Carla Pacis, illustrated by Yasmin S. Ong,
O.C.W.: A Young Man’s Search for his Mother
Cacho Publishing House, Manila, 2001.
Carla Pacis’ YA novel O.C.W. raises important questions about a serious social issue in the Philippines. Tonyo’s mother leaves her young children with their father and grandfather to become an Overseas Contract Worker (O.C.W.) in Hong Kong. As a maid there, she can earn far more than she received as a teacher at home. But after his wife’s departure, Tonyo’s father’s drinking and gambling worsen. The boy, unsure how to cope, leaves his younger siblings and begins a long, uncertain odyssey to find his mother.
Tonyo, though well-mannered and intelligent, has little money or knowledge of the world beyond his remote village. His journey takes him nearly two years. He spends the first year in a Manila child gang, but never tries drugs. Then, through a priest, he gets a job in a bakery and earns some money, but later he loses his mother’s address. The course Pacis plots for Tonyo is not always convincing; why doesn’t he write his grandfather for his mother’s address before he stows away on a ferry for Hong Kong, for example? When he finally reaches his mother, she flies home with him, laden with gifts, to find her husband still drinking and gambling. She’s promised her employers she’ll return, but it’s hard to imagine how this family will survive their difficulties.
Young readers may wonder what has become of the younger children during Tonyo’s long absence. When they read that Tonyo forgives his father, who gets a tongue-lashing from his wife, they may wish for more evidence that this man might eventually straighten out. Despite a few narrative flaws, however, Pacis presents a compelling picture of the problems of O.C.W.s. For English readers outside the Philippines, it's important to keep in mind that the book was published for a Filipino audience. An overseas edition of the book would likely require some editing.
Many of Yasmin Ong’s black and white illustrations are based on Pacis’ own photographs. Pacis provides an author’s note about O.C.W.s and probing study questions about the countries where they work and the related issues her novel brings up, including drug addiction, street children, child labor, and various economic difficulties. Her vivid account of the effect of O.C.W.s on Filipino life draws attention to a problem that deserves to be better known and understood.