How I built family in the U.S. after immigrating from the Philippines
Luisita McBurney found herself alone after arriving in the U.S. So she created the Filipino American Society so other immigrants wouldn’t feel stuck.
Editor’s note: Luisita McBurney first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project’s “Family.” The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
I’m the only child of a prominent business owner in the Philippines. I never had the opportunity to meet my birth mother. She had me at a very young age — she was only 15 years old and my father’s housekeeper when she got pregnant with me. To cover up the family scandal, they paid my mom to leave after giving birth to me.
This left me to my dad, Luis, and my stepmom, Brigida. She had three of her own children who were all adults when I was born.
Despite how I was brought into this world, she accepted me and treated me like her own child and to me, she was nanay, which means mother in my language. She raised and cared for me even after my dad passed away when I was 13.
Nanay was the first councilwoman elected in our small town and I still remember when she brought me to her meetings. She was well-known for her politics and was the owner of the only grocery store. At approximately 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, she commanded respect and wasn’t to be underestimated. I remember during one council meeting she stood up yelling and pointing her finger at one of the guys. I don’t recall exactly what started it but I know she was the maddest I had ever seen, which gave me a new sense of respect for her.
As fearless and strict as she was, she had a big heart and gave me everything I ever wanted. She is my hero and she truly looked after me.
As for my dad, he was what you would expect of a father in the ’70s and ’80s. He was strict but loving. When I was 9 years old I got in trouble with my dad for not coming home right after school. Instead I went bicycle racing with the neighbor boys because I was growing up like a tomboy. But when I came home, nanay was crying. She said dad was out looking for me because he thought I was lost. She also told me that I better go layer up my underwear and shorts because she knew I would get punished. Sure enough, when dad came home he didn’t care that I had won the race and instead used a belt to whoop my butt.
Thankfully that was the one time that ever happened. I don’t have very many memories with my dad but I cherish each one because I knew how much he cared about me. I miss him every day.
High school was pretty uneventful for me. After finishing at a private catholic school, I wanted to be a flight attendant. I failed immediately because you need to be at least 5’2” without heels. With my flight attendant dreams being cut off at the knees, I had to find something else so I enrolled to study midwifery. In my second year of college, I figured out what most people should have already known by this point in their life: it’s impossible to be a midwife if you pass out at the sight of blood.
This is where my story takes a sudden turn: I decided to change my entire life by running off to the big city — Manila. I started as a sales clerk at the biggest shoe mart there. Then I was hired as an office worker at a bus company. It was here, at the age of 18, history repeated itself as I found myself pregnant much like my birth mother found herself in her teens. My fear of failure turned into embarrassment. I now felt like a disgrace to my family.
The father of my son and his family are very religious. They wanted us to get married. I declined but they kept insisting. Their persistence led me to make the painful decision to leave my son with nanay — the same caregiver who willfully stepped in to care for me as an unplanned child was now willfully caring for my son 19 years later. I knew neither of us, who were kids ourselves, could care for him as well as she could. And I needed to leave the Philippines to find a new path in life.
In 1997 I went to Hong Kong to take on a personal assistant role. Nanay didn’t think I could make it since the majority of the tasks I was charged with were the same tasks she performed for me regularly — cooking, cleaning, picking up after myself, the basics. Much to her surprise, I made it! I was doing well for myself in Hong Kong.
After 5 years of purposely staying single, I began receiving letters in the mail from strange men from across the world. It turns out my best friend in Hong Kong had signed me up for an online dating profile behind my back. This was back early in 2002, which is long before the days of Tinder so there wasn’t any swiping, just old-fashioned letters.
I ignored all of them because I wasn’t there to meet someone — I was there to make something of myself before going back to be with my child. But one day a letter caught my eye. It was handwritten and felt personal, so I replied.
Just five months from the date I received that first letter, we set a date and he came to Hong Kong to marry me. We were desperately in love and wanted to be together. And because nanay taught me how to be fearless, I knew I could upend my life with a man I barely knew and move to the United States.
I was 27 years old when we arrived in his hometown of Des Moines. This almost didn’t happen because I nearly missed my flight since I didn’t know how to pronounce Des Moines.
Being in the U.S. was a huge shock. I’m in a country where no one looks like me, talks like me, or eats the same type of food. I couldn’t drive, my son was still in the Philippines, and did you know it doesn’t snow in my home country?
I immediately regretted my decision to come here. People think everyone who immigrates here did so because they wanted the American dream, but my dream was to own a small boutique in the Philippines.
I came because I was in love, but that quickly fell apart and my marriage began to crumble.
This is never where I imagined my life would be. I was officially at rock bottom. My family was halfway across the world and it took six years of navigating immigration laws for my son to join me in Des Moines.
I felt so alone. But through years of darkness, I remembered one bright light in my life: nanay, who took me under her wing and made me her family, even though we don’t share any DNA. And even though we may not be related by blood, I did inherit her height and much of her drive to succeed.
So I started to make my own family.
I volunteered at various nonprofit organizations and was given opportunities to serve on various boards. This ultimately led to me founding the Filipino American Society in 2013, a nonprofit organization providing resources and support for Filipino Americans in Iowa. My initial goal was to have a place for newcomers to feel welcomed so they wouldn’t feel alone when they arrive — just like when I did.
Sadly, nanay passed away in 2013, the same year FAS was created, and my husband and I got divorced a few years later. It was a tough decision but I had to do what was right for me.
Everything I had worked to build to this point was in jeopardy. I considered moving out of state to start over with friends I considered sisters. They even offered me a place to stay.
But I kept coming back to how I felt when I first came to the U.S. and all of the work spent making sure others had a place to go to feel welcomed. It was then I realized I couldn’t leave my FAS family behind because this is where I belong.
Through all that pain and suffering — and later, the triumph of starting my nonprofit 10 years ago — I’ve discovered family isn’t about the people around you when you’re born; it’s about the people you can be your most complete self around.
My family still wasn’t complete, though. My divorce had left a void inside of me. I felt if I was going to do this marriage thing again, then it had to be with the perfect partner, which is why I created a checklist. Yes, a checklist of things that would make a perfect man for me. He couldn’t be younger than me, have school-aged children, or be into politics. Shortly after, I met Larry McBurney — someone who failed to meet any of these criteria. Two years ago, we officially said “I do” and we blended our family of three children.
Now, we live in Urbandale with our two four-legged children, we can spend time with all three of our human children, and work side-by-side serving our community together.
I’m fortunate to have found my family in a place I never could have imagined I would be, doing a thing I never thought I could do, with a person that didn’t check any of the boxes doing it. And I couldn’t have done it without nanay making that decision to make me her family.
Although nanay is not here anymore, she will always have that special place in my heart that no one can ever replace. I strive to be that amazing person like her every single day and am so grateful for the lessons she taught me that have shaped my life.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Luisita McBurney is the founder of the Filipino American Society, serves on the board for On With Life and is the treasurer of the Iowa Unity Coalition. She has worked for the state’s IPERS department for more than 17 years. She has a son and two stepchildren and her husband serves on the Urbandale City Council. She was inducted into the Chicago Filipino Asian American Hall of Fame for community service leadership and public service in 2019. In her free time, she enjoys shopping, spending time with friends, and serving the community.
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