Imelda Argel’s book, “A Pebble that Floats,” is the story of a woman’s victory over her own gender’s self-imposed limitations and a bold escape from her imprisonment in family and cultural traditions.
Imelda is a fellow Theresian (College ’66), five years my junior. I met her at a webinar sponsored by our school for bolstering resiliency in this time of pandemic. Through hits and misses, she manages to free herself from a loveless marriage, leaves her country of her birth, and finds her new place in the sun—and a lifetime partner, too—in Australia, where a sister had herself immigrated with her own family. Imelda is the pebble in the title that defies the down pull natural to a pebble’s circumstances and floats to success, freedom and fulfillment.
It is not uncommon in our culture for even an intelligent, successful, and pedigreed woman to feel as lost as any young wife. After only eight years of marriage and despite all effort to save it, Imelda, by then mother to a son, realized that her marriage had come to its end. Nothing unhinged a woman as a broken marriage did in the Philippine society of her time, yet nothing prepared her for that. Imelda’s case was a rather pat one involving a husband’s long-running illicit relationship, which he wanted to continue with the complicity of a common friend whose loyalty to her she never doubted.
One would think, having grown up with Belgian nuns, who could spot malice even where there was none, Imelda would have sensed she was being played by the two men, much earlier.
The nuns, in fact, could not stop her, despite their threats of possible excommunication, and following in her parents’ footsteps, she enrolled in law, in that “Godless” alma mater of her mother, the University of the Philippines; her father was from Georgetown University. Both parents came from a long line of distinguished professionals, mostly lawyers, from Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
It might be easier to blame the overprotective nuns for her lack of experience—they didn’t even allow a proper prom. In any case, the culture itself made it rather common for a career woman of Imelda’s time to be absolutely inexperienced, indeed absolutely pure, coming into a marriage, at age 32. And so, the most glaring telltale signs of the classic louse had escaped her notice until it was too late.
As possibly divinely intended, out of an ill-fated union, a good son is born. Imelda’s Enrico became for her the motivation to succeed and someone, too, to rely on to make life easier for herself. When she was starting her own law office in Sydney, she relates, “Enrico became my office manager, paralegal, bookkeeper, marketing manager and receptionist, rolled into one.”
As she got older it was he who would look after her, checking on her daily, encouraging her to have a new life of her own. He now has his own family. For possibly another divine irony, Enrico became an engineer, like his estranged father.
Before leaving she had filed for state and Church annulment, and when the time was right, fought for son’s legitimacy from his father.
While other problems, like her status and the stigma of a broken home, were solved by migration to Australia, other trials presented themselves. In 1988 most young Filipino women there were presumed mail-order brides. Imelda’s 15 years of court experience, which might have spared her from the prejudice, made her, on the other hand, overqualified for any job.
When I myself became separated, in the early ’80s, I had the same fears and instincts as Imelda. I flew to Australia, too, where an uncle had settled, in Sydney. I brought with me Vergel’s credentials, hoping to find a job for him and settle there with him. Alas, with two newspaper editorships under his belt and a lifelong, extensive experience as a journalist, Vergel, like Imelda, was overqualified, was therefore unemployable in his own profession. We were thus forced to face our challenges on home ground.
Knocked down barriers
Imelda, herself had to find work beneath her stature to support herself and her son, but made time to pursue her masters at the University of Sydney. Step by step she managed to knock down the barriers that stood in the way of a law practice. It is partly to her credit that Australia now recognizes a Philippine Regulatory Commission board certificate as an equivalent of an Australian degree.
From Australia, she made representations on the strength of her 15 years of legal practice in the Philippines and her masters from Australia for a license to practice in New York. Her case went to the New York Supreme Court, and she won. She got her license without having to take any American bar exams. She flew to New York to take her oath.
She could have practiced in New York, but, with Enrico to think of, she set up her practice in Sydney. One good thing led to another, and she helped in promoting investments between the Philippines and Australia. Finding a job in Australia for a relative who was a nurse started her helping other Filipino nurses.
Empowered by her proud lineage, her excellent education, and tenacity and resilience, along with the emotional support from family and her other professional friends, Imelda has indeed become an invaluable asset for both her country of birth and home country of choice.
Now 74, Imelda has been semiretired since 2012. She lives with her life partner, Manny, in a dream house they built together, a four-level with a panoramic view, in Collaroy, Sydney. They walk to the beach. She met Manny, an Australian divorcee with his own children, at a dancing school in 2009. They went very naturally from dancing partners to traveling partners to business partners to lifetime partners.
Marriage is nowhere in their plans, and if you ask her why not, she has a confident, liberated, lawyerly, Australian, and un-Theresian answer.