpaid hours before November 2007. In the end, the number seemed to matter little.

“As more and more of these caregivers are winning cases and being public about it, they’re bringing visibility to the issue of wage theft,” Seville said.

“Nelly wasn’t always an activist. She was really like a trafficking victim. She had low self-esteem, she had health issues. She was nervous. It was difficult for her to communicate. It’s really amazing to see her now because she’ll go on television and give an interview. It’s a really good example of the kind of support that a community organization … that can transform somebody.”

* * * *

Giving back to PAWIS was the most sensible next step.

While the labor case was a major victory for her, she saw it as a win for all migrant Filipinos and workers.

To her, the fight for fair wages and just treatment of workers was a simple formula. “Equal work, equal pay,” she said with the objectivity of a mathematician. It is a straightforward message that she has shared countless times in radio, TV and newspaper interviews.

Following the settlement, the media rushed to tell her story. PAWIS members noticed the attention she was getting and named her the organization’s president. Although she did not enjoy being in the spotlight, she was a fearless public speaker.

But it was the caregivers she most wanted to reach. And some of the caregivers heard. On a recent Sunday morning, Gonzales strolled along a line of canopy tents at a flea market in San Jose. At one stand, she stopped to examine a pile of clothes for sale. Across the table from her was another Filipina woman. They smiled at each other. The woman had been watching her and finally approached.

“Are you Tita Nelly?”


“I need help.”

Immediately, Gonzales pulled out the basic Nokia cellphone that she carries around with her everywhere. The woman’s name and number were added to the growing directory of other caregivers and workers who have sought her out in this way.

“It’s funny, because she likes to collect people’s numbers. But chances are she’ll forget who you are,” said Tayag, who sometimes accompanies Gonzales during these outings. “But they’ll always remember her.”

During these spontaneous meetings, Gonzales does what she can to help. She gives the name of her attorney and always slips in the details of the next PAWIS meeting — Monday night, 7 p.m. You should come because they can help, she says. As much as it is an invitation, attendance at PAWIS meetings is also her unspoken condition for her friendship and additional support.

In this way, she became PAWIS’s most effective recruiter, helping the group expand to include the people its leaders set out to help in the first place: the workers.

“I know when people only come to me because they only want to help themselves and do not want to help others. I don’t like that,” she said. As much as she wants people to win their battles, creating a community among the workers is just as important. Again, it’s a simple exchange: I give — you give.

Then, there is a second condition. The workers who approach Gonzales sometimes expect her direct involvement. What they don’t know is that Gonzales is a woman of tough-love. She will not hold anyone’s hand through a lawsuit or labor commission claim. Earlier this year, one woman had called Gonzales to air out her disappointment and frustration. “She called me a liar and said I didn’t help her,” Gonzales said, appalled.

Often she needs to clarify: “I’m not going to go with you to the attorney’s office. I’m not going to fight for you. You fight for your own rights.”

 * * * *

PAWIS meetings are usually held on Monday nights, and they include more and more migrant workers who come at Gonzales’ invitation. Even when she is not there.

After a month of missed meetings, PAWIS members have become used to Gonzales’ absence. But they have not forgotten her contributions to the group.

More caregivers who file cases against exploitative employers are sharing their stories. While young activists such as Tayag know PAWIS is not yet at the point where the workers are leading themselves, he said Gonzales has shown them the way.

“Tita Nelly is really good at connecting with people at a personal level,” Tayag said. “That’s something that many of us can’t do with the caregivers, because we don’t have that experience. After handling the organizational logistics, the most we can do is let them know that we support them.”

Two weeks after the May Day rally she had missed, Gonzales was on the phone with Tayag. “I told Michael I can’t really be active in PAWIS anymore,” she explained. “I have to support my kids still. I need a job.”

The same afternoon she spoke with Tayag, Gonzales rested on her living room couch. Her 4-year-old grandson ran in from a nearby bedroom and assumed his position on her lap. There, he bounced happily and looked to get his grandma’s attention. As he tried to explain a game to her, she listened with her arms wrapped around him. Then, she said, “I’m probably not going to stop working.” That’s the Filipino way she says — family first.


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