Acknowledging quarantine life as a work activity, Philippines-based writer Alice Sarmiento remembers rest as a form of resistance to the market logic that exploits us all.
The words Pahinga ay trabaho, or “To rest is work,” make a simple claim: that to rest is to care, and to care is to work. They appear at the beginning of a 42-minute video that was first installed by artist Tanya Villanueva in 2018 at the Project 20 art space in the Philippines. Written across the back of her child Olive’s neck, the words appropriate the hyper-masculine style of inner-city gangs and tattoo parlors, at odds with the lush greenery and billowing fabrics of Villanueva’s staged resting place. A more direct translation of pahinga would be “to breathe,” as in to catch one’s breath or to allow oneself to breathe.
So much of the work I do as a writer falls outside these same conditions and their dependence on visibility, especially when I consider how I spend my mornings cleaning, preparing food, and making sure everything and everyone in my home is okay and accounted for, instead of writing this essay. Or rather, being unable to focus on work in a messy home, I held the essay between my ears as I performed the labor that was just as necessary to get the essay done; this on top of the thinking, pacing, sleeping, and resting that also contribute to its production but are rarely ever accounted for. I am a freelance writer, I work independently. That is what I tell people. But while these are not really seen as viable forms of employment in the Philippines, they still supersede the work that takes up most of my time, which is the work I commit to managing my home: work that is unpaid, unwaged, and done for love.
This immeasurability contributes to the nature of care as voided work, making the home—and by extension the family—something of a voided product, despite its indispensability to the heterosexual reproduction of society.
What Zafra proposed (in good humor for its time) was a coordinated sit-down strike, in which the millions of Filipinas employed as household help abroad simply refuse to work. “They shall sit in their rooms watching TV while the phones ring off the hooks, the dirty washes and laundry pile up, the dirt ring spreads in the tub, and the babies bawl their lungs out,” she described. “We would literally hold the world hostage,” Zafra fantasized. However, what Zafra also exposed early on was the very problem of treating the problems of feminized global labor export as a mere subject, reducing its human cost to a faceless “they” at whose expense the country (or “we”) would extensively profit. In the process, Zafra also failed to acknowledge the myriad ways that the country already has profited—to the tune of over 20 Billion US dollars in 2019 alone.
This state-backed valorization of migrant workers, a majority of whom criss-cross the globe as care workers (nurses, nannies, teachers, home managers, and professional caregivers to name a few), confirms its role in the gendering and racialization of social reproduction, casting Filipina women into this role with the consolation of celebrating their heroism. As Zafra affirms through satire, Filipinas do have a role to play in the lives of global powers; however, they are relegated to managing the willfully hidden and purposely mundane parts of these lives. And with it, they are made invisible.
While the dependence on overseas contracts is familiar territory for academics and critics, less attention is given to the scale at which Filipinos outsource care labor to those based outside of Metro Manila. The crisis wrought by their exodus grew big enough for the Philippine government to coin another term to add to its pandemic lexicon: that of “Locally Stranded Individuals” or LSIs, defined as “foreign nationals or Filipino citizens in a specific locality within the Philippines who have expressed intention to return to their place of residence/home origin.” Made visible amid the crisis was the dependence of Metro dwellers on this privatized and woefully unregulated labor force, as well as the inadequate measures took to ensure they not only live, but move with dignity in the cities that depend so heavily on their time, energy, and bodies. Despite the imposition of guidelines for physical distancing, LSIs huddled in transport hubs and under makeshift awnings, hoping for a chance to leave the city and return home.
When Tanya and Olive Villanueva staged a 42-minute performance by simply resting their bodies in the peace of their garden, it was part of their insistence on these connections between working and care, between art and life. They not only claim the right to refrain from visible activity but actively resist it by staging their refusal as a guide for others. As both dialogue and interruption, Villanueva inserts another set of images into the frame, images which are made to move by massaging the skin on which they are applied. Whether deliberate or accidental, the only movement portrayed is that of care.
“The headline reads: a memorial amid trees for botanist killed in army fire.
It said: He died with his boots on, his life cut short in the middle of the forest he loves.”
While there is some importance to dignifying the labor of care in the eyes of a society that has historically undermined its value, Villanueva shows how there is more to be gained in reclaiming space, so that we (or our children) might build it on our own terms. She closes her text by asking, “Who gets to see a sacred space created?”
The question, perhaps, is relevant to anyone stranded in a world built not only by somebody else but for somebody else. Where women are tasked with the endless maintenance and care of other’s creations, Tanya and Olive Villanueva reverse the steps that were taken in the Biblical making of the world. The first step towards reclaiming space, they seem to propose, is to rest.
Julia Carpenter, “The unpaid work that always falls to women,” in CNN, February 21, 2018. Available here.
Nancy Folbre, Care Talk: Feminism and Political Economy. Available here.
Jessica Zafra, “World Domination,” in TODAY, 24 November 1994. Available here.
Ralf Rivas, “OFW remittances hit record high of $33.5 billion in 2019” in Rappler, February 17, 2020. Available here.
Seori Choi, Crossing the Border, Carrying the Weight of the Nation, 18th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association in Adelaide. 5-10 July 2010.
Metropolitan Manila officially the National Capital Region (NCR), is the seat of government and one of three defined metropolitan areas in the Philippines.