Carmen is the anglicized version of her Christian name, Carmelita, but her familiar nickname is Mamine, ever since she was a little girl in Santa Rita, Samar. I don’t call her Mamine – I have enough names to remember – mostly just Car-men’, though she likes it when I call her Carmelita Balibalita Espino. Her father was Secundino Espino, her mother was Gregoria Balibalita; this is the traditional way of naming the children in Samar: the mother’s name is part of the given name of the children, not a hyphenated surname, and the mother’s name does not continue to the grandchildren. Carmen has five children and each of them are Espino Lucas.
Carmen is a dark-haired beauty with features that are typical of Filipinas, yet at the same time, somehow different. Filipino women seem to come in two or three facial types: Australasian, Polynesian, and South East Asian; all have a round, oriental look, but not with the narrow slanting eyes of the Chinese, more the discus eyes such as the Thais. Some have high, rounded cheek bones and tiny, distinct noses, others have flatter faces with lower set cheekbones and tiny noses with almost no bridge. Some have delicate but well-shaped lower jaws and some have prominent protruding upper teeth. It seems half the Filipino population, men and women both, are wearing upper braces, or should be.
Carmen has a mixed set of facial features – flat cheek bones and a tiny nose, wide-set brown eyes. Her upper teeth are straight and even (though she is missing her bicuspids, a story I’ve yet to hear). Her lower jaw is slack, her chin pointy. When she allows her face to relax and elongate she looks a perfect model; when she pulls her jaw forward and up, her face is almost completely transformed. It almost seems as if I can be looking at two different women at times.
All Filipinos have a bronzy brown skin tone, though the further south you go in the Pilipin islands, where the Australasian types predominate, the darker the skin. There has been a large Chinese influence in The Philippines over the centuries; though Chinese Pilipinosoften segregate themselves, many of them no doubt have interbred, but Pinoys are conscious that Chinese Pilipinos are not ‘true Filipinos’. Some Filipinos are quite light, almost white. After 350 years of occupation by the Spanish, and another hundred years of American hegemony, there is bound to be some Caucasian genes in the mix, even if some of those genes were transmitted by celibate friars and priests. Despite centuries of mistreatment from the Spanish, and then the Americans, Filipinos are attracted to whiteness. Throughout Asia it seems, the whiter the skin the more status she has, or mobility. Many Filipina apply a variety of skin treatments to enhance their whiteness.
Carmen is fair-skinned. Espino is a Spanish name, and the family claims a Spanish heritage, though the family history is very sketchy back beyond four generations and perhaps impossible to verify. But Carmen’s skin tones seem to suggest some European genes in there somewhere. She, and all of her family, was very aware of her light skin colour, and proud of it. She was a teenage beauty queen in her village and everyone expected she would go far.
Her hair of course is dark, almost black, as is every Filipina I’ve ever seen, except for the purple and green ones. Some filipinos have a reddish, chestnut hue. Carmen’s hair was likely like that, a subtle chestnut, but enhanced these days; typical of her age, hair colouring is to hide the telltale signs of aging. Not to suggest men are unaware of their own aging signs but we are less a fastidious in disguising them.
She is about 5’4” tall and has a lovely voluptuous figure, despite having had five kids, by caesarian section. And amazing shapely slim legs, a dancer’s legs. The girl from Samar might have made it in show-biz, but life got in the way.
Beyond appearance what did I know: She was born in 1956, the fourth daughter of six children, of an army colonel and the granddaughter of a general and she enjoyed some sort of status because of this. Her only [younger] brother and younger sister had died in their forties, making Carmen the youngest of the four remaining daughters; her father died when she was six, but her mother was very strong, as was her grandmother, the general’s wife. Carmen comes from a small town in a rural province in the island of Samar, but her family of eleven uncles is filled with politicians, mayors and chiefs of the towns and barangays of Samar, and even flung all over the Philippines. One of her uncles was the chief of police of East Samar, and this resulted in his Mamine having few dates in conservative Philippines, even though she was the local beauty queen. She was married at 20 to a Manila industrialist, 15 years her senior, arranged by her mother and her grandmother. It was not a happy marriage, even though it afforded Carmen a very privileged lifestyle: A large house in North Manila, seven servants, including a chef, a maid and yayas for the kids, a driver and a bodyguard. But her husband was a womanizer. Carmen left him and moved her still young family to be near her oldest sister in Cavite, south of Manila. She bought a house and financed herself by selling her gold and jewelry. Two years later her husband died; three of his girlfriends showed up at Carmen’s door, their kids in tow, expecting Carmen to take care of them. But the husband’s financial empire was a house of cards. For the next twenty years Carmen fought to preserve and raise her family, falling further and further into a life of desperation, a life so common in desperately poor Philippines.
The more I learned, the more I marveled, and felt the cultural divide, and the courage. And yet, there was so much more to discover about Carmen Espino.
And the more I learned, the more confused I became. Could I spend the rest of my days with this woman, so culturally and linguistically, educationally and experientially different from me? Time would tell, but I already suspected there was a lot more to this woman’s story and at the least I should discover it, maybe write the book.
The next six months in Canada would surely be a long journey of discovery, so much more than two weeks in the Discovery Suites Hotel in Manila.
You might be wondering about my alternate spelling of Filipino/Filipina. In Tagalog there is little distinction between f and p, even though they have trouble pronouncing p they spell it p. Oh, and Pinoy/Pinay is another word for native filipinos.