When she was little, she wanted to become a flight attendant. Flight attendants look glamorous and they travel the world, old people told her.
For a six-year-old whose favourite pastimes included climbing mango trees and playing the game patintero with her cousins on the dusty, bumpy streets of Murcia in central Philippines, leaving her little hometown had never crossed her mind.
However, to see the world beyond their old, dilapidated nipa hut and the vast surrounding sugarcane plantation seemed exciting and liberating to her. So when an opportunity to work in Canada presented itself 20 years later, she accepted it with so much optimism.
Now, at 31, Maria is on her way to Manila Express, a bustling remittance corner on Isabel and William. Like many Filipinos in Winnipeg, she lines up to send money to her mother in Manila.
"The mortgage, utilities and my younger brothers' tuition are due tomorrow," Maria says. "I hope they receive it on time."
In 2007, Maria came to Canada -- not as a flight attendant as she had once hoped -- but as a temporary foreign worker hired by a Canadian employer to work in a famous coffee shop.
Canada has become one of the top destinations of migrant workers. In 2006, Canada welcomed 171,844 "disposable workers." That year, more temporary foreign workers were admitted to Canada than new economic immigrants.
Just like other overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), Maria sought greener pastures -- even if it meant leaving her frail mother and six younger siblings at the hands of her alcoholic and abusive father.
"Bahala na (I will leave it up to chance)," she says. As an ate (older sister), she risks everything to help her family.
Maria says she's aware of the risks and dangers of working abroad. She's heard of incidents of unresolved mysterious deaths of OFWs, of slain mail-order brides, of abuses and exploitation of women and of human trafficking.
But that didn't stop her. "If I had stayed, who would feed my family? My remittance brings them food and hope."
Despite the threats and uncertainties, many Filipinos join the trend, this Filipino diaspora -- a phenomenon that drives one in 10 Filipinos abroad.
The Philippines doesn't have enough jobs for its swelling population. Instead, it sends more than 3,000 workers abroad every day.
The Labour Export Policy, a so-called stop-gap measure introduced by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, has become a permanent feature of the Philippine economy -- the principal dollar earner to prop up the backward, semi-feudal and semi-colonial system of rule in the country.
The money OFWs send back home to their families is the largest source of income in the country.
The Philippines, ranked fourth of remittance-receiving countries in 2010, earned some $6 billion in 2000, almost $20 billion in 2009, and $21.3 billion from its human exports in 2010.
Far from building local industries and infrastructure, most remittance money is spent for basics such as food, clothing, utilities, house rent, education and hospitalization.
For years, remittances have kept afloat the otherwise weak and foreign-exchange dependent economy. IBON Foundation, an economic think-tank, argues the Philippine economy is reaching the limits of reliance on remittances to cover for the erosion of agriculture, industry and the lack of national planning.
IBON said the global crisis has betrayed the myth poor countries can rely on migration for development, as migrant-receiving countries are now applying stricter measures for migrant work and adopting policies to hire nationals instead of migrants.
So when her boss ended her contract in January this year, Maria panicked.
"Despite hard times, we generally try to stick it out and continue to send money to dependent loved ones," she says.
A member of Migrante Canada -- an alliance of 17 Filipino organizations in Canada advocating for migrants' rights -- Maria says the Philippine government remains blind and deaf to the suffering OFWs endure to send money back.
"OFWs should join the struggle to end forced migration," she says as she tucks the remittance receipt into her bag. "We want real change -- genuine land reform, national industrialization and decent jobs at home. And we need to fight for it."
Only then can migration be a choice, rather than the only way to a decent life for Filipino migrants such as Maria -- who is now on the other side of the world longing to see her old, dilapidated nipa hut and the vast sugarcane plantation that surrounds her beloved hometown.
Jomay Amora-Mercado, a former migrant worker in Alberta hired under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, lives in Winnipeg with her husband Aries. As the finance officer of Migrante Canada, she actively seeks help from various organizations and individuals to support its
programs and campaign.