To tell her story, one reader has to delve into the journey of her mother, a mail-order bride, whose sacrificial love inspired her daughter to give hope to hundreds of impoverished women artisans today.
ISSUE: Summer 2010
DEPT: My Story
STORY: Gianna Driver
Tears streaming down her face, my mother grabbed my raging hands and dropped to her knees.
“Anak, I do everything for you! I fight for you, I work for you, I live for you. Everything I do is for you.”
I was 9, and having a temper tantrum because she refused to get me the Barbie I wanted. We didn’t have the money. The other girls had one, of course, and I was tired of being different. Not that Barbie would magically give me the blonde hair and blue eyes needed to blend into my small, eastern Texas cattle town … but still.
Still, there I was, with my mother kneeling in front of me, literally sobbing. It was a humbling moment forever etched in my mind. In one moment I felt her pain, her heartache, her loneliness, her anxiety, her fierce love, and her even fiercer hope for the future. And it was all for me. Because of me.
My story begins with my mother.
Orphaned at 13 on the streets of Manila, Philippines, after witnessing my grandfather’s wrenching death, my mother faced the choices many orphans fear — become a sidewalk vendor selling trinkets, a thief or a prostitute. My mother chose sidewalk vending and did whatever she could to survive. She dreamed of having a child and giving that child every opportunity. Looking around her at the rampant poverty and increasing destitution, she knew she had to leave Manila to make this happen.
So my mother became a mail-order bride. An agency placed an ad in the back of a magazine, and a Texan cattle-rancher answered, offering a one-way ticket to the land of opportunity. Scared to death but holding fiercely to her love for her future child, she boarded that plane and rode into uncertainty.
Trusting a stranger to keep you safe — to feed you and house you and protect you — is a frightening undertaking, both physical and emotional. And when those hands violate that trust, you must choose to stay or go. So, almost two years into her marriage, my mom moved us — I was just a year old — into a woman’s shelter, where we would live until I was about 7.
My mother quickly became the night manager at the shelter, and her job exposed me to women at their most vulnerable. Our life there was decent, because my mother knew and still knows how to take care of people. She finds the threads that connect women and lifts them up. These women entered the shelter bleeding, sobbing, torn and hurt. I witnessed a lifetime’s worth of abuse and I always thought, “It’s not right. We can do better.”
These women, and women like my mom in Manila, didn’t know how to break the cycle of poverty and abuse because they lacked education. Knowing that education was the ticket out, I worked hard in school and my mother sacrificed much — always buying second-hand clothes, saving every penny from her three jobs, moving us out of the shelter and into a slummy apartment — so I could take advantage of every opportunity.
After graduating from the Wharton School, I moved to San Francisco to work in corporate insurance for a couple of years and, while I understood the value of it, I felt that I wasn’t living my values. This began a reflective journey. I thought about women, my family, the women from the shelter, and about empowering women abroad so they have alternatives to prostitution and becoming mail-order brides, like my mother. I wanted to break the cycle and help provide not only other options but a sense of value. I wanted to help women live their dreams.
Inspired by the women of my past, and the ones in my future, I founded Gianna, an online boutique that works with and provides fair trade opportunities to severely disadvantaged women artisans in the developing world. We partner with NGOs to teach them life skills and educate them so they can live independently. Most importantly to me, these women learn to value their work and themselves in the process. This education and independence leads them from poverty into a life of empowerment.
The daily obstacles these women face are largely the limits imposed upon them by poverty. For example, Lang, a single mother, wanted to send her son to school, but couldn’t afford school fees from her meager earnings as a rice field worker. Her dream was to make enough money to send her child to school.
I met Lang during a trip to Laos, and through a translator, she told me her story. Lang now works as a master weaver in one of the villages, and every scarf she weaves holds an incredible amount of her gratitude. Each scarf helps to pay her son’s school fees. Now, she says, her son won’t have to work in a rice field; he can become a professional and follow his dream. Lang is just like my mother in that sense, and like all mothers everywhere.
We are all connected. In fact, we are much more similar than we are different. Our artisans and our customers both have global relevancy in the world — each affects the other, and each affects a world greater than the two combined. My goal is to show women how we are connected, how we impact each other, and how we can help each other. Women here in the U.S. have the purchasing power to help women abroad achieve their dreams, and our customers broaden their lenses, see the interconnectedness of our world, and understand how their purchasing decision has global impact. For the women artisans, the very creation of a product is emblematic of a transformation.
My mother transformed herself, too. She came to this country with the goal of starting a family and, with determination and sheer will, she gave her child every advantage possible. She has created a life of love — her daughter is happy in her work, and so she is happy. My mom and I sometimes reflect on how we women live in a cycle; whether we live in poverty or wealth, we live in the cycle that connects us as women. From the orphan to the mail-order bride, from the Wharton grad to the professional woman — we are all amazing women.
As told to Bridget Flynn.