This week, the Philippines celebrate 115 years of independence from Spanish rule with jubilant gunshots and ecumenical prayer. Eight thousand miles away in Los Angeles -- itself a former extension of the Spanish Empire -- Grace Grande awaits judgement.
Her soft voice and bonny laugh closes the gap between Vancouver and L.A. Just tell me what's off the record, I tell her. I won't write anything you're not comfortable with. "Oh, my life is an open book now, ever since the story broke out," Grace says. "Ask me anything."
Anything, except details of her extradition case. "I don't really know what's going on," Grace explains. "I should know more in a few months."
Grace Grande does not traffic drugs, guns or women. She did not hoodwink working class families with subprime mortgage loans, commit war crimes against poor nations, or pose for pics with alleged crack-cocaine dealers. Grace Grande is a Querida.
She is "the other woman."
Grace Grande is also a single mother of two teenage sons, seeking asylum in the U.S. from one of the Philippines' most corrupt and wealthiest politicians. In doing so, she is facing bogus jewellery theft charges amounting to US $40,00. In October 2012, the ex-runway model and battered concubine posted bail for $70,000, almost more than half of what she is accused of stealing. In the summer of 2012, the U.S.-based transnational feminist organization, Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalization and Marginalization (AF3IRM) and the Mariposa Center for Change launched the Stand with Grace Campaign.
This "modern-day concubine" is testament that a century of Yankee education, IMF-WB dictated economic programs, and two women presidents have done nothing to liberate Filipino women from the economic and sexual trenches. With the recent controversy of Glee star Charice Pempengco's sexuality, and the embarrassing soapy operatic display of government -- where B-movie actors, boxers, and dictator groupies are elected into politics -- there's little to celebrate when antiquated customs have bled deep into the digital age of touch-screen magic and narcissism.
The Querida System, is a residual defect of Spanish colonialism, so fossilized and upheld, it has penetrated every pore of Philippine society, gnarling social values and intimate relationships. From the Spanish vernacular, Querida means "Beloved," and though it evokes star-crossed lovers and saccharine poetry, the practice is far from it. Romanticized through mainstream films and how-to websites, the Querida System has retained its old-school character of keeping women kept, nameless, and stashed away like overseas bank accounts. So common is the practice that generations of mothers and daughters enter the system simply to access bare-bone necessities. Grace's mother is a former Querida.
"I have eight siblings, same mother, different fathers," Grace explains. "I never, in my wildest dreams, [thought] I was going to end up [...] like my mother."
The Philippines is a patriarchal time capsule that induces a culture of banality where re-enactments of the crucifixion -- complete with bloody hands nailed to a cross -- are a national festival and dancing inmates get their own movie. It is vintage Roman-Catholic where divorce is illegal and birth control is outlawed. Where Virgin Mary icons reign supreme next to soft-core porn billboards along tourist-heavy, sex-for-hire strolls.
Despite seven decades of foreign trade and loans to convert the Philippines into a tiger economy, it remains agricultural-based, land-locked in medieval farming techniques, privatized into haciendas ruled by despotic landlord-politicians and sugar barons. Governed by the illogic of Capitalism and the irrationality of feudal customs, women are throttled by the contradictions of a society in chaos: on one hand, they are highly-educated overseas migrant breadwinners who remitted US $20 billion to the Philippine economy in 2011, on the other, Filipino women are considered second rate or non-human.
This gender contradiction serves a definite purpose. The malleable labour and earning power of women is necessary for the Philippine economy to just break even, and the regulation of their sexuality -- through anti-divorce laws -- and the hijacking of their reproductive rights births more labourers for the temporary foreign workers market. The Philippines is a Querida sweatshop spitting out concubines faster than Third World garment factories produce golf shirts for North American big box stores.
Grace Grande is also symbolic of the neo-colonial relationship between the Philippines and the United States where women have always been the sacrificial lambs splitting the nation allies time and time again. It has been almost ten years since the Subic rape case where "Nicole," a young Filipino woman was gang-raped by four U.S. Marines and thrown out of a moving van "like a pig." Only one of the four marines was found guilty of rape, which was later dismissed in the Philippine courts not long after the trial. In Grace's situation, she is a woman running from one macho country to another.
In the North American context, mistressing has become a verb, a launching pad for reality TV careers, an entrepreneurial venture, and a sexually liberating medium for women. Ashley Dupre and Tiger Woods's many mistresses, most notoriously Rachel Uchitel and Jamie Grubbs have claimed their humiliating fame by being "kept women." Moreover, riding the mistress commodity and spinning on the BBC success of the dramatic series, Mistresses, ABC recently launched the American version of the same name starring 80s teen star Alyssa Milano and produced by Gossip Girl creator KJ Steinberg.
Grace Grande's story shatters the illusion that being the "other woman" is synonymous to sexual freedom, since at the heart of mistressing and the Querida System is an exploitative transaction that has little to do with empowerment and intimacy. They are, quite simply, dehumanizing maneuvers where women are nothing but disposable, pretty accessories to powerful men.
Towards the end of the interview, I ask Grace what she wants: "A lot of people want riches, sa akin, hindi (for me, no)," she says. "What I want is just enough, and a little more for the boys."
"A quite life," Grace concludes. "A simple life."