“Every time I work on these garlands, I remember how much I wanted to go to school, how much I wanted my daughters to finish high school.”
libudsuroy | Philippines
Later, the paper blooms will be interspersed with satin ribbons in gold, silver and red. Each day, chatter, songs and the radio soap operas enliven their tasks. The garlands are sold at 12 pesos a dozen (around 25 US cents) to a wholesale buyer. Grandma Yolanda and her brood make between 200 and 400 necklaces a day. These trinkets are sure sellers at graduation rites in March all over the island. At the gates of schools and universities, a throng of vendors will be selling these garlands. Every graduate is expected to wear at least one garland given by well-wishers. By then, the leis will fetch between 20-30 pesos apiece.
“A pittance, you might say, but we do earn and it is better than none at all. It is also a good way to spend some vacant hours,” she tells me, speaking from the insight of almost half a century of eking out a living from land.
“I have two regrets. One is that I have never been able to wear one around my neck because I never graduated, and two, my daughters never graduated from high school,” she laments. “Every time I work on these garlands, I remember how much I wanted to go to school, how much I wanted my daughters to finish high school. I only finished four years of elementary school. ”
Born in the late 50s; finished fourth grade.
Yolanda’s father believed functional literacy was enough. “As long as you know how to read and write, and count seeds and coins, and add and subtract, that’s enough to survive,” her father would tell his children. “Besides, you are a woman. You will stay at home and care for your children and husband. Your husband will work for you and your family as I am doing,” Yolanda remembered him telling her.
"He thought that farming and business, not education, would bring us wealth."
So Yolanda learned how to plow with a carabao, plant rice and corn and raise livestock. Before she was 15, her father married her off with someone she did not love.
In the late 50s, a father’s word was decree, and a good daughter was obedient and silent. She did not question her father’s decisions. She birthed five children in five years. Soon after, her husband deserted her. Yolanda depended on her parents to help her provide for her children’s needs as she studied dressmaking.
“It was a hard life, but we always had plenty of food on our table,” she recalled. With earnings from the farm and the dresses and pairs of pants she had sewn, she tried to send her children to school. The two boys finished high school and became skilled electricians, and got married in their late 20s. The three daughters barely began high school and dropped out to marry early, to her regret.
“When I think about how I survived, I saw that I could have done better if I had more years at school, even just high school. It has something to do with having more options and knowing more ways to solve problems. I always told my children that the increasingly infertile land their grandfather will pass on to us will not be enough.
“But still my daughters, like me, married early in their teens. Unlike me, they decided to get married young on their own,” She said. “My consolation is that they all finished the elementary grades, which by the 70s was already compulsory.”
Yolanda’s daughter was born in the 70s and dropped out of high school.
Alma tells me, “I remember how Mother used to tell us to value schooling, and finish high school as prospects are better for those who have higher education. I was dreaming I would be working in an office as a clerk or a saleslady in a department store. But I fell in love with a construction worker and got pregnant at 14. My mother did not want me to get married yet and she said she can help take care of the child and I can get back to school, finish high school, and get to college.
“But I decided to get married instead, and I have been married for 25 years now. I have a son and three daughters. My husband is a good provider. He is a skilled mason and carpenter, and because there is a boom in construction around town, he always has some contractual work. But he is much older than me, his health is declining.
“My mother told me it was better to earn my own keep so that I would not be dependent on my husband’s income alone.” Alma learned some skills like carpentry, dressmaking, and cooking and became a sort of handywoman.
Alma said her mother was happy she attained more education than she had. “When we graduated from the elementary grades, she made us garlands made from fresh gardenia and corsages of orchids and ferns.”
Alma’s daughter was born in the early 2000s, and is a senior in high school.
Loli left home in November last year, thinking this would help her finish high school and keep her sanity. She says, “Every day my mother kept telling me I would fail, that I would get pregnant and follow my sister’s path.Her words were like daily sermons to me. She could not understand why I needed to have a cell phone or frequent the Internet café for the online research assigned in my science classes. I got depressed and angry. I could not take it anymore.”
So Loli left home, stayed with an aunt in another village, and transferred to another high school. She was confident she could make it through the last four months of senior high school. She did not.
“It appeared easy to succeed. Tuition was free, and even as I transferred to another school I retained a scholarship grant from a Japanese foundation that provided for almost everything I needed, including a transportation allowance, books, and school supplies. Then, in January I got invited to a party where I met a man who convinced me to work for him as a runner for his illegal gambling business. It was good at first and I was happy to earn for the first time. I bought my own smartphone and a tablet,” she recalled. Then, after a run-in with the police, she decided to leave him.
“When I tried to return to school, I could not,” she says. “I was absent from my classes for so long, the teachers would no longer accept me. So I lost my senior year, and missed the chance to graduate.”
Because the curriculum at her school changed from a four-year program to a six-year program, Loli will have to stay in school three more years to graduate.
Last month, Loli met a military sergeant who proposed marriage and offered to send her to school. “We agreed that I should not get pregnant until I can finish high school. So we will practice family planning and use contraceptives.”
Loli has asked forgiveness from her parents. “I had been a headache to them these past months. This is one story that I will tell my children.” But Loli says she will encourage them in a way that doesn’t pressure them to leave the family when they are still unprepared.
“My mom had said that she would make me two dozens of garlands if I can graduate in 2017,” says Loli. “She’d better be prepared with those leis because I will work hard to make that possible.”
Yolanda’s granddaughter by her second daughter was born in 2000s, and recently graduated elementary school.
Four years ago, when Casey was in grade 2, she barely had passing grades. Her father lost a job and it was difficult to have regular meals. Her grandmother took her and her two brothers in, and she sent them to school.
“It was not easy to live with Grandma. We have little time for play as we have to do house work with her. But we learned to cook and wash our clothes and clean the house on our own,” she recalled. But she persevered.
Last year, her family was recipient of the government’s conditional cash program which provides funds for the children’s education and health needs. Most of the money was spent on transportation to and from the school at the center of the village, and for their daily meals. The program has been extended, so Casey is assured that she will have financial support through six years of secondary education.
Casey says, “I will have to see what is possible. I want to be a nurse but that might be too expensive. I might try to find work after high school. Or I can be a science teacher. We are told that we can get jobs right after high school now because our courses will be technical and vocational.I just hope I won’t fall in love and marry early. My cousins are all getting married after high school or even before high school. And it hurts my grandma and my aunts. My grandmother and mother have forbidden me to have a boyfriend. I also cannot own a cell phone of my own because the cell phone makes it easy for young people to get married early. Whether I will marry or not, I would like make sure that I will take care of my mother and grandmother when they grow old."
Yesterday, the photos taken at Casey’s graduation were delivered. Grandma Yolanda paid almost a thousand pesos for those, an amount equivalent to almost three days of work on the garlands. But Yolanda thinks the photos are worth it. Casey is wearing garlands around her neck in all the photos. Some were made of paper flowers, and some were made of real, fresh blooms. Her Grandma Yolanda made them all for her.