Carla Earnest's journey started in a sugar cane town
As a child, Carla Earnest never imagined she would leave the Philippines.
She grew up in an idyllic rural agricultural setting on the island of Negros. She and her parents and her three siblings shared a two-bedroom, tin-roofed wooden house with a large garden and enough space to raise pigs, chickens, ducks and goats for the local markets.
Negros was coast to coast sugar cane fields, all feeding Asia’s largest sugar cane mill and refinery operation, the Victorias Milling Company, or “Vicmico,” as the locals called it.
Vicmico dominated every aspect of life in Victorias City. Residents were born in Vicmico’s hospital, educated in Vicmico’s school, put their money into the Vicmico bank and turned on Vicmico electricity.
“We were not rich, but we were not poor,” Earnest says. Her father worked for Vicmico as a mechanic and a driver while her mother worked from home as a seamstress, adding to the family income.
Earnest remembers not having much, but having everything that she needed, “When we wanted to buy a TV, we sold a pig… But we didn’t need extras. Now when I see kids back home, there are so many needs, (like having a) computer and Internet for school.”
Throughout her childhood, her family’s economic position and her own future seemed secure. In an essay for the Sheldon Museum’s recent exhibit, “People of the Chilkat Valley,” Earnest wrote, “When I was growing up, my dreams were forward looking, of a future life in Vicmico – working in the community, helping my family and starting my own.”
However, in the early 1990s, just as Earnest was finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of LaSalle in Bacolod, the main city of Negros Island, Vicmico nearly collapsed, laying off workers and chopping production. Suddenly, there was nothing left to go back to in Victorias. Earnest felt lucky to find work in Bacolod and then later in Manila.
Here in Haines, Earnest works as a teacher’s aide in the borough school. In the kindergarten classroom at the end of the day, she gets down on her knees one afternoon amid a chaos of snow pants and lunch boxes, and lets the children stroke her long, soft black hair. Sandy June-Degen, who has worked with Carla for two years, has found that she is most impressed with Carla’s ability to be gentle and yet bring discipline and a strong sense of right and wrong into the classroom.
Her husband, Haines Borough Manager Mark Earnest, agrees: “One of the things Carla brings to the community is her strong work ethic and dedication to her job at the school. She cares very much for the students. Anyone who has seen her making sure that the students are properly dressed for outside recess... and helping with classroom assignments and activities, knows how much Carla cares about the kids. She is incredibly patient and gentle, but she can be appropriately firm in a way the students can understand and appreciate.”
Carla says that she puts her whole heart into her work at the school and she explains that this is an important part of the Filipino culture.
“In my culture, we place so much value on work. For Filipinos, the job is not just earning, it is part of you. I meet Filipinos who work three jobs. We don’t complain. I have never heard of Filipinos living with assistance or taking food stamps. For us there is a job if you want a job, there is no such thing as no job. Our value is to work to help our families back home.”
Earnest first met Carla in 2000 in Manila. They were introduced by a colleague who was a relative of one of Mark’s Filipino friends in Dutch Harbor. Mark was immediately taken by her. “What drew me to her? Everything about her: her personality, values, intelligence, wisdom, not to mention her amazing sense of humor and cooking skills.”
Mark wooed her from Anchorage, by cell phone and email. At first Carla was reluctant to join him in Alaska. She had a good job working as an assistant to the head of a multi-national firm. “I didn’t want to get married because I thought I might not like Alaska, but then I came to Anchorage and met a lot of Filipinos there and began working at the school (as a bilingual tutor). So then I thought, ‘It’s not bad at all.’”
In Earnest’s lush, tropical homeland, the average, year-round temperature hovers at 80 degrees. Earnest remembers arriving in Anchorage from Manila in April 2001. “When the doors opened, it felt like when you open the freezer to get out ice cream.”
Driving around Anchorage, shortly after her arrival, Carla asked Mark why all the dead trees hadn’t been cut for firewood. Mark patiently explained that the trees were hibernating and that they would be green again in the spring.
When the first dandelions came up in her Anchorage backyard, they were the only flowers that Carla had seen growing in Alaska. Mark had to dissuade her from planting them in a fancy pot and bringing them inside the house. “It was so barren. In my country we have flowers blooming all year round, so a dandelion seemed like the most beautiful flower I had ever seen.”
Carla was also initially hesitant to marry a divorced man raising three boys on his own. Divorce is not common in the conservative Catholic culture that dominates the Philippines. However, her optimism overcame her misgivings. “I always loved ‘The Sound of Music’ when I was a kid,” she said. “And I thought, ‘At least it’s not 10 kids.’” Carla’s stepsons are grown now, but she and Mark have a 10-year-old son together, Matthew.
After 10 years in Alaska, Carla says she finds it impossible to withstand the summer heat of the Philippines. “For me, now, 60 degrees is perfect. Alaska in the summertime is perfect. Now, it kills me if I go home in the summertime, it is too hot.”
Earnest says that she will never stop missing the Philippines. “Home is where my relatives and family are. Even though I live here, 50 percent of my heart is still there.”
She is thankful for Skype and the Internet which allow her to keep in close contact with her friends and family, in the Philippines and all over the world.
When she wrote a description of her childhood for the recent exhibit at the Sheldon Museum, Earnest said that the past came rushing back to her. “I could smell the garden, I could feel the grass under my feet and then I realized that I was crying. They were good tears, though, not sad tears.”
Carla Earnest is not alone in making this transition; according to 2010 U.S. Census data, nearly 20,000 respondents in Alaska, or 2.7 percent of the population, identified themselves as Filipino.
Filipinos have also been coming to Alaska for generations to work in the fishing industry. Carla is part of a more recent wave of Filipino immigrants to Alaska that includes skilled women.
“More than half of my classmates (from an all-girls school) went to nursing school,”she said. Now they are scattered all over the United States. Things are changing so fast. It used to be that for a woman, if you were married, you could not get a job. Your job had to be at home taking care of your kids.”
The Philippine government in 2011 estimated that nearly 10 percent of its citizens were working abroad. These émigrés send significant amounts of money back to the Philippines, over $20 billion in 2011, with $9 billion of that coming out of the U.S.
Remittances make up approximately 9 percent of the Philippine gross domestic product and have been an important source of growth for the country, along with a booming call-center industry. This has cushioned the Philippines from the global economic downturn and given the country a growth rate second only to China within its region.
Earnest is no exception. “We are more family oriented... I am working here, but I am helping back home. It is just the way it is. My husband knows that if you marry a Filipina, that is part of it: we will send money home.”
Mark and Carla Earnest are particularly focused on helping her sister pay for a good education for her nieces and nephews. “In my culture, education is the most important thing.”
In the Philippines, where student loans don’t exist, family members are expected to sacrifice to support students in their families. “Traditionally the parents pay for the oldest child’s education and then that person graduates and pays for the school of the next (sibling)... I am the oldest and my parents sacrificed a lot to send me to school.”