Filipina domestic worker Ester turns literary sensation, inspires others
Poetry is one such literature only the gifted could craft and a Filipina domestic worker, provided with an enabling environment to chart her own hobbies and interests has done so. Five years in the UAE, Ester Vargas-Castillo who earned her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the leading city government-run Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (City University of Manila), rose up the ranks and became an accounts executive at the appliance parts supplier Sharp Philippines Corporation within a decade, and had entrepreneurial skills honed in the restaurant sector back home, launched recently her “Bireterang Makata.”
Just like any Filipino from the Central Visayan province of Cebu who could naturally belt out a song, the wife of Christopher-Lee Castillo and mother of Lester, 21; Abegail, 18; Chloe, 12; and Gideon, 10 is a soprano labelled as a “biretera,” a female who could sing ultra high notes. She has a huge following at the Smule app. She successfully passed the admissions to the Filipino Social Club (FilSoc) Chorale. It was Leni Antonio, a Culinary Arts classmate at the FilBrit School in Dubai, the institution where she also took a certificate course in Caregiving who introduced her to choir over-all director Matilyn Bagunu and musical director Marc Gamil, ahead of the historic Expo2020 Dubai.
Like the countless Filipino literary geniuses that have thrived even in these modern times by way of the digital media, Castillo has become a “makata” (poet). Founders and members of the Bigkis ng Panitik (Bundle of Literature) Page, Self Published X Movement, Kapanulat/Kapatid sa Panulat (Sibling in Writing), Septon Poetry, Poetic Hearts, Sari-Saring Tulang Tagalog (Assortment of Tagalog Poems), Diwang Malaya (Spirit of Freedom), the Passion of Poetry, and the Baybayin-Philippine National Writing System, continually mentor and encourage her.
Thus, the recent publication of “Bireterang Makata” in Dubai through the Atlas Print, given the authorized document to do so by the Filipino enterprise McKinley Publishing House. Permission was granted by the UAE National Media Council. It is a cornucopia of 48 English and 90 Filipino poems either in sonnet (14 lines with intricate rhyme scheme), villanelle (lyrical/pastoral poetry of 19 lines with two rhymes and repeated lines), sestina (six stanzas of six lines with unrhymed words that end in different sequences), septon (of nine lines and 35 words), and haiku (unrhymed three lines). It is Castillo’s nom de plume.
The 30-word “Addition” is a Silver Award from the “Ode/Rhyme Mnemonics Competition,” conceptualized by fellow Filipino poets/authors Don Luman-ag Document & Data Control custodian Dexter Amoroso who stated in the book: “Mnemonics help the brain encode and recall information by associating it with an easy-to-remember image, sentence, or word. We hope that through this activity, fellow members can creatively come up with mnemonic poems parents can teach to their kids. Let us leave something helpful and handy as our collective literary legacy to this generation and the next generations to come. Let’s make learning fun!”
“Kapatawaran” (“Forgiveness”) and “Sukdulan” (“Extreme”) are among Castillo’s creations in the Baybayin (Indian and Indonesian-influenced ancient alphasyllabary).
Observed to be full of joie-de-vivre, the 50-year-old’s orientation to journalism and writing began in her high school years at the Torres High School in the slums of Tondo, Manila through her friend Ruth Saavedra: “We became staff members (of The Torres Torch campus paper). I did not know how to write. I was the typist and the proof reader. I eventually edited what I typed before submitting them to our (adviser).”
It was one of her sisters who grew up in their home province that emboldened her to indulge in poetry: “Imagine, she wrote poems in Tagalog when all the while she was in Cebu (where the modes of communication were Cebuano and English.) I grew up in Manila but could not write in Tagalog!”
Flabbergasted Castillo began quibbling her thoughts and emotions into poetry. This went on through the multifarious phases of her life.
Castillo’s current employers, business people Viacheslev Elissev’s and Inaye Brito’s ethics of treating all their employees with respect and dignity has proved to help her improve on what her fellow Filipino poets have ingrained in her persona. The household manager/chef/nanny of two young daughters enjoy a higher salary than the one offered her as an accountant. She has her own bedroom and an eight-hour job that allow her to indulge in poetry and engage in choral practices: “They never treated us (with fellow countryman Robelyn Tamayo Valdez) differently. I was mistaken as the boss at a restaurant, once. The server gave me the bill. In Ajman, one of their Russian friends thought I was madame’s mother.”
Rights Corridor managing director/University of Glasgow incoming doctoral candidate/Gulf migration and diplomacy advocate Froilan Malit Jr. said: “Ester’s book challenges the broader stereotype of Filipina domestic workers in Dubai and the Middle East being ‘unskilled.’ Her intellectual and artistic expression in English and Tagalog poetry not only illuminates her transnational work and life in the Philippines and the UAE but also highlights the broader potential of many Filipino domestic workers, if provided with the necessary enabling environment and employer support to thrive in the host country. The Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Dubai has also extensively created such an enabling environment allowing them to acquire new skills, certification, and training and achieve internal mobility, wage increases, and labour market happiness. Crucial investments, training and infrastructural space for a varied variety of Filipino workers’ skills in both the Philippines and the Middle East are crucial factors in sustaining our long-term competitiveness and talents.”
Educator/single mother/breast cancer survivor Dr. Sharon Mendoza-Dreisbach said: “Ester’s words are chosen to beautifully always look at the ‘two sides of the coin.’ She has sent out the message that in life, it is always about being determined, resilient, and doing one’s passion by heart. She deserves to be emulated.”
Long-time UAE resident Olive Pineda said there is an instant connection with Castillo’s poems.
According to the official April 2021 to April 2022 documents on the deployment of Filipino domestic workers to the UAE from the Philippine Overseas Labour Office in Dubai, total number of contracts verified were 13,802 and total number of arrivals as reported by Tadbeer centres was at 10,584.