Tita Del and the Birth of a Community

Tita Del con el certificado que muestra el tiempo que lleva residiendo en Sevilla / Olivia Balcos

Approximately 300 Filipinos live IN SEVILLE: they are a small part of the 10% of the Filipino population that currently, and mostly DUE TO work REASONS, live abroad. The first of these people, Adelaide Sureta Aurelo, known as Tita Del, came to the city in 1975. This is her story and how she helped create this community. 

It is a Sunday in March 2019, and it is six thirty in the afternoon at the Church of Señor San José in Seville, in the Alfalfa neighborhood. The end of the mass draws near and the crowd, standing, sing the Our Father, but in Tagalog, the most widely-spoken language in the Philippines. Afterwards, the priest blesses the bread and wine in English, and the crowd responds in English as well. We are at a weekly mass for English speakers in Seville, in which people from all over the world gather, but most of the attendees, the volunteers who help the priest as well as the priest himself are Filipino. Every Sunday, at this time, the Filipino community of Seville meets in this church to listen to the mass.

Among the people, wearing her Sunday best-trousers and a pink sweater, is Adelaida Suyat Abrero, or Tita Del, as everyone calls her. ‘Tita’ means ‘aunt’ in Tagalog, but in Filipino culture it does not only refer to kinship; it is also a title of respect. She is 81 years old and has wisdom in her eyes. When the mass ends, the participants leave and talk among themselves. The priest greets them, joins the group. He takes Tita Del’s hand and brings it to his forehead, a sign of respect in Filipino culture. They talk. Her voice is calm; her composure is serene. Laughter and the cheerful talk of friends and family surround her. The members of this community talk to each other with such intimacy that it is difficult to imagine that it has not always been like this, that 44 years ago this community did not exist. That was when Tita Del arrived in Seville. She was the first Filipina in the city.

In 1975, her parents were dead, and after a period of time working for a Chinese family in Manila, Tita Del decided to fulfill her dream of seeing the world and left her country for Spain. She was one of the many Filipino citizens affected by one of the measures that President Ferdinand Marcos had taken to improve the economy of what was a poor nation: to encourage labor migration to first world countries, so that the money earned by the workers abroad could be sent back home to help improve the situation. The high unemployment rate in the country and the corruption of Marcos’ dictatorial regime led many Filipinos to make the difficult decision to leave their country to become OFWs, or Overseas Filipino Workers, and support their families. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Spain were among some of the main destinations. Today, 10% of the Filipino population are found working in these countries and other places around the world.

Tita Del did not arrive in Seville alone. She came with some friends, leaving her country and her family behind, without speaking the language. They were a bit afraid because they did not know if the señora (employer) for whom they were going to work would be a good or bad person. Their fear was reasonable; among the Filipinos, stories had circulated about overseas workers who had been exploited in their host countries and about some who had even died due to that exploitation. Luckily, this was not the case with Tita Del. The señora she had started working for was kind to her from the beginning. “She taught me everything … she took care of me when I was sick … She gave me the opportunity to travel …” With her, she went to Cádiz, to Fátima, to Lourdes. “We went to a new place every time.”

Soon, Tita Del and her friends, aided by their señora, began to look for work for other Filipinos. There were families who needed help in the house or to take care of the children. Little by little, the Filipino community of Seville began to grow.” Every Tuesday, when my señora was away playing cards with her friends, I would meet my friends at home to spend time together.” They were with good families, families who looked at how Tita Del was treated by her señora and followed her example. In the meantime, Tita Del continued to fulfill her dream of traveling the world.

Today, Tita Del lives in an apartment in the Macarena neighborhood  with her niece and her niece’s children. The walls of her house are filled with photos and objects from her trips around the world. She went to Jerusalem and saw Nazareth, where Jesus was born. She went to Mount Koressos and went to the Virgin Mary’s home. She went to the Dead Sea and bathed in its sacred waters. She went to Malaysia and navigated its gondola channels. She went to France, to Italy, to Egypt… At the same time, she visited other Filipino communities in Spain, Barcelona, Granada, Madrid, as well as the Philippine associations of each respective city, formed by volunteers who support the community by organizing celebrations, interviewing potential employers, and publishing job offers. “But, those who help the most are the ones in Seville. In Madrid and Barcelona, the Filipinos are very competitive. When I was in those cities, they did not want to talk to me. In Seville, the Filipinos support each other.”

The Filipino community of Seville is made up of about 300 people spread out in different neighborhoods around the city. Many of them are women who are employed as domestic workers and who live with the families to whom they provide their services. Others have their own apartments, the majority of which are located in Macarena, which, because of its more affordable rent, is one of the areas of the city with a large immigrant population: Colombians, Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Koreans and Indonesians who have managed to settle here with their families or are working to send money back to their families and to be able to, perhaps, someday, bring their families here with them.

Tita Del no longer works. Retired, she spends her days with her friends and family. Every now and then, she likes to look at the photo albums of the countries she has traveled to and reflect on the life she has had. There is only one more place she would like to visit: the United States. “But I cannot travel alone. Now, when I travel, I get dizzy…” Instead of traveling, Tita Del watches the Filipino community grow. One by one, other Filipinos settle in Seville and begin their own lives in the city. Most of them are still learning Spanish and some have more luck than others in terms of finding employers to work for – some, fair, but others, overwork their employees. All of them, however, are coping with culture shock, homesickness for their far away land, and the loneliness of living far from their families.

Next Sunday, Tita Del will put on her high-heeled shoes and her best dress and go with her niece to one of the bus stops in her neighborhood in Macarena. The bus will arrive, and Tita Del will join the crowd of Filipinos also going to the English-speaking mass at the Church of Señor San José. Tita Del will talk to her friends and, together, they will fill the bus with joy. Next Sunday, on their day off, the OFWs will laugh with friends who are in the same situation as they are.

It is not an easy life. But, at least they can count on each other.