Filipina nanny in Dubai wows readers by publishing her own book of poems

Biriterang Makata’s release has 136 award-winning poems she wrote during the pandemic

By Angel L. Tesorero

Dubai: Ester Vargas-Castillo, 50, is known among her peers and in the online world as ‘Biriterang Makata’. It’s a Filipino phrase that loosely means ‘Diva Poet’ in English. ‘Biriterang Makata’ is also the title of her first book of poetry — published recently — containing 136 award-winning poems she wrote at the height of the pandemic.

Castillo also got the name ‘Biriterang Makata’ because she is a soprano and an active member of FilSoc Chorale, which is under the Filipino Social Club that performed last year at Expo 2020 Dubai. She’s both a singer and a poetess.

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Ester Vargas-Castillo making a statement with her new release. Image Credit: Supplied

Speaking to Gulf News, Castillo said: “When you say that you work as a nanny or maid, people would sometimes look down upon you, thinking you’re illiterate and uneducated, that you’re only good at household chores. Thanks to my friends who helped me publish my book, a nanny like me has shown that we have every right and the ability to also shine and make a mark in society. Given the opportunity, we can eloquently express ourselves and write our own poetry and stories,” she underscored.

Poignant and poetic

Castillo’s recently published 206-page book contains her feelings, triumphs and tribulations. She said: “There is comedy, women empowerment, romance and erotic poetry. I’ve also written a morbid/dark poem. I penned a verse on patriotism and wrote two poems in Baybayin, an ancient writing system native to the Philippines.” She added: “My book has 47 English poems and 89 odes written in Filipino because I also want to share with my kababayans (countrymen) the love for our own language and country,” she added.

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Ester Vargas-Castillo says she is very thankful to her friends who helped her publish her 206-page book. Image Credit: Supplied

Castillo continued: “Most of my poems, however, are about my own emotions — the pains hidden in rhymes told through a third person. I’ve also let go my feelings that have bottled up. But more importantly, I’ve written about melancholy — the sadness of being away for too long from my family — as well as my long aspiration of going back home for good, though I have to stay and work here for the sake of my children.”

Ageing hand

Castillo said her book was inspired by and dedicated to her four children — Christopher Lester, Christine Abegail, Chloe Felixia and Gideon Chris.

A poem, titled ‘Ageing Hand’, is addressed to her son:

‘Used to hear that laughter/ To and fro, you wanted it to go higher’/ “More, more, mommy,/ swing it farther!”/ I hope you can still remember.

Now you’re a fine young man./ I wanted to hold you as long as I can./ Someday you’ll venture into a faraway land./ But please don’t forget mama’s ageing hand.’

Pandemic poems and praises

Castillo, who was born in Cebu, a province in central Philippines, started writing poetry late in her life. “It was actually during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when most people struggled with isolation and depression due to lockdowns, that I seriously began scribbling down my thoughts and feelings in verses, which I posted on different online poetry sites,” she added.

“My first poems focused on love, friendship and most importantly, my work as a domestic help,” noted Castillo, adding: “I caught the attention of online readers and my poems were also recognized in various online competitions in the Philippines and abroad. That gave me the boost to write more poems. So far, I have written around 500 poems,” she said.

Awards aplenty

Some of the awards won by her include Hall of Fame, Poet of the Year 2021, given by Philippine-based Bigkis ng Panitik; Reyna ng Balagtasan 2022, awarded by Horizons, an organization of talented migrant workers based in Hong Kong; Poet of the Week (Passion of Poetry), for her poems ‘Sound of Silence’, ‘When Rain Reigns’ and ‘St Basil’s Cathedral’; Platinum Award (for various poems in Filipino); Excellence Award for ‘Outcry of Valor’; Gold Award for ‘Figures of (Love) Speech’ and ‘Healing Ray’; Silver Award for Ode/Rhyme Mnemonics, and more. It was in February, when she tested positive for COVID-19, that Castillo decided to collate her winning poems into a book. She got support from Manila-based McKinley Publishing Hub, that helped her with the design and layout of her book as well as making it available on Amazon. Her friends and supporters pooled money and printed 200 copies for distribution in the UAE.

Literary journey

Castillo’s book launch was recently attended by friends and her employers. She first came to Dubai in 2017 and settled as a household service worker because the previous job she had — where she worked as a teaching assistant and accounting clerk — paid her a Dh2,300 monthly salary. “Thankfully, I found an employer who was ready to pay better,” she added.

Castillo said she was also thankful that her employers gave her an opportunity to pursue her literary journey. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree. She had previously worked as an assembler, operator, marketing assistant and accounting clerk in the Philippines. She is an avid reader and a keen student of literature. She said: “I carefully studied literary styles of various writers and my works were edited and polished by my mentors.”

Castillo said she has no plans to change her job after the release of the book. “I value loyalty and gratitude to my employers,” she said.

Castillo also serves as a volunteer editor and proofreader to help budding writers get their works published.

She is now busy working on her next literary project — OFW Diaries — a compilation of short stories written for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). #

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This report was original to Gulf News.