This story is part of “At Risk in the Trump Era,” a four-month investigation by USC Annenberg advanced radio students, exploring how vulnerable communities across Southern California react to the first months of Donald Trump’s presidency. The series profiles individuals burdened by new worries — looking for work, signing up for school, or even deciding whether to publicly express their sexual orientation or religious affiliation.

Paola Mardo’s story focuses on “Tess” and “Marco,” who are among the more than 300,000 undocumented Filipinos in the U.S. — forced from their home country because of poverty, corruption and a deadly drug war. They’ve asked to change their names for this story because they don’t want to put their community or their relationship at risk.

Tess and Marco’s love story started when they were teenagers. It was Marco who first caught the love bug.

“I love her since we were in high school,” says Marco.

“He was my buddy-buddy and he was my best friend. And I didn’t even know that he got interest in me,” Tess smiles.

Tess didn’t know about Marco’s feelings partly because he was planning to be a priest. His Catholic family and everyone at school knew it. So even though they cared for each other, Tess and Marco stayed “buddy-buddy” in high school, and then parted ways after graduation.

But when priesthood didn’t work out, Marco always kept Tess in mind.

“Four times I dream of her,” Marco remembers. “1989, 1992, ’98, and 2002.”

Then in 2012, 37 years after graduation, they finally reconnected. Their romance rekindled when Marco began searching for Tess on Facebook.

One day, Marco got the idea to search for his high school class. “Ping! Voila,” he grins.

“‘Hi. Remember me?’ That’s what he said.” Tess recalls. He sent her a few more messages after that: “‘I’m adding you as a friend. You’re not accepting yet.'”

It took Tess a few days to confirm this was the Marco she knew from high school decades ago. So much time had passed and she wanted to be sure.

When she got Marco’s message, Tess was in Los Angeles working as a caregiver and domestic worker for the sick and elderly. Marco was in Saudi Arabia, managing a printing press for an Arabic newspaper. Though they were 8,000 miles apart, they began messaging each other or having online video chats almost every day.

Tess and Marco play sungka, a traditional Filipino mancala game.
Tess and Marco play sungka, a traditional Filipino mancala game. (Paola Mardo)

Marco sifts through their old Facebook messages and reads them aloud. “I told her, ‘Take care always and bear in mind always that I love you very much.'”

“We felt like we’re in high school again,” says Tess.  “But it was so corny. So corny because we’re already old!”

Marco translates another message and laughs. “I told her, ‘You look old!’ She told me, ‘What do you expect? Sa hirap ng pinagdaanan ko?’ (After the difficulties I’ve been through?)”

Tess’s life was troubled after high school. Before coming to America, she was married to an abusive husband in Manila. Tess says he was possessive, hit her and was emotionally abusive.

After her husband left his job and gambled away their savings, Tess was forced to look for overseas caregiver jobs to support their kids and make ends meet.

Many of these jobs were in the U.S., where she was forced to work long hours. Tess recalls a harrowing experience in which one employer refused to feed her, and she was forced to eat dog food.

Tess paints at home to take her mind off recent immigration news.
Tess paints at home to take her mind off recent immigration news. (Paola Mardo)

Tess rarely saw the money she was paid for these jobs. It wasn’t until much later that she realized she’d been a victim of labor trafficking. When she finally escaped her last abusive employer, she followed one of her daughters, who had moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t an easy transition.

“I worked job after job,” Tess recalls. “I was homeless that time, trying to establish myself alone.”

Tess got a divorce and wanted to restart her life. Marco was in a similar rut. He grew tired of living so far from friends and family in Saudi Arabia. That’s when he sent Tess that fateful friend request. And after months of chatting, he saved up some money to visit her in L.A.

Tess remembers the moment she saw Marco at the airport, the first time she laid eyes on him after 37 years. “I said, ‘This is for real? Wow, he’s still cute!’ ” She beats her chest and voices the sound of a fast-beating heart: “Boog-boog! Boog-boog!”

“We just meet at the middle and then I kiss her,” Marco recalls, smacking his lips together. “Muah! Only in cheek. I whisper her, ‘I’m going to kneel and then propose with you to marry me.’ And then she told me, ‘No, no! Not here!’ ”

Tess and Marco visit a community center where the flags of the United States and the Philippines are displayed next to images of Filipino veterans of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).
Tess and Marco visit a community center where the flags of the United States and the Philippines are displayed next to images of Filipino veterans of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE). (Paola Mardo)

Tess had overstayed her visa. She was worried she would get picked up by U.S. customs agents if they attracted too much attention at the airport. So Marco withheld his proposal, but he moved in with her.

“When his visa is about to expire, I said to him, ‘So what’s your plan? You can go back.’ ” Tess said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not going to leave you anymore with these things happening to you. We’re going to live here.’ ”

Tess is now a caregiver for employers that she says treat her well and give her fair pay. Marco is a maintenance worker and usually the house chef.

He and Tess share a laugh. But the risk is real.

After hearing about an immigration raid in Los Angeles targeting undocumented Filipinos, Tess and Marco attend a “Know Your Rights” workshop. In a crowded room, undocumented Filipino immigrants watch as volunteers act out what to do if ICE comes knocking: Don’t sign anything, don’t give agents permission to search you or your home.

After the workshop, Tess leads the group in a Tagalog song about the struggles of the immigrant experience: “Ang buhay ng migrante isang mahabang laban,” or “The life of an immigrant is one long fight.”

A poster hangs by the entrance to a community center that Tess and Marco visit.
A poster hangs by the entrance to a community center that Tess and Marco visit. (Paola Mardo)

Tess looks around the room. Though most people are in good spirits, there are many scared and anxious faces.

There’s an old saying in Tagalog: “Bahala na.” It means “come what may” or “whatever happens, happens.” It’s how Tess and Marco look at their situation. Fate brought them together, and fate will keep them together in America, they say, no matter what.

“We have established a good life here in America. We built our dream after 37 years,” Tess says. “But if I’ll be deported, I’ll fight for my rights. Until the last breath. I’ll fight for it.”

“We will fight,” Marco says. “Fight, fight, fight.”

An Immigrant Love Story, Four Decades in the Making 28 April,2017Sarah Craig

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