The Gulf States, we learn, skip over more culturally similar neighbors to recruit workers from the distant Philippines, a tactic their governments believe allows them to avoid inviting social ferment from next door. “Relying on an Arab work force could create Pan-Arab obligations the oil state hoped to avoid,” DeParle writes. But while Rosalie’s peripatetic life in the Middle East offers economic freedom and, at times, adventure, it also remains a cocoon of Filipino expat experience — stores, housing, even films that cater to the temporary workers. For better or worse, she will never become a citizen of Riyadh or Dubai. Always in the back of her mind is the notion of one day reaching the United States.
Rosalie finally realizes that goal in Houston, a city at the center of one of the most diverse urban areas of the country. “Foreign doctors brought renown to the storied medical centers; foreign engineers helped drill the wells,” DeParle observes. “Nearly as dependent on immigrants as it was on oil, Houston embraced its majority-minority status with business-class boosterism.”
But here, too, as across the country, a backlash is brewing: Some of the American nurses feel they have been passed over in favor of the new immigrants; local media personalities fear that the latest wave of immigrants “will assimilate downward into an ethnic underclass, characterized by poverty, alienation and violence.”
“To miss either element — the talk-radio nativists or the quinceañera dress shops in Houston’s Gandhi District — is to miss half the contradictory story,” DeParle writes. The challenges the Portaganas face are hardly limited to the migrant experience but are amplified by it. By the time she arrives in Houston, Rosalie is married, to a Filipino, and has three children. She struggles to balance her status as the family’s main breadwinner with her desire to protect her jobless husband’s pride, a theme increasingly familiar to millions of couples who will never uproot across state borders, let alone international ones.
One of the few places where DeParle’s reporting falters is in his explanation of his role in this story. Early on he acknowledges that his relationship with the Portaganas goes far beyond that of journalist and source: “This was a journalistic endeavor but not an entirely arm’s-length one; occasionally my presence shaped events I was trying to record.”
Still, by the end of the book, this disclosure feels inadequate. When it appears that Rosalie will fail to obtain her visa for the United States within the official time frame, he intervenes, serving as chauffeur, translator and advocate at the United States Embassy in Manila. Later, when a cousin of Rosalie’s winds up in a Miami hospital, the cousin gives DeParle power to make medical decisions for him.