Andorra sounds like a mythical country in one of those Disney princess movies, but this small autonomous principality wedged in the Pyrenees between France and Spain is real and home to some 800 Filipinos who comprise one percent of its population.
Not surprisingly, a familiar landmark stands at the capital’s Parc Central: a bronze bust of Dr. Jose Rizal that commemorates our national hero’s 150th birth anniversary. Philippine Honorary Consul General to Andorra Hans Peter Holbach had commissioned Andorran sculptor Angel Calvante to do the 50 x 30 x 216 centimeters bust that he later donated to the city.
The recognition given to Rizal also reflects Andorra’s acknowledgment of the contributions of Filipinos to this tiny principality. The first Filipino settlers here came in 1978 and were mostly domestic helpers, as there was a law limiting foreign workers to domestic employment. In the mid-’90s, a new law was passed opening blue-collar jobs to migrants and foreign workers.
Aida Pera, who has been living and working in Andorra for 25 years, recalls how Filipinos have graduated from domestic work to become sales clarks, chambermaids, janitors, cooks and waiters. “Ngayon konti na lang kaming mga DH at yaya (Us nannies and domestics are now a minority),” she says.
The openness and vaunted hospitality of our fellow nationals greeted us when we recently visited this Pyrenean nation after we decided to extend our stay in Europe. Morocco was also considered but a recent bombing made us changed our plans. Instead, my Rome-based friend Carmen Ferreria and I took a flight from Ciampino, Italy and landed in Barcelona’s El Prat airport. From there, we waited for the coach that leaves every two hours for the four-hour trip to Andorra.
I later learned that if you’re coming from France, there are buses and coaches from downtown Toulouse and the Toulouse-Blagnac airport that leave twice daily and arrive in Andorra two and a half hours later.
The more moneyed can travel in style via helicopter and be in Andorra in 35 minutes.
This small mountain state is home to almost 80,000 people, a third of whom are Andorrans while the rest are either Spanish, French or Portuguese. Its independence dates from the late 8th century where, online sources say, Charlemagne is said to have granted the Andorrans self-government for their help in defeating the Moors.
“There are actually more tourists here than residents,” reveals Honorable Josep Vila Circuns, Minister of Commons. There are after all ski runs, mountain hikes, hot springs, opulent hotels, duty-free shopping and lots of public art in this peaceful suburb-like country.
Among OFWs, the main attraction is the availability of jobs and the friendliness of the locals. Says Pera: “Maayos ang trabaho dito (The working conditions are good). They prefer Filipinos because we’re more hardworking than other foreign workers.” The OFWs are willing to work beyond regular hours if a job needs to be done, she adds, unlike other workers who adhere strictly to their per hour contract.
Andorrans value loyalty and are wont to treat domestics like family, says Pera, adding that she has been working for one family since she came here. The young girl she used to care for now has a daughter of her own.
Pera is a member of Filand—The Filipino Community of Andorra—a non-profit association founded to preserve, share, celebrate and promote the diversity of Filipino heritage and culture through arts and cuisine in Andorra. Filipinos are apparently held in high esteem here. “The Filipinos can be counted on to join and support cultural events and festivities. Even in calamities, Filipinos always lend a hand,” says Minister Vila Circuns.
The solidarity among Filipinos is also a plus, says Filand President Bong Canlas. “We help and support each other. When newcomers arrive and are jobless, we all help out and recommend them to our employers,” he adds in Filipino.
Indeed, the news of us—fellow nationals or kababayans—visiting Andorra spread like wildfire and resulted in us being greeted warmly everywhere we went. Ernie Naval, who works as a cook at Dos Casadores, offered the services of his daughter Kathleen Marie and her friends to act as our tour guide. He also arranged for us to meet his sister-in-law, Aida Pera, who briefed us on the OFW situation in Andorra.
Ernie’s wife, Elsie, had come to work in Andorra in 1988 and he followed in 1992. Both of them work in the same restaurant/bar, a cooking stint markedly different from his previous job as phone operator in Saudi Arabia.
The restaurant where the couple works is one of five owned by local businessman Nicolas Cruz and his partners. All five establishments have Filipinos staffing the kitchen and waiting tables.
Another early migrant to Andorra is Lino who started working in Barcelona in 1979.
From there, he would shuttle to Andorra to work as a cook in an osteria. He would enter Andorra in the morning, and exit it in the afternoon to evade the law that limited foreign workers to domestic work. His working papers were also being processed still. But sheer determination, guts and perseverance saw him through and by 1988, his permanent residency came through. Lino, the proud father of two daughters, both professionals and now married, is one of the earliest naturalized Andorran among the Filipinos living here.
Aside from the capacity for hard work and the desire to send enough money to families back home, Filipinos in Andorra are also bound by faith. This Catholic principality has many cathedrals and churches that fill up with Filipinos on Sundays.
In Placa del Poble, it would be very difficult to miss a kababayan strolling around. The friendly smile or the knowing nod are enough to indicate that they acknowledge your presence, unlike in other countries where Filipinos sometimes avoid each other for one reason or another.
The resilience and adaptability of Filipino are also in full view here, as they overcome the language barrier and withstand Andorra’s hot summers and long winters.
They may not yet be among the working elite here, but Filipinos in this small principality wear Pinoy pride on their sleeve: in the shops, restaurants, hotels and gardens that Filipinos lovingly tend. In distant Andorra, we felt that we’ve never left home.