MANILA, Philippines – People love a good “moving up” story. There was Jennifer Lopez’s Maid in Manhattan, where she climbed the rungs to hotel manager, and the long-running teleserye Be Careful With My Heart, where Maya dela Rosa left being a yaya to jet set and marry the man of the house.
Such tales are especially poignant in a country where many have had to give up their dreams and homes in order to provide for their families. So when Hong Kong domestic helper Xyza Bacani’s photos made it to the New York Times Lens Blog, heads turned—both for her story and her images. Now, she has bagged a scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts, and she is practically on fire, both with her admirers and with the press.
What many have downplayed, though is that while her good fortune has brought her the tearful kind of happiness, Xyza doesn’t see the “moving up” story that we do. She maintains that she had no intentions of leaving her nanny job, which she began about a decade ago, when her mother’s long-time Chinese-Australian boss needed another hand in the house. At work, she was respected and allowed to pursue her dreams. The pay was good, and her family back home needed it. She also got to see mom every day and make up for lost time. Having had to grow up without her, she considered this the best part of her job.
But fate has torn Xyza away with a six-week photography course halfway across the world, and though her roots remain deep into her lot of the earth and she sees nothing wrong with staying and continuing to look after six children, she and her boss have come to an agreement that she won’t be coming back to her old job. “The universe has some plans for me that I cannot control. My life is now an open adventure and I’m very excited,” she says.
Supreme was fortunate enough to catch up with Xyza this week during her three-day visit to the Philippines. She walked into our shoot straight from the airport, with a photo exhibit opening at UP Vargas Museum to rush to afterwards. Running from Feb. 5 to 28, Unpredictable, Unscripted will be featuring a collection of street photographs by Filipino photographers around the world. She’s also here to meet with her mentor, Rick Rocamora, prepare her documents for New York, hang out with photographer friends, and get a new tattoo. “I just need a break from the daily grind in Hong Kong,” she says.
While she appreciates how the overwhelming media attention has generated interest and awareness of domestic worker abuse, Xyza has been declining a lot of interviews lately. She only has one day off a week and would rather spend it shooting.
Her black and white street photos are a visual diary of her feelings as she walks the streets of Hong Kong alone, completely detached from her subjects. She has also mentioned in previous interviews that shooting is the time she gets to feel like just another girl with a camera and not a domestic helper, which in Hong Kong puts one in a very specific, second class box.
“We don’t have a permanent queuing area in the airport. We don’t have rights to live outside or get residency after seven years, even though everyone else can. We are subject to stereotyping. Some of us are
abused physically and treated below dogs,” she describes.
Xyza has no lofty aspirations of changing the world, but she intends for her images to plant seeds of awareness of the injustices that migrant workers like herself face. She believes that awareness is what inspires change in people. And one of the main things that she wishes to bring to light is the irony of being proclaimed a modern hero in our country, but being treated like a modern slave.
More than using her art to stir emotions in viewers on behalf of her subjects, however, Xyza as a person strikes you as the kind of girl who would be your best bet if you ever needed someone to stand up for you. She’s assertive, speaks with a strong and sure voice, and discusses her terms straight off the bat without fear. She’s a far cry from the docile, beaten down image that one tends to have of those whose jobs are very likely to force them into submission. I would even go far enough to say that I sense a lot more strength in her than I have in more privileged people. Her camera is but an extension of her heart, her passions, and of herself.
“Some of us are so caught up with being a photographer that they forget how to live,” she says. “I love life. I’m always excited about it. And for me, how can you shoot life when you don’t even know how to live?”
After her six-week program at NYU, Xyza plans to look for internships and other scholarships in further pursuit of her dream of becoming a photojournalist. After which she plans to return to Hong Kong to continue documenting the lives of migrant workers.
For now, what she looks forward to the most at 27 is being a student again and the new adventures that will come her way. She continues to tell other photographers that dreams are valid. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living, as long as you work hard, stay passionate, and keep doing what you love. Hard work always pays off.”
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