Spotlight Exclusives

A Shanty on One Side, American Suburbia on the Other: A Conversation with “A Good Provider” Author Jason DeParle

Jason DeParle, The New York Times Jason DeParle, The New York Times, posted on

New York Times journalist Jason DeParle first encountered the subject of his new book, Rosalie Villanueva, over thirty years ago when he stayed with her family during a fellowship to study shanty town life in the Philippines. In “A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century” DeParle looks at the journey that brought Rosalie from poverty to a middle-class life with her family in the Houston suburbs. Spotlight recently spoke with DeParle about the book and the broader lessons around immigration, assimilation, and economic opportunity. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you originally get connected with Rosalie and her family in the 1980s?

I had a fellowship in the Philippines and an interest in shanty towns. I wanted to live with a family to get a more immediate sense of slum life. I asked a nun to help me find a family that would let me board with them.

How long did you stay with them?

On and off for eight months. I wasn’t thinking about migration when I first met them—I was thinking about poverty. But migration was how the family survived. The father was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia and the mom was raising the kids with the money he sent back. What started as an act of desperation became a way of life. All five kids grew up to become overseas workers like their father.

Was your intention from the start to have a long-term study of this family?

Not at all. I had no plan. They just made me feel so welcome that I didn’t want to leave.

How did the daughter, Rosalie, become the central character of this book?

She was the most introspective of the five kids, the most expressive, and also the most ambitious. Her older brother often lived with relatives on a farm in the countryside and her sister was weakened by heart disease. Rosalie had the duties and stature of the eldest child even though she wasn’t. She was a 15-year-old schoolgirl when we met. She’s now a 48-year-old mother of three.

Was she always set on coming to the United States?

Yes, but that may be true for half of the people in the Philippines and 99% of people who go to nursing school like she did. Nursing school is a big leap for a girl from a shantytown. Others in the neighborhood were tougher or more outgoing or showed more academic promise. Rosalie’s quiet determination only became clear with time. The most telling line on her high school transcript wasn’t her grades—in four years, she never missed a day. “About high school is where I got grit,’’ she told me.

The Villanueva family. Photo by Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

How long was she waiting for a visa to come to the United States?

She got her visas exactly twenty years after graduating from nursing school. I can’t count the number of setbacks along the way. She took American nursing test three different times. She took the English proficiency test five times. Once she got to the head of the visa queue, jobs dried up because of the Great Recession. Rosalie spent nearly 15 years working in the Persian Gulf, awaiting her chance. Eventually, a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas and a short-staffed hospital needed help. It speaks to how much she looked up to the U.S. that she spent half her life trying to get here.

What do you think caused her to be so successful once she got to the United States?

Her success was impressive, but not immediate. Rosalie struggled. For the first six months she was here without her husband and kids and terribly homesick. The visa came without operating instructions. She came expecting Disneyland but wound up in a declining blue-collar town with a vista of vacant lots. The cost of living was higher than expected. Relatives back home thought she was rich and were constantly asking for money.

Once her husband and children arrived, a new set of challenges emerged. For most of the time she worked in Abu Dhabi, the kids were in the Philippines with her parents. In coming to America, they weren’t just learning to live together in a new country. They were learning to live together, period. And still they achieved in three years a degree of assimilation that used to take three generations, with a house in the suburbs and kids on the honor roll.

One thing that helped Rosalie adjust was her job. She’s a terrific nurse. I think the confidence she felt on the job eventually spread to other parts of her life. Work became a vehicle of assimilation.

Houston, where the book is set, has really become a hub of global migration, correct?

Yes! Houston was once a honky-tonk and rodeo town. Now it boasts Hindu temples in the suburbs and Viet-Cajun cuisine. A quarter of the workforce is foreign-born, from construction workers to doctors and engineers. As a pro-immigrant corner of Red State America, Houston offers a hint, perhaps, that immigration is less divisive in daily life than it is in national politics, where it pays to foment rancor.

Tell us a bit about the experiences of her children in America. Reading the book, it seems like there was a different adjustment period for her two daughters.

Both girls assimilated rapidly, but in contrasting ways.  Kristine, the eldest, assimilated to the popularity-seeking ways of middle school girls, snapping selfies by the thousands and posting them on Instagram. “She’s Americanizing,’’ her teacher affectionately groaned.

Lara, her younger sister, had a gift for blending her two cultures, taking the best parts of each. From her Filipino side, she got faith, manners, and strong family ties. From her American side, she got fewer class and gender constraints and a license to indulge her curiosity.

I can trace the arc of Lara’s assimilation through a story about Rosa Parks. When Lara first arrived, in second grade, her teacher called Parks a hero. But a hero in handcuffs made no sense to a girl from the Philippines, where children are admonished to respect their elders and obey authority. “She didn’t listen to policeman,’’ Lara said, so she couldn’t be a hero.

A year later, Lara announced, “I sort of agree with Rosa Parks,’’ since it wasn’t fair for her to sit in the back. Then she explained that what she admired wasn’t just Parks’ principles but also her politeness. When the policeman arrested her, she didn’t say any bad words. For an immigrant deftly blending cultures, Parks became “The Civil Rights Hero Who Didn’t Curse.’’

How does the family view the current political rhetoric around race and immigration?

Rosalie has never said anything critical about the president. She says she can’t know what’s in his heart. She’s a nonjudgmental person and as an immigrant her instincts are to be politically deferential.

The kids have imbibed strong feelings about racial equality. At one point Rosalie half-joking told the girls she wanted them marry Filipino men so they can go back to Philippines together for visits. “That’s racist, Mommy!’’ the girls said. What matters is whether your husband is kind—not whether he’s Filipino. And they were only eleven and nine.

You’ve said that you’ve covered poverty for decades and Rosalie’s story is the one of the most profound anti-poverty stories you’ve ever encountered. Why?

Rosalie started her life in a Manila shantytown. Now she has a four-bedroom house on a cul de sac in the Houston suburbs. There’s a before-after picture on my website that says it better than I can—a shanty on one side, American suburbia on the other. When Rosalie bought the new house, she told Kristine,” Mommy grew up in a shanty.’’

“What’s a shanty, Mommy? ” Kristine asked.

The book is coming out at a particularly painful moment with what happened in El Paso. Is there a message around immigration that you want people to take away?

Their move coincided with a rising narrative that presents immigration as a threat—to jobs, to safety, to American culture.  The Villanuevas didn’t threaten Americans. They became Americans.

In standard cost-benefit terms, her move was a triple win—good for her, good for her patients, good for the family she still supports in the Philippines. But language of cost-benefit alone doesn’t do her story justice. Migration became the vehicle of her salvation. That it brought her to Texas is something for Americans to cheer—it’s for your country to be the place people go to make dreams come true.

Jason DeParle is a senior writer at The New York Times.

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