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  • Filipinx Care, Social Proximity, and Social Distance
  • Alden Sajor Marte-Wood (bio)

Filipino American caregivers, care work, COVID-19, transnational reproductive labor, Philippines

March 25, 2020. It's four in the morning. Since becoming a father, I've intentionally begun to wake up earlier and earlier. I'm trying to be as quiet as possible so as not to disturb my spouse, Martine, and our toddler, both asleep in the next room. With the new demands of parenthood, I've had to carve out moments like this. Quiet, early morning moments to get academic work done. A sliver of time before the routines of childcare.

But this morning is different. Houston has just issued a stay-at-home order because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonessential workers are to stay at home. I'm a nonessential worker, an assistant professor. I teach in the humanities, a constellation of disciplines already insecure about their continued existence.

I'm seated on the worn couch in our one-bedroom apartment's living room, a split space. Half living area. Sofa, television, low table. Half play area. Our toddler's toys scattered about the carpet in chaotic disarray. Like so many other people, I have a difficult time imagining how I'm going to work from home for the foreseeable future. In-person classes have been abruptly canceled, and I don't know where I'm going to host my first online seminar meeting in this cramped space. I'm scheduled to teach Jamaica Kincaid's novella, Lucy (1990), a profound, semiautobiographical narrative that reveals the complicated gendered, racialized, and transnational dynamics of migrant caregivers in the United States. It's a story about the limits of care. I think it makes the most sense to teach from our kitchen [End Page 218] floor. Two stacked boxes of diapers, my makeshift desk. The blank wall next to the fridge, my best option. The need to block out all traces of home.

I begin lesson planning, but within a few minutes I can't help but refresh the real-time contagion stats website, The number of total confirmed cases has jumped exponentially since last night. It's unnerving. I switch tabs and refresh Facebook. Basked in the weak light of my laptop screen, I seek out digital reassurances. I scroll through my feed, anxiously checking status updates from friends and family. News from the Philippines and its massive global diaspora populates the screen. An old Filipina American friend from high school, now a registered nurse, posts a picture of herself in scrubs with the superimposed text of a trending hashtag: "#ICannotStayAtHome: I'm a Nurse! We fight when others can't anymore!" I am humbled by the work she's doing, but looking at the photo gives me pause. While she labors on the front lines, I selfishly reminiscence about how close we were two decades ago, and how even after finding each other on Facebook only recently, we still haven't reached out to catch up with one another. I feel guilty for thinking about the limits to digital proximity, the emotional distance that often lingers.

Reconfiguring my plans to teach about global care chains, these dispatches from friends and loved ones in the midst of a global pandemic reveal how my ability to shelter in place and practice social distancing here in the United States depends not only on the unwaged, gendered care work within my own immediate family but also on other modes of social proximity. Social proximity. Diminishing distances and abridging spaces between the boundaries of selves. The intimate closeness—almost always physical, and often emotional—that typifies many forms of reproductive labor. Reproductive labor, in the most capacious sense of the term, describes the work that cares for human beings. From the more technical standpoint of capitalist relations, reproductive labor refers to both the waged and unwaged work that necessarily goes into the creation, maintenance, and restoration of labor power, or a human being's capacity to work for a wage and produce economic value.

A parent teaches a young toddler how to use a spoon. A nurse administers life-saving medicine in a makeshift triage unit...


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pp. 218-228
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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