A Forest Lawn attendant guided Aquilina Soriano-Versoza into the room where the body of Fedelina Lugasan lay atop a gurney, a blanket pulled over her torso, her head resting on a pillow.
Separated by the coronavirus pandemic while living, it was only Lugasan’s death that allowed Soriano-Versoza to see her for the first time in months.
Soriano-Versoza met Lugasan in May 2018 when Lugasan stepped into an FBI agent’s car and got away from the family that enslaved her as a domestic worker for, according to Lugasan and her advocates, more than six decades, most recently in the San Fernando Valley.
Soriano-Versoza and other members of the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles bonded with Lugasan who at age 81 had entered an unfamiliar world.
They called her “Nanay” – “Mother” in Tagalog.
But this May, just two years after escaping, Lugasan and dozens of residents and staff in her Long Beach nursing home contracted COVID-19 and, on June 11, weeks from turning 84, she died.
Soriano-Versoza could not touch Lugasan and had but 15 minutes.
Soriano-Versoza took photos for the other advocates as well as for Lugasan’s family that lives in the Philippines. In the Hollywood Hills viewing room, she leaned toward Lugasan to say goodbye, to say she loved her, and that so did the other workers.
Her mother a rice farmer, her father a fisherman, Lugasan’s parents pulled her out of school after first grade to help with their work. She planted rice with her mother and mended broken fishing nets for her father. She was the second youngest of nine children.
At 16, she left her rural home in the Philippine province of Leyte for the nation’s capital, Manila, a move still common today for many impoverished Filipinos, migrating in hopes of finding better work and perhaps a better life.
Knowing her parents would never approve, Lugasan said, she packed her things and quietly left.
In Manila, Lugasan found work as a katulong, a live-in domestic worker, responsible for a household’s cooking and cleaning and, at times, the caring of children or the elderly.
At the two-story marble home of an elderly woman in a Manila suburb, Lugasan said, the teen carried out her work with the promise of normal wages. The woman began referring to Lugasan as family.
“They weren’t giving money,” Lugasan would recall in Tagalog decades later to Southern California News Group reporters during a three-hour interview in March. “Not one centavo. Not five centavos. Nothing.
“I didn’t ask for money,” she said. “I was embarrassed to do so.”
Lugasan weighed her options. She had a roof over her head and food to eat. With no money to return home, the woman’s family became her own.
The woman had several adult daughters with families of their own living in Los Angeles. In 1981, she arranged for Lugasan to head to the United States using a tourist visa, Lugasan said, to care for a daughter who had asthma.
The Los Angeles home on Bronson Avenue in Central Los Angeles was large and lively, brimming with family and extended family. They leaned on Lugasan for household chores.
Unable to read, write, operate a phone, or speak many words in English, Lugasan relied on her employers to communicate with her family with rare phone calls.
Lugasan said she would occasionally be given money. The $50 she once got went for a walking doll with blonde curls and white skin. She sent that back home, with the remaining money and a photo showing her smiling and biting into a large turkey leg.
Those gifts, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, would be her last contact with her family in the Philippines for years.
After that woman died, later in the 1980s, Lugasan moved in with a relative of the woman, Benedicta Cox, who lived in Northridge and taught kindergarten at an elementary school in Baldwin Park.
Lugasan worked long days, she remembered, helping Cox’s relatives, too. While working for Cox, she received no breaks, no days off, and, still, no pay, court documents would say.
(Multiple attempts were made to contact surviving members of Cox’s family. Nina Moreno, who represented Cox in court and remained the family’s attorney, said she and family members did not want to talk with a reporter for this story.)
If Cox was in a pleasant mood, Lugasan would be allowed to join the dinner table. Other times, Lugasan said, Cox would deprive her and she would instead step outside to the backyard to tend plants, sweep the porch or tidy the grill where she fried fish for the family.
Or to say a prayer, asking God for mercy, not to forsake or abandon her. Or to just endure it.
“Pikit mata na lang ako,” she would tell the reporters, citing a Tagalog phrase about endurance: “I just closed my eyes.”
Lugasan considered leaving. But the fear of Cox’s threats paralyzed her: If you leave, Lugasan remembered hearing, I’ll call the police, accuse you of stealing from my home, and they will cuff your hands and lead you to jail.
Lugasan said she spent her nights on a couch or on the floor of Cox’s room.
For Cox’s weekly dialysis appointment, necessary because of diabetes, Lugasan said she dressed Cox, changed her diaper, and lugged the wheelchair to the garage where they would wait for a ride. After the appointment, the pair would often dine at Denny’s.
In January 2018, in a Northridge hospital, a nurse found Lugasan, there to assist the hospitalized Cox, lying on the tiled floor. She had just vomited and collapsed and, without money, Lugasan said, not eaten in more than 24 hours.
Staff asked questions. She told them she lived with Cox, but she wasn’t able to recall their home address. They alerted a social worker. Worried that her words would lead Cox into trouble, Lugasan denied any bad treatment and assured the social worker she was looked after and cared for.
Within days, agents at the FBI’s Los Angeles field office received an anonymous tip.
Cox’s Northridge townhome was one of many, situated in tight rows, each with its own queen palm tree towering near the front porch. One day, unmarked government-issued sedans drove into the gated community, sliding in behind another vehicle, with warrant in hand.
Lugasan let them in the home, authorities said, and the agents combed it for evidence.
Agents had secretly followed Lugasan and Cox for a month. They had watched as the pair made their way from restaurants to medical appointments and back home. They interviewed members of Cox’s family.
“I think in general terms it was the lack of what we seized that was significant,” recalled FBI Agent Corrie Lyle, the case’s lead investigator. “There was very little evidence to suggest the fact that she was part of the family.”
There was no sign of a bedroom for Lugasan, Lyle said. Her only possessions were piles of hand-me-down clothes, stuffed inside the garage like an afterthought. Agents snapped photos.
Lugasan wouldn’t leave; she was worried about who would care for Cox.
Lyle told Cox and a daughter who came by that agents would make follow-up calls and visits to ensure Lugasan was OK. In one call, Lyle heard a voice in the background telling Lugasan to put the phone down and that she couldn’t talk right now.
On another, Lugasan told the agent, the family said it was going to take her to the Philippines and leave her there with no support. Lyle made arrangements so that if the family made any flight reservations in Lugasan’s name, the FBI would be notified. She also told Cox’s attorney this would amount to obstruction of justice.
Lyle visited the home at least eight other times, accompanied by her partner, a victims specialists, and often a representative of the Pilipino Workers Center.
Lugasan would sit inside an agent’s car. She began sharing bits about her life, about the home she left behind, about her sister she hadn’t seen in more than 60 years.
“There was a certain degree of frustration, ’cause we didn’t know if she was ever going to leave,” Lyle said.
On the morning of May 16, 2018, the group tried again.
Lugasan was pushing Cox in her wheelchair to the transport van. Lyle asked Lugasan where they were going, and she said to Denny’s for breakfast and then the dialysis center.
“We’ll also follow,” the agents said.
Cox burst into a tirade against Lugasan and the agents.
“I still didn’t want to leave her, because there would be no one watching her,” Lugasan would tell the reporters. “The FBI said, ‘That is not your problem. She has a daughter. The daughter will take care of her mother.’ That’s why I went with them.”
When she arrived at the Pilipino Workers Center that afternoon, Lugasan held tightly onto the hand of Malou Villacisneros, who would become her case manager.
For a while, Lugasan lived at the center, then she moved out and in with an employee of the center. Psychologists treated her. The case manager and others at the center built trust and relationships with Lugasan. Investigators built a case.
“The length of servitude was particularly egregious in this case,” said Justin Rhoades, chief of the Violent and Organized Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We don’t usually see cases like that.”
Lugasan knew things weren’t quite right, but never did she see herself as a victim of human trafficking, her advocates at the Worker’s Center said. For so long, she had been told she was a part of the family.
“She was taken from home to home,” said Aurora Andalajao, a member of the Workers Center who helped oversee Lugasan’s case. “The whole family benefited from her, one way or another.”
Soriano-Versoza, who would visit her in the funeral home, said: “Generations of kids were raised by her. She sacrificed the majority of her life. Her life was just dedicated to this family.”
Perhaps, but as the surviving matriarch of the family, Cox was the lone target of the prosecution. On Jan. 7, 2019, at the downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse, Lugasan began to shake as she saw Cox and other members of the family walk in.
Through a translator, she told the judge that she supported the prosecutors’ suggested sentence of house arrest, sparing Cox of prison.
Lugasan said that the servitude had stretched back decades spent with various family members. But investigators focused on the recent years when she worked mostly for Cox, much easier to prove, and in a 19-page plea agreement that Cox signed, it acknowledges their relationship since 2000.
That day, Cox formally admitted to a single count of forced labor. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ordered Cox to endure five years of house arrest and to sell her Northridge home to pay restitution. From the sale, Lugasan was granted $101,119.
In July 2019, while in house arrest, the 80-year-old Cox died. When Lugasan heard, she cried.
“I love her,” Lugasan told the reporters in that lengthy interview. “I forgave her for the things she did to me.”
Lugasan was given a birth certificate and a Philippines passport. She started her first bank account and the process to become an American citizen. She went to restaurants. She developed her own style, shopping for clothes and jewelry.
She had her own room.
In video recordings and conferences, Lugasan regularly shared her story, hoping to inspire other victims of human trafficking to learn their rights and fight back.
FBI Agent Lyle and Lugasan shopped and ate together. During one visit, Lugasan walked over to the taller Lyle, wrapped her arms around her and tried to lift her off of the ground.
“We upended her life, and it’s important to me that she’s well taken care of and happy,” Lyle said in April.
Lugasan, who had short and wavy black hair with streaks of gray, carried her slight build with a steady confidence. She seldom smiled for photos, Soriano-Versoza said, self-conscious about her teeth that had worn with age and suffered form a lack of dental care.
With her new friends and advocates, though, Lugasan cracked jokes and spoke with spunk and whimsy, her face widening as she began to laugh.
Lugasan celebrated her July 4th birthday, with her advocates throwing her first birthday party in the U.S., they said.
It was decided Lugasan needed the care of a nursing home, and so she moved into one in Long Beach.
Supporters had learned that one of her older sisters, a niece, and a grandniece were living in the Philippines, and in March they flew in.
The family had kept a photo of the grandniece with that blonde-haired walking doll.
Lugasan hugged her sister, Luz, and cried. She recognized her, as any sister would, but 60-plus years had aged both of their faces, a surprise to Lugasan who had last seen her sister in youth.
“I didn’t expect that we siblings would meet again, or that I would meet my niece and grandniece,” Lugasan said to the reporters in March. “I thought I was the only one left.”
The next day at the Workers Center dozens gathered for the unlikely family reunion. Lugasan danced into a room pulsing with rhythmic clapping, smiling and swaying, her relatives following behind.
For her family’s stay, the Workers Center planned three weeks of activities. Lugasan and her family would travel, shop, sightsee, and try to catch up.
But a week into her relatives’ stay, as much of America quickly began shutting down with safer-at-home orders, they returned to the Philippines.
Infections rapidly spread throughout the U.S., with the disease disproportionately affecting communities of color, including the Filipino American community where Lugasan had found shelter and kinship.
Nursing homes stopped allowing visitors. Trips to the mall with friends were reduced to phone calls and video chats. Even bingo night, a Lugasan favorite, went away. Days were anxiously spent inside, watching The Filipino Channel.
On July 21, before an empty Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Santa Clarita, a Catholic priest led a funeral Mass for Lugasan, mostly in her native tongue so her relatives in the Philippines would understand as they watched online.
Center-stage stood a large portrait by a Corona artist of her in a dark-green dress. Also worked into the painting were Sampaguita blossoms, the Philippine national flower, and the vibrant pattern of a baníg, a Filipino sleeping mat, a place to lay one’s head to rest.
In recorded messages, dozens shared memories and tributes.
Lugasan’s belongings, her photos, jewelry, clothes, were sent to her family in the Philippines.
She had wanted to return to her native country and hometown in Leyte, but only for a visit. At the nursing home and with members of the Workers Center, she had begun finding her adopted family.
“I have plenty of children here,” she told reporters in that lengthy March interview. “I’m happy. I don’t want to wish for anything else.”
Lugasan’s ashes were to be buried in Los Angeles.
Source: Orange County Register