When Fedelina Lugasan moved to the U.S. from the Philippines for work, she was comforted by the fact that she’d start her new life with a family she trusted. But her life and job were not what they told her it would be, and she was cut off from family back home. When an opportunity presented itself, she took her freedom into her own hands.
Fedelina Lugasan at her nursing home, taken February 2020. All photo credits belong to Paulina Velasco.
The translations from Tagalog used for the Fedelina voice-over were done by Mark Escalante, with editing for clarity by Carla Green and Paulina Velasco.
The voice-over actor is Alice de la Peña.
From KCRW I’m Bob Carlson and this is UnFictional
A person living as a slave in a suburb in America, doesn’t seem possible, but it happens... and sometimes a situation can start out as something more straight forward and above board. For example in the Philippines there’s an historical cultural tradition of helping out your family and extended family
Rhacel Parreñas: So in the Philippines, the patronage system in which a wealthy or family member brings in a much poorer member of their extended family to their household. It’s quite common.
I spoke to Rhacel Parreñas
RHACEL PARREÑAS: I'm a professor of sociology and gender and sexuality studies at USC.
She’s studied domestic workers around the world including The Philippines.
RHACEL PARREÑAS: So I know that in the Philippines there is this strong extended kinship, and so your sense of family extends way beyond your nuclear family.
So let’s say a Filipino family comes to the U.S. to start a business, they can bring over a member of their extended family to work not for a salary… but for something even more valuable.
RHACEL PARREÑAS: That's how they would give them a visa, so they would bring them into their household. Among Filipino domestic workers here in the United States, there's actually a sizable number that were quote unquote, sponsored by a Filipino family.
But in the wrong household, a situation can turn darker…. And that’s what happened in the story on this episode.
RHACEL PARREÑAS: I would say Fedelina’s story is definitely one of slavery.
Fedelina is the name of the woman in this story, and a situation like hers can turn bad slowly over time… without realizing it, until the position has gone from unpaid worker to slave.
RHACEL PARREÑAS: I follow the definition given by the eminent sociologist Orlando Patterson. He says you have to experience violent domination, you have to experience natal alienation, and that you experience the erasure of your dignity
And Orlando Patterson defined that term natal alienation as the “alienation of a person from all formal, legally enforceable ties of blood” and from all “rights or claims of birth”
RHACEL PARREÑAS: I would just say that her situation of Fedelina here in Los Angeles is probably the worst case scenario that individuals in that situation would ever face.
It’s the story of how a woman was found living as a modern day slave for decades and how she was able to finally leave.
The reporter is Paulina Velasco
PAULINA: Sometime in late 2017 or early 2018, two older Filipina women showed up at a hospital in Los Angeles. One woman was in her late 70s, the other maybe in her early 80s. The younger one was having a medical emergency, and needed to be put on dialysis. The older one was her companion.
Then the older companion did something strange: she begged a nurse to give her some food. After she ate, she vomited and fainted. The nurse alerted the hospital's social worker.
Early one morning in 2018, in a gated community in Northridge, the FBI knocked for the first time on the door of the Cox family house.
FEDELINA V.O.: They would come early, around 6 AM. And they were always drinking coffee.
They were looking to speak to Fedelina Lugasan.
FEDELINA: My name is Fedelina Lugasan.
That’s Fedelina. She mostly speaks in Tagalog, so you’ll hear an actor translating
FEDELINA V.O.: I’m Fedelina Lugasan. I’m from Manila.
She was the domestic servant at the household – nurse, caretaker, cook, maid, for an elderly lady named Benedicta Cox. The FBI were asking her to leave because they’d found out she’d been working – without being paid.
Fedelina Lugasan reunited with her relatives from the Philippines who she had not seen in decades, March 10, 2020.
FEDELINA V.O.: The FBI would show up at my front door, and I’d go outside to meet with them. They were trying to convince me to leave because I wasn’t being paid.
They’d ask Fedelina to go outside and talk to them.
FEDELINA V.O.: There were four people who’d come – two Filipinas and two white ladies.
MYRLA: Women like the Charlie's Angels, women type, and they spoke so gently...
There were two law enforcement agents, a Tagalog–English translator, and this woman, Myrla….
MYRLA: I'm Myrla Baldonado and I'm the lead organizer of the Pilipino Workers Center. The worker center assists in empowering domestic workers and low income workers, Filipino American workers, for their lives to improve, getting more rights or enforcement of laws so they could get the right wages that they should be getting.
Law enforcement needed someone from the Filipino community to come along to their visits with Fedelina. So they called the PWC, where Myrla works.
MYRLA: Our human trafficking Program case manager called me and she said, do you have time to go and rescue somebody?
Other people on the manager’s team weren’t responding to her. And Myrla is basically always always at the office.
MYRLA: Yeah. I pick up the phone easily. People hate me for me calling in the wee hours of the morning or whatever, but I pick up the phone. If I have time, I'll do it.
Myrla was told to meet the FBI agents – the Charlie’s Angels as she calls them – at a coffee shop at a mall in Northridge.
MYRLA: And that first morning, I was given a briefing on what the case was about, but you could hardly grapple with what was given to you.
She says they didn't tell her much. Just the bare minimum.
MYRLA: So, yeah, they told me that I'm just going to be there and be helping them encourage the person to... to be rescued, to get out of her employer’s place. I think the only question I asked was what is the possibility of her coming with us today? “Oh, we've been doing this for quite some time now. It's not very likely that she will come with us.”
FEDELINA: Myrla will go to my house, and then she asked me, go with me now. I said, no. But this lady said you have a good house, you can leave. I said no, I don't like... (laughing) Myrla, she's "Go with me now, leave the lady….” I said no. (laughs)
At first Myrla thought the FBI could just pick Fedelina up and rescue her.
MYRLA: I started to realize, it seems like they cannot force the person to go with them. It's like she has to go on her own volition.
But Fedelina wasn’t ready to do that yet.
FEDELINA V.O.: They really wanted me to go with them, but I couldn’t just leave. Who’d be left to take care of my employer?
And that was frustrating for Myrla.
MYRLA: So they had to really wait for her to make a decision. I mean, here you are, law enforcement agency... Oh, come! You can not command this person to go with you?! What? It appears like you cannot force her to go with you.
So she kept going back to visit Fedelina, over and over again
MYRLA: Every week for two months! Every time I would go, I would figure out something to say to her, something where she will feel like she will increase trust in me. And so I had to explain to her that I have taken care of a lot of people who are in the same situation and they got a visa to stay in the U.S. and they were even able to reunite with their families.
But it took awhile for Fedelina to take it all in.
MYRLA: The other day I was talking to her and I said, why did you not go with us right away? Well, because I didn't even know you! (laughs)
And why would Fedelina trust Myrla, who she had just met two months ago – over the family that she had worked for, for nearly 70 years?
Fedelina was born in Leyte, in the Philippines – an island near the center of the country. Then she moved to the capital to live with her niece. Not long after she was hired by a middle-class family to be their live-in housekeeper in Manila: the Cox family.
Sometime in the 70s or 80s – Fedelina says it was 1974, reports say 1980 – Benedicta Cox, who the family called Benjy for short, brought Fedelina to the U.S. to take care of her sister. Fedelina would have been in her late 30s or early 40s.
FEDELINA V.O.: When she brought me to the U.S., she told me “don’t worry – they’re nice people, they’ll treat you like family”. That was a lie.
PAULINA: Did you know anyone else in the US when you came?
FEDELINA V.O.: No – I didn’t know anyone in the US. And when they brought me they told me I’d be taking care of just one person: Benjy’s sister. Just her. I had no idea I was going to be looking after the entire family.
Fedelina found herself taking care of Benjy's entire family: Benjy’s mother, her children and grandchildren, her sister and her sister’s children and grandchildren...
FEDELINA V.O.: Every morning I’d get up, take the bus from where I was living with Benjy to the other house so I could take care of the other family. I’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the bus stop by 6. The families lived far apart, and I didn’t have a car, so I had to take the bus to get between the houses. And when I got there, I’d take care of everything in the house: cook, clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, and look after the kids. That was my job.
But a job where she wasn’t getting paid at all. She was doing all that work – for no money.
FEDELINA: When then the lady says can you cook me this, this this, I cook. She eats first before me. Sometimes I did not eat. I'm cleaning, I'm cooking, she talks to me bad words. I did not answer. I go out and clean outside. After, I go inside the house to cook dinner.
She would cook for Benjy’s grandchildren when they visited, and Benjy would take the credit.
They didn’t include her in family dinners, even though she did all the cooking. They never asked her to jump in on family photos, and she would go outside when everyone was eating.
FEDELINA: Sometimes I go out. And then the grandchildren call me. Come in, get inside. We will eat, and then I go inside and eat. If she did not ask me to come, no, I will not go there.
FEDELINA V.O.: I never wanted to ask them for anything – not even on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. I was always there, but I wouldn’t ask to eat with them, or to be included in anything they did. And usually, they wouldn’t include me. Usually, I would just stay in my corner while they ate or did whatever they were doing as a family.
The only people who she says would ask her to be in photos, or eat dinner with them, were Benjy’s sister, and the sister’s son. Benjy’s sister would take her on family trips.
Myrla Baldonado (left), Fedelina Lugasan (center), Hannah De Castro-Abinubam (right) from the PWC on a visit to Fedelina’s nursing home, February 2020.
FEDELINA V.O.: She’d give me money and invite me out with them. Whenever she’d invite me, I’d try to protest, and say that I had work to do and that I should stay behind. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’d say – ‘Your chores can wait. If I tell you to come with us, you should come. I’m the one inviting you.’
FEDELINA: Yeah, yeah. I go to Julian!
Julian, the cute California town known for it’s apple festival
FEDELINA V.O.: I always went along with her, she never left me behind. We went to Julian, I got to try warm apple pie, I picked apples, oranges, cherries, grapes.
FEDELINA: Apple pie? It's too sweet!
PAULINA: Oh I love it
FEDELINA: Like this big!
PAULINA: Yeah the Julian ones are very big!
FEDELINA V.O.: Yeah! Then we pick that apple, orange, cherry, and grapes! That's why that lady told me, when we are going somewhere, you always go. Everybody will go out.
But then Benjy’s sister died of an asthma attack on a trip to Las Vegas. And things got worse for Fedelina.
FEDELINA V.O.: Benjy accused me of killing her sister.
Fedelina wasn't even on that trip. The accusation didn't make any sense. But that didn't stop Benjy from making it.
FEDELINA V.O.: Benjy said the cops were going to arrest me for killing her sister.
Benjy used the accusation as a threat – to keep Fedelina from leaving. And with the sister’s death, Fedelina was left to take care of just Benjy – both of them older women at this point, living alone in a big house. Fedelina slept on the floor next to Benjy’s bed.
FEDELINA: It was just the two of us. She had three rooms in her house, but I still slept on the floor. Even when I got sick, she wouldn’t give me medicine or go get me food. I would have to force myself to stand just so I could go get food and water.
Benjy would accuse Fedelina of stealing her jewelry, and threatened to call the cops on her.
FEDELINA: She’d say to me, ‘If you leave, I’ll have you arrested.’ And I’d tell her, ‘Go ahead! Ask the cops to dig through my things! Let’s see if they find anything.’
MYRLA (to Fedelina): Hindi mo ba alam 'yong ano, 'yong salitang "alipin?" (Are you familiar with the word "alipin?") Alam mo 'yong ibig sabihin ng "alipin?" (Do you know what it means?)
“Are you familiar with the word “alipin,” Myrla asks Fedelina.
MYRLA: So I was asking her: have you ever heard of the word slave, which is alipin in our language? And what do you think when people say you’re like a slave?
FEDELINA V.O.: Well, I couldn’t leave the house. When Benjy’s sister was alive, she’d take me with her wherever she went. She wouldn’t trap me in the house like Benjy did.
MYRLA: Yes, she is, because she couldn't leave - to go around and be free. She thinks yes, yes, she was.
When Myrla asks Fedelina if not getting paid was an issue, she brushes it off. Still, she only ever had money when Benjy’s nephew would give her some. And she’d use it to do the one thing that made her feel free – she’d go out.
FEDELINA: I ride the bus! I know how to ride the bus.
FEDELINA: Back and forth. I go to JC Penney, Sears, Robinson and Macy’s! (laughs)
PAULINA: For clothing?
FEDELINA: Yeah, I ride the bus. I go to Victoria's Secret!
FEDELINA: (Laughs) Yeah!
But then when Benjy would catch wind that she had some cash, she’d get into a fight with Fedelina about buying food.
FEDELINA: If somebody gave you money, buy your own food, because you have money. Don't eat my food. Because I go … (pauses, her voice breaks). She told me, and I said, I will not eat your food!
Maybe that’s why Fedelina didn’t always eat. And why she fainted that fateful day at the hospital, when she brought Benjy in for an emergency.
MYRLA: She was taking care of this woman who was on dialysis already and she had to go to the hospital. When she was confined in the hospital and Fedelina as her companion there – she fainted.
FEDELINA V.O.: One day, I hadn’t eaten anything. Benjy was on dialysis, and there was a Filipino nurse supervising the treatment. I was embarrassed, but I was so hungry. So I told him, ‘I’m embarrassed to ask you this, but I’m starving. Could I get something to eat?’ He was kind about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Nanay. I’ll go down to the kitchen and get you something to eat.’ But then, after I ate, I started to feel sick – and then I vomited.
The nurse who gave Fedelina the food told the hospital’s social worker.
FEDELINA V.O.: The nurse who gave me the food alerted the hospital.
MYRLA: She was malnourished, and she wasn't being taken cared of well…. She looked different, she didn't look normal. She was like kept, you know, somebody you keep at home. It shows that she was just so domesticated and so tied to this person that she was taking care of.
And the social worker started asking Fedelina some questions.
FEDELINA V.O.: The social worker was Filipino, and asked me all these questions: if Benjy’s family paid me a proper salary, if I was given regular meals, if I was free to go out, and how many days a week I worked.
And Fedelina – she lied.
FEDELINA V.O.: I told them I was paid for my work, that I could go out as much as I wanted, and that I was given proper meals. I didn't want Benjy’s family to get in trouble. I would rather take the blame than they get in trouble.
Fedelina says Benjy found out that she had talked to a social worker. She tried to tell Benjy that she hadn’t said anything. It might've been the nurse or social worker – Somebody didn’t believe Fedelina and knew she was covering up for her employer. Because not long after that, the FBI came knocking. And Fedelina’s home turned into a pressure cooker.
FEDELINA V.O.: The FBI showing up caused problems with Benjy’s family – they got mad at me. They asked me what I told the FBI, why they were there all the time. And I told them – I don’t know! I have no idea!
FEDELINA V.O.: Benjy shouted at me. She said, ‘F**k you.’ I said it right back: ‘F**k you too.’
Benjy told Fedelina the FBI was going to take advantage of her.
FEDELINA V.O.: Benjy told me the FBI was going to enslave me. And then when I told the FBI what she’d said, they said – no. Benjy just doesn’t want you to leave, because then there will be no one to look after her.
Fedelina was feeling pressure from all sides. It was all up to her. She was the one that had to decide what to do. She was still thinking of Benjy’s welfare – this was someone she had been taking care of for so long. She couldn’t just leave.
Benjy had a chauffeur. And he’d gotten wind of what was happening with the FBI and Fedelina.
FEDELINA V.O.: The final straw was when the driver took Benjy’s side.
FEDELINA V.O.: And he confronted me, like – ‘Make up your mind! Are you going with the FBI, or staying with Benjy?’ That made me mad. The chauffeur didn’t get it, he was paid.
How could he be so flippant towards Fedelina, when he’s getting paid and she’s not, she thought. The only person who ever slipped her any money was Benjy’s nephew.
And he was visiting one day when Benjy and Fedelina got into a screaming match.
FEDELINA V.O.: And Benjy’s nephew said to her – ‘what did Fedelina ever do wrong? If you don’t want her around anymore, give her some money so she can go home!’ And that made Benjy mad. She yelled right back – ’I’m your aunt. How could you take her side?’ And she said ‘She’s not part of our family.’
But he did – he took Fedelina’s side.
FEDELINA V.O.: He said, ‘Fedelina and I are not related but you’re the one who’s wrong here. You’ve got no right to always be angry with her when she hasn’t done anything wrong.’
Ruben – Benjy’s nephew – told his aunt to let Fedelina leave if that’s what Fedelina wanted. He stuck up for her.
FEDELINA: She did not do anything to you. Why you always mad at her?
And it meant the world to Fedelina to hear him do that.
Fedelina Lugasan is honored at a Pilipino Workers Center event with her long-lost relatives, members of the PWC, and representatives from the Philippines Consulate, March 10, 2020.
FEDELINA: That's why I am happy. (laughs) I'm happy because I'm the one who take care since he born. 22 years old she love me.
Fedelina had taken care of the nephew Ruben since he was born. And now he was coming to her side and explaining the truth of the situation to his Aunt Benjy
PAULINA: Is that what changed your mind? When did you decide you… ?
FEDELINA V.O.: Yes. I said, "Okay. I will go."
And so she went!
FEDELINA V.O.: I hadn’t packed anything. But I decided to go. So the FBI told me, ‘Let’s go – go get your clothes!’ And I asked them, ‘where am I going to live now?’ And they told me not to worry and that they had a place for me. The Filipina translator, and the PWC worker who had replaced Myrla at this point scooped up her clothes.
FEDELINA: All my clothes! (laughs, gestures a scoop with her arms)
And Fedelina left.
FEDELINA: I did not say bye! No! I am happy! To go out in the house because somebody saved me my life. Now am free! I'm happy.
In January of 2019, Benedicta Cox, Benjy, was taken to court for her treatment of Fedelina.
Fedelina was awarded $101,119 dollars and 98 cents. The Pilipino Workers Center calculates that assuming she worked 24/7 from the day she arrived in the US, just based on the minimum wage, no overtime ... she’d be due back-wages of over $1.6 million dollars. And yet…
MYRLA: The judge asked if when they ruled in favor of her, if she would like to put this woman in jail, and she said, no, I forgive her.
Fedelina refused to send Benjy to jail.
MYRLA: You got her off the hook!? When she's this woman who, almost like, enslaved you. She said, yeah! I did! Because I also cared for her. It wasn't at all surprising... But the surprising part is how she was able to articulate it. You know, and show her wisdom. Because before she left, her reasoning was always for her boss. But now, she could reason for herself.
Benjy was placed on house arrest, and in May 2019, she passed away. Fedelina says she cried when she heard of her death. She put flowers on her tomb last time she visited the cemetery.
Fedelina lives in a nursing home now, where she is taken care of for a reduced fee.
FEDELINA V.O.: They’re all nice to me here. They call me Nanay!
She says they all call her Nanay, a term of respect for an older woman in the Philippines.
FEDELINA: In the morning when I wake up, I say. Good morning. Good morning Nanay! (laughs) Everybody's calling me, also the guy!
FEDELINA: They all show me respect.
MYRLA: Now we joke about her that she is already a doña.
PAULINA: What's a doña?
MYRLA: Doña is something like a rich woman, matriarch of a rich family. Just joking. So that's a joke. Doña ‘kana! (laughs)
After a lifetime of taking care of other people, someone’s finally taking care of Fedelina. She gets manicures now. There’s a salon inside the nursing home where she gets her hair done.
FEDELINA V.O.: I’m happy, look at my hands, my nails are nice … my palms are soft…
PAULINA: Very nice.
FEDELINA V.O.: Thank you!
She doesn’t get out much, which is disappointing to her, and she wishes the food were a little better. But she’s friends with the cook, so she’d never say anything – wouldn’t want her friend to know why she doesn’t always finish her meals. She celebrated her first birthday party ever, last year, in the nursing home dining hall. Since she lost her paperwork so long ago, she isn’t sure of her exact age. But the authorities calculated, about 83. She was born on the Fourth of July.
BOB: Before we go, I want to go back to Professor Rhacel Parreñas of USC… who you heard from in the beginning of the program. I asked her if there’s anything else she would want people to know after they hear this story.
RHACEL PARREÑAS: What I don't want is for individuals to stereotype, you know, Filipino households, as oppressive units that you know and that this practice is common in the Philippines. I would definitely say that that is not true, that, you know, such mistreatment of workers is not common.