“To inspire the uninspired is his noble desire, Lead them to their paths and light their fire, It is his words so mighty and bold, That will somehow bring joy and peace to the lonely world.”
Conventional wisdom stereotypes foreign laborers in Taiwan as uneducated and working in so-called “3D” industries — dirty, dangerous and difficult. But in truth, many of them are gifted and articulate.
The poem above titled The Poet Behind My Shadow, written by Melvin Laureano, a young Filipino worker who toils in a Taipei County factory, is just one example of the talent and literary potency of some of Taiwan’s Filipino migrants.
During a recent interview, they spoke not of their wages, treatment or subpar living conditions, but rather of their passion for poetry and their pride in being Filipinos.
Taiwan began allowing local companies to hire foreign laborers in 1989. Council of Labor Affairs statistics show there were 86,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan as of February, with 70.3 percent working in manufacturing jobs and the remainder employed as caregivers.
To express their nostalgia, joys and sorrows in the exhausting and monotonous environments in which they work, some Filipinos have taken to writing poetry.
In doing so, they say, they have rediscovered their pride and dignity, fostered an environment celebrating the Philippines’ cultural heritage and found a release for their souls.
The Samahang Makata International-Taiwan Chapter (SMI), an informal association of Filipino poets and writers, was created in 1999 by Jun Sanchez, a Filipino working in Taiwan.
After Mass on every third Sunday of the month, members gather in a park near St Christopher’s Church on Zhongshan N Road in Taipei, where the largely Catholic Filipino community gathers after a week’s work.
During their regular meeting, they discuss the organization’s annual program and activities and recite poems they have composed in English or Tagalog, the most widely spoken language in the Philippines.
Their poems are regularly published in journals such as The Migrants and The Filipino Post, said Maria Cristina Artugue, who became SMI president on July 20.
One of the most important activities is called Balagtasan, a traditional literary form in the Philippines that is performed on special occasions like Independence Day.
“In a Balagtasan, which means a poetic debate, two poets engage each other for about 20 minutes on a designated topic, in poetic form,” said Laureano, SMI’s project manager.
Sometimes such debates are also broadcast on Radio Station Pinoy, which broadcasts programs in Tagalog on Sundays.
“Many of our members do not have days off, they can only participate by listening to the radio,” Laureano said. “We want to not only entertain every Filipino, but to give them some viewpoints, ideas.”
Many of the foreign laborers from the Philippines are highly educated, but chose — not always willingly — to work in Taiwan to earn a better living.
“As the economy in the Philippines is in crisis, I came to Taiwan to be a domestic helper, but it’s a pity, because I have talent,” said Artugue, who holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
After joining the SMI last year, she finally had an outlet to demonstrate and develop her literary knowledge and talent and to maintain her dignity.
She came to work in Taiwan as a caregiver four years ago, leaving behind her eight-year-old son. The suffering caused by separation, her love for her son and her struggles in Taiwan became the primary inspirations for her creations.
Laureano found the group to be the ideal way to spend idle time.
“Before, I used to spend my weekends in the dormitory, which is a total waste. But when I joined the SMI and saw my poems published, I realized that my hidden talents were revealed and developed,” said Laureano, a previous winner of the best poem award in the organization’s annual competition.
“After I joined the SMI, my heavy workload and bad dormitory facilities became more bearable,” said another member of the organization, whose dormitory is not equipped with air-conditioning.
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