Precy Lucero plopped onto a bench in the Mazza Gallerie mall and surveyed the gaggle of girlfriends beside her.
Two of them were scanning the front page of the Manila Mail. A third sang aloud to a Philippine torch song playing on her Walkman.
"Yoooo are the one I love. Yoooo give me a reason to live," she crooned in Tagalog before the rest of the group collapsed into giggles.
"It's just as if we were in our own country," Lucero marveled. "Just as if we were in the Philippines."
It's an illusion that draws dozens of her compatriots from across the Washington area to this Friendship Heights mall every Sunday.
Back in the Philippines, many have college degrees, husbands and children. Here, they are the live-in "help" -- housekeepers, nannies and elder-care nurses paid to serve at the beck and call of someone else's family. From Monday through Saturday, they are the threads in an ever-expanding network of immigrant women who take care of the home front for Washington bureaucrats, diplomats, journalists and lawyers.
But Sunday -- ah, glorious Sunday! -- is the live-in domestic worker's day off, to do with as she pleases. And so Lucero and her friends flock to Mazza Gallerie in Friendship Heights and the next-door Chevy Chase Pavilion to gossip about tightfisted employers and faraway children, to buy and sell everything from phone cards to Avon cosmetics, but mainly to simply relax with fellow countrywomen among whom no translation is necessary.
"It's so nice just to speak in our own language," said Lucero, who has been a live-in nanny and housekeeper for 12 years.
Numbering more than 34,000, the Washington area's Philippine-born residents work in a wide range of professions. There are prominent doctors, such as Washington Hospital Center heart surgeon Jorge M. Garcia; Pentagon leaders such as Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba; civil rights activists such as Irene Natividad, director of the annual Global Summit of Women; and elected officials such as former Maryland legislator David Valderrama.
Others pass through the area as students, as did the president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who did graduate work in economics at Georgetown University.
Although they are largely scattered across the District and surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia, many Filipinos get together through Filipino American professional associations and charity groups, as well as at several churches.
Most of the women who come to the Friendship Heights malls on Sundays, however, are part of a subset who do domestic work and live in their employers' homes. Although they, too, often see each other at church, the mall provides a place to hang out for longer stretches of time.
Generally in their mid-forties to early fifties, the women hail from all corners of their country. Few knew each other back home. But word of the gathering spot spreads quickly among the latest arrivals from the Philippines.
Newcomers are immediately greeted with an inviting "Kumusta ka?" -- Tagalog for "How d'you do?" The warm welcome is born of a shared sense of isolation. Facing a shortage of jobs at home, a large segment of Philippine women -- even many who are well-educated -- spend nearly their entire adult lives working as domestics overseas while their husbands stay in the Philippines to raise their children.
The arrangement has made the Philippines the world's third-largest recipient of overseas money transfers -- with more than half of the money coming from Filipinos working in the United States. But there is a high price. "When I left, my oldest child was 10. Now he is 21," said Lucero, who has five children. "It's so hard to be away from them. I still cry about it."
Like many of the women at the mall, Lucero said she calls her husband and children every night. Unlike some of her friends, who lack the money or immigration documents required, she is able to visit her family once a year. During the months in between, she relies on her friends at the mall to cheer her up.
Chatting and Commerce
As clubs go, this one is strictly informal, with no roster and no set meeting time. But its members are devoted, cramming into the booths at the Mazza Gallerie McDonald's or around the faux marble tables in the Pavilion's basement food court for hours, no matter how enticing the weather is outside.
"This the only time we can get together," explained Carmelita Carrigan, an eight-year member of the mall group.
A former live-in nurse, like some in the group, Carrigan now lives in her own home. But she continues to come to the malls to catch up with the longtime friends she has made there.
The Sunday gatherings are also a chance to pick up the kind of items normally sold in immigrant enclaves: Five-dollar phone cards, for instance, which one enterprising woman buys at a bulk discount and then sells to her friends as a side business. Or bootleg copies of CDs by such Philippine pop stars as Imelda Papin, which another woman peddles complete with photocopied cover art.
Then there's the traditional Philippine food that several women bring in large paper shopping bags to sell to the group -- a particular treat for those live-ins whose employers limit their use of the kitchen. A recent Sunday's menu included bananacues -- long skewers of roasted bananas rolled in brown sugar. But the women said it could just as easily have been pancit, a type of noodle dish, or suman, a kind of rice.
"Yes, that's what I like," said a laughing Aileen Asi, a 27-year-old live-in nanny with delicate features who looks after three children in Chevy Chase. She has also bought jewelry -- including a silver necklace that hung around her slender neck -- from several women such as Carrigan, who sell on behalf of a Singapore-based company.
Other women sell Avon products. And there's even a sort of banking association among them. Known as a paluwagan, it's a type of society common in the Philippines and functions like a savings account for people who don't trust or have access to traditional banks.
Under the arrangement, members agree to pay a set amount into a common pool every week for a year. Every couple of weeks, depending on how many people are in the association, a different member receives the full amount currently in the pool.
The mall women have two paluwagan groups going this year -- one with 26 members who put in $100 a week and each get a $5,200 payout, and a second with 13 members who put in $200 a week and each get a $10,400 payout.
The group determines the order of the payouts by drawing numbers at the start of the year. Those who get their payout earliest benefit the most because they get all the money they'll eventually contribute to the pot in one lump sum up front. But even Margarita Marco, who didn't get her turn until September, said the system had helped her.
"I'm going to visit the Philippines this month, and I have all my money ready," she said.
Over her 20 years working as a nanny in the United States, Marco, a former teacher, has used her savings to put five nieces and nephews through college back home. "Three teachers, a computer engineer and a nurse," she said, ticking off their degrees with a beaming smile. If she had kept her weekly contributions to the paluwagan in a bank, she said, she might have been tempted to spend some of the money.
"But I can't touch it if it's with her," Marco said pointing to the paluwagan's treasurer, Violeta Crisostomo, who was seated next to her at a table in the food court along with three other women.
Crisostomo gave a serene smile. Like the rest of the women conducting business that Sunday, she worked discreetly, pausing only briefly from her conversation with the friends at her table to tally who owed what on a yellow pad.
A woman stopped by the table and whispered something in Tagalog to the group. The women clucked their tongues.
"She says her employer forgot to pay her this week," explained Crisostomo with a shake of her head.
A Welcome Respite
Employers -- the good, the bad and the even worse -- are a frequent topic of conversation among the Sunday group. It is generally agreed that live-ins have it worse than live-outs because employers can't resist asking them to work even after they are off the clock.
The worst setup of all, the women said, is to work as a live-in for a diplomat. Though they are required to pay domestic workers the federal minimum wage, some diplomats do not, confident in the knowledge that they are immune from prosecution in U.S. courts unless their governments grant a waiver.
But if the domestics have little legal recourse, they at least have each other.
Several years ago, when her friends at the mall learned that her employer was paying Teresita Dotson $200 a week to watch two young children and do all the cooking and cleaning, they helped her find a new job paying $700 a week.
Dotson was so fond of her new employer -- a professor with a wife and two children -- that she agreed to move with the family when they relocated to Alabama. But after three years, she took a pay cut so she could return to Washington.
There was no gathering of Philippine women in Alabama, she said, "and I felt so lonely without my friends."