October 5, 2012

Lilia Peters – mother of the Champaign’s Filipino community

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Roger Morales/Hoy

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein/Hoy — As a young girl in Sorsogon Province in the Philippines, in between the twice-daily purchase and preparation of freshly caught seafood, Lilia Peters dreamed of traveling the world.

Her visions were stoked by pictures of other countries she had seen in National Geographic, by her mother’s older sister, who told tales about the United States, and by pictures of smiling relatives sent from America and beckoning her to join them.

So, when she was old enough, and after receiving the nurse’s training her mother had decided would be her profession, she did just that.

She left the land where she had bounced a rataan ball off her back heel and flew in 1963 to New York City before paying $25 to take a helicopter to Newark and starting to work at the prestigious Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City, New Jersey.

The reality she encountered clashed with her lofty visions.

The travel company, which she only later realized was in cahoots with the hospital, charged her at each step of the journey.

The dorm she lived in had no kitchen.  The rice she found was watery and lacked the rich and zesty taste she was accustomed to from her homeland.

The training she and the other 10 nurses with whom she had traveled on the plane was nothing more than a standard orientation.

And she and her Filipino colleagues were paid less for doing the same work as their American colleagues.

Undeterred, Peters took on her difficulties one by one.

She smuggled a hot pot into her room in the dorm and bribed the older Polish ladies who operated the elevators with gifts to keep quiet.

She and others advocated for equal wages.

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And, after her one-year contract ended, she moved to Chicago for a job with better pay.

Once in the Windy City, she lived in a dorm with a girlfriend.  Although she enjoyed herself, she did not save much money-a function of her propensity to buy albums by American icon Frank Sinatra.

She worked at Cook County Hospital.

One day in 1965, after she had worked a night shift and was resting, a lanky young man came to the door and asked for her.

“There’s a tall white guy with a tie,” her roommate said, aware that Peters’ visa had expired. “He’s probably from immigration.”

Ronald Peters was not from immigration.  Rather he was an alumnus of the first crop of 500 Peace Corps volunteers.  He had served from 1961 to 1963 in Peters’ village and wanted to reconnect with the woman he had met there at the provincial hospital.

She didn’t remember him, perhaps because she was too groggy.

When she did realize who he was, her first question was, “Do you have a car?”

The couple courted for nine months, then married in 1966.

A decade later, after having lived and worked in Canada and Michigan, they moved to Champaign, where he was to direct the Labor Education Program.

There were very few Filipinos.

Some students.

A few professionals.

But, overall, the numbers were very low.

Despite some fluctuation in the number of graduate students, they stayed that way for much of the next two decades.

But things changed in 1996.

That was the year that Swann Special Care Center, in an effort to stabilize a work force that had seen a lot of turnover, brought over 16 nurses from the Philippines.

The effort worked.

Many of the nurses liked the work, wanted to stay and started to bring their families and relatives over.

The community grew.

In 2005, Carle Foundation Hospital, seeing the success of the Swann program, decided to do the same.

They enlisted Peters, who by this time was a retired nurse, as a consultant.

Remembering her experience from more than four decades earlier, she told them what to and not to do.

Don’t pay the nurses a different rate than the other employees doing the same work.

Do help them get acclimated and find housing.

Do stock their fridges with food from their home and American foods like bacon and eggs.

Do look to provide as many job options as possible for the husbands who were coming.

The hospital listened to her and paid her handsomely for her input.

But Lilia Peters’ work was not done because she had received payment.

She met each of the nurses at the airport when they arrived.

She and Ron had them over to their house for dinner.

She helped the mothers look for housing and get their children set up in the schools.

She listened to their heartaches, their trials.

Her hair had changed from black to an elegant white.  The dreamer of a girl had become the adventurer of a young woman, and, now, a grandmother and surrogate mother for the community.

It was an expanding one.

Where there had been a scattered group of people unconnected to each other, now there were Simbang Gabi ceremonies and volleyball games and a store, Maligaya’s, where people could go to buy the rice and fruits and meats she had not had when she first come over a century ago.

There were problems, to be sure.

Some of the children did not want to eat the same comfort foods she and others so treasured.

Until the last few years, there was no formal organization to make sure that children, even more than the food, learn about their culture.

There were a number of young women, about 10, flown from the Philippines at great expense and after a courtship, to marry white men as much as 30 years older than them.  Some of the matches worked, but others did not.

But as Lilia Peters looked back on her life, nearly a half century after she first followed the dream that had been hatched as a young girl, there was satisfaction, too.