Soledad Cabahug was returning to Manila from Jedah. Like thousands of Filipinos, she had worked overseas, first in Hong Kong then later in Saudi Arabia. Like many others, she was desperate to leave, eager to provide for her family back home (especially for her three-year old son, born out of an affair with a member of her employer’s family). Out of desperation, she takes on her sister Aurora’s identity in order to secure a permit to work abroad.
However, like so many other Pinoy OFW’s, she would return home in a wooden box.
Tagged with the name Aurora V. Cabahug, the woman had died from a mysterious drowning. Her sister said she was a strong swimmer.
Meanwhile in her hometown of Paez, her sister, the real Aurora V. Cabahug, known affectionately as Rory, was singing at the Flame Tree. Just as her sister wanted a better life, she did too. She wanted to be just like the nation’s songbird, Regine Velasquez, minus the disappointing love affairs. After spending time entertaining customers, putting up with their off-key singing, lascivious glances, and feeding them the snacks on their lap, Rory has yet to catch a break. Asked to sing at a politician’s party, she seizes the opportunity to give her best show, only to be given a fat envelope of…handkerchiefs and a few measly bills. However, the even leads her to meet Nick Panganiban, an international piano player who leads her to an opportunity to sing in Saipan.
Before any plans can be made, she must first entertain her “prized client,” Vice Mayor Tennyson Yip, the district’s hottest bachelor, who chose Rory as his favorite source of entertainment. However, Walter, a member of the police squad with a mysterious past, hears word that a dead woman arrived. Certain that it was not Rory’s corpse, since he had seen her the night before, the officer heads out to give her the bad news. With the assistance of the Vice Mayor’s contacts, Rory and Walter head to the capital to pick up the body. On the road, they reflect on their past: Rory remembers her uncomplaining pious sibling, Walter thinks of the affair and the criminal case that cost him his marriage and sanity.
Rory, at first, did not miss Soli, after all, her sister was five years older and was more like a maid than a relative. Soledad had never made a fuss, though she remembered a jealous glance when their mother had given her the music box. She wonders if Soli would of stayed had her mother given the toy to her elder sister instead. Maybe she would not have wanted for anything.
The baby of the family, Rory had been given greater opportunities and consideration while Soli seemed happy enough to fade into obscurity. However, when a recruiter comes to their area, it was clear that Soli was not content to be left behind. In a move that shocked everyone, she rushes off to Manila and later Tsuan Wan to work as a domestic helper. She shocked the town even more when she returned home pregnant, keeping the child’s father a secret. Her baby was named Nathan. He was her child with the 17-year old son of her employers. In her return, she bought a house for her sister and son. She has great dreams for them. Unfortunately, her savings begin to dwindle and she must again leave, borrowing her sister’s passport since she had left her previous job under questionable circumstances. She finds employment in Jedah to work for a royalty, no less. She wonders about the rumors of the abuse of domestic helpers, but after meeting Princess Loulwa and her children, who will be Soli’s wards, her worries dissipate. Despite the strict laws and cultural differences, she learns to enjoy her time there. She becomes friend with Meenakshi, an Indian maid from Kerala whom she met in the airport. Meena urges her to accompany her to meet Yusuf, the Prince’s assistant who later claimed after their death that the women had run away after stealing a fountain pen.
Soledad returns home in a wooden box. Her body is claimed by her sister and Walter. Her coffin is left in the van, stolen by Jose Maria Palumbarit, an ex-con whose dead father and brother enjoy making ghostly appearances, especially during lovemaking. He discovers the corpse and tries to dispose of it, hoping that he could finally get his wife that television set she has always wanted.
Storm clouds hang heavy in the sky.
Three days later, their bodies are found floating in the river. Soli’s already water-damaged body endures another drowning, sinking the mystery of her death even further.
But maybe there never would have been any answers anyway. After all, just as the coroner’s in Jedah asserted, “…unless they happen to be…people of consequence” (194) no investigation is done.
Just like the thousands of Filipinos who leave the country to find hope, many find themselves an invisible minority, nameless and abused, fading into obscurity…another random name in the paper, another familiar yet unknown face.
All that is left is a faded photograph of Soli, the wind blowing ripples in her veil, smiling with the sea at her back.
Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister was first published in Manila, Philippines in 2007. It became an immediate success and was shortlisted for The Man Asian Literary Prize. Dalisay’s seamless storytelling technique sheds light on the dreams and motivations of the Filipinos who work abroad and the lives of those they leave behind.
The novel provides a voice for the millions of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW’s), one of the nation’s greatest financial contributors, who like Soli, are driven by a sense of duty to provide for the security and future of their loved ones. And like Soledad, many are underappreciated, abused and murdered. Like her story, the perpetrators often go unpunished and all that is left is another body bag, another statistic.