Glady Lee and her brother in the Philippines in the 1970s.
(Courtesy of Glady Lee)
Many Californians have reacted to the separation of families at the border with outrage and sadness; with protests, donations and a lawsuit against the federal government. But for some, like Glady Lee, the story feels especially personal, and familiar.
Glady was a toddler when her parents left her behind in the Philippines, seeking better jobs in California. That was four decades ago, but she’s still uncovering emotions and secrets from that tender time.
Back in the 1970s, long-distance phone calls were expensive. So the Guinto family — split apart by the Pacific Ocean — used cassette tapes to stay connected.
In the Philippines, Glady remembers her grandparents holding out a tape recorder to say a message to her parents living in San Francisco.
“‘Glady come here. It's time for you to say hi to your mom and your dad. Tell them what it's like here. Do you want them to bring you anything from the States?'" Glady remembers.
When Glady was 2, her mom, Nella Guinto, got a visa to go to the U.S. as a nurse. Her husband also got a work visa. The idea was to bring their two kids as soon as they could.
After a long hospital shift, Nella couldn’t come home and kiss her kids. But she could pick up a tape recorder to send a clip of her voice to her children back in Quezon City. “Have you been good? Have you been playing?" Nella would say.
Today, mother and daughter are going through some of those cassette tapes. Nella plugs in an old boombox, and she slips in a tape labeled "1978."
On it, Glady is speaking Tagalog. She's 4.
This tape is from a few months after she and her brother finally got to the U.S. She’s telling her grandparents in the Philippines that she’s going to kindergarten soon, and the family is sharing a one-bedroom apartment.
And then there’s the tape Glady’s grandparents sent back: They're promising to kill plenty of chickens, so they can feast next time the children visit.
So many of the tapes Glady and her mom find are broken. Perhaps the sounds from that critical time apart have been erased. But not in Glady’s mind. It’s all still vivid, even at age 44.
“We weren't able to go backwards and talk about being apart from each other,” says Glady.
So far, she has talked about the painful memories only with other people — not her mom and Dad. That’s because everyone in the Philippines told her she wasn’t supposed to be sad. Her parents had made it to America.
“The U.S. was always the place that almost every Filipino wanted to go. That was the dream," Glady says. "And so the dream was happening for my family.”
But that’s not how it felt to a 2-year old.
“I was sad every day when she was gone and I just didn't know who to express that to, because everyone around me was saying that you should be happy, that you were going to join your mom soon,” Glady says, tearing up. “All the feelings that we had about being separated, it's almost like it was swept under the rug.”
Once Glady made it to California, and she was in elementary school, she saw a movie that reopened some of those wounds.
“You know that scene in ‘Dumbo’ where Dumbo’s mom is in the little jail cell, and she reaches over and grabs Dumbo with her trunk through the bars? It felt like I was Dumbo.”
The pain came back again this summer, when she heard the stories of children separated from their parents at the border.
Glady says the worst news story for her was about a father who called his son in detention.
“Don't you love me? Why did you leave me?" the boy asks his father. "Why can't we be together?”
For Glady, this was too familiar. “When you're a child, those are the only things that you really care about,” she says.
Glady was reunited with her parents when she was 4. She remembers what it was like waiting for her dad at the gate in San Francisco.
“'Where is he? That one? Is that my dad?'” Glady says. “And then when I see him finally, I'm like, ‘Oh, that's totally my dad because he's the one that's hugging me right now. And he loves me.'”
But after nearly two years apart, it wasn’t just joyful hugs and kisses. Glady still has scars. And hearing those kids crying on the news, she knows it will be the same for them.
“I definitely think that there’s a mental health component. And so it almost feels like it's affected almost every really close relationship that I've had with people,” says Glady.
Or even casual relationships, like the one with her children’s violin teacher, who’s moving away. “The idea of her leaving just kind of sets me off. People leaving is very traumatic. And it's just a violin teacher, you know.”
Glady has two boys of her own now, ages 10 and 14. When they were younger, she stayed home. She wanted to be there during their toddler years, because her mom and dad couldn’t be there for hers.
She’s grateful her parents got her to California, where she could make that choice. “They put us through college and we have jobs. So that's how it's come full circle, I guess.”
At her parents' house in Vallejo, Glady joins them on the couch to look at photo albums. Some are so old that they have to unstick the brittle plastic pages to see them.
In one photo from 1976, everyone’s dressed up. Glady is 2, wearing a pink sundress. She looks sad and confused.
Glady asks her mom, “I might just be making that up, but it looks to me like you were crying?”
Her mom ignores the question. It’s only when I press her that she opens up.
“I guess it's like a mixed feeling because when I was young, I really wanted to be a registered nurse and go to America,” says Nella. “But I didn't really completely feel that the separation will be that bad. And so I realized I had been crying and really missed them. Even leaving them to the grandparents, it's so heartbreaking.”
Then her dad reveals something huge. Something Glady never knew before.
He and his wife didn’t choose to leave their kids behind in the Philippines. They had to. They couldn’t get them a visa.
“We applied all at the same time, but the consul took them off, the two kids, because the consulate said to establish ourselves here first,” he says.
They didn’t want to leave their kids, but it was a sacrifice they had to make to get to California.
“It was so hard. I could still cry,” Nella says. She puts a hand on Glady’s back, then chokes up and hugs her.
But Glady remains stiff.
She’s still protecting her parents from her pain.
Later, Glady says she realized something new when she saw her mom finally cry about the separation. Nella felt guilty about that time.
When she felt her mom’s hand on her back, it was like she was finally acknowledging the little girl she left behind.