The Cultural Value of Balikbayan Boxes

“Tell me you’re a Filipino abroad without telling me you’re a Filipino.” There are many ways to answer this question, but perhaps the most obvious of them is the multiple-pound balikbayan box.

These care packages, named after a Tagalog word that means Filipinos coming home, contain a combination of apparel, personal care products, probably some shoes, a few gadgets, and several non-perishable food items delivered through a balikbayan box door-to-door service.

In some cases, the sender brings these treats themselves when they get home but not without wrestling with the possible fees they have to pay as the boxes go beyond the maximum “free” limit.

And it’s so extremely popular that it is already a billion-dollar industry. That’s not surprising since Filipinos worldwide send an average of 400,000 of these boxes a month, based on the data by the Door to Door Consolidated Association of the Philippines.

Meanwhile, each box, depending on the size and weight, might be worth $80 to $120. Further, although the Philippines considers these goods as duty-free and, therefore, tax-free, it also imposes limits.

For example, the total value of the declared items should never go beyond 150,000 pesos. Otherwise, the excess will now be subject to different taxes that include excise and custom. Definitely, a lot of these packages do.

Let’s not forget that, considering the entrepreneurial spirit of the Filipinos, some families decide to sell some of these products among their neighbors or online when they feel they have more than enough of a particular kind.

But beyond this economic value, one shouldn’t also forget to ask, “How did Filipinos end up sending balikbayan boxes to their loved ones?” The story actually begins in the 1900s.

The Earliest Filipino Migration

In reality, the Filipinos first landed in the United States over 400 years ago—October 18, 1587, to be exact. A historical marker in Morro Bay, California, narrated how “Luzon indios” arrived in a Spanish galleon as part of the Acapulco-Manila trade.

However, their stay here was short-lived. Two days later, Native Americans attacked them, killing one and forcing the rest of the crew to explore somewhere else.

Thus, for many historians, the earliest official Filipino migration occurred in the early 1900s when at least 15 contract laborers called the sakadas sailed to the islands of Hawaii, which was then a territory of the United States. One has to recall that, during this period, the Americans occupied the Philippines.

These Filipinos worked in the sugar plantations, but after many years, some found themselves in other parts of America, such as California, working other jobs like serving in restaurants.

carboard boxes

Migration Boom in the 1960s and 1970s

Filipinos began traveling and working outside the country in trickles. By 1934, around 120,000 Filipinos worked in Hawaii. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that more people from the Philippines found their way to other nations.

First, the United States struck down its nationality-based restrictions. Earlier, it put a limit or quota on the number of Filipinos who could move to the country unless there’s a labor shortage. Second, the pro-European immigration policies also eased, which allowed Filipino workers to find jobs in places like New Zealand, Canada, and Australia.

As more Filipinos emigrate, then-president Ferdinand Marcos issued the presidential decree 442, which helped Filipinos and potential employers abroad get matched through a more comprehensive legal placement or recruitment program.

Then, in 1995, the country introduced the Migrant Workers Act, which was also the first law to coin the term “overseas Filipino worker (OFW)” to help promote the welfare, safety, and protection of Filipino migrants working abroad.

The Balikbayan Box Came

As more Filipinos work outside the country, many of their loved ones get left behind. And as per culture, people in the Philippines are often raised in close-knit families, and they are also nurturing. Moreover, many grow up with proverbs that say one should always look back at where they come from.

With all these in mind, many Filipinos abroad tried to find ways to let their families back home experience a hint of their lives overseas while keeping the intimate connection intact and pushing the loneliness away. Thus, the balikbayan box was born in the 1980s in the United States.

As more of these boxes arrived in the Philippines, former president Corazon Aquino amended some provisions of the tax code, which granted the items inside these packages duty-free status, and so, they are tax-free. Later, lawmakers increased the exempted value from 10,000 pesos to 150,000 pesos. These changes further emboldened Filipino immigrants and workers to send more often, making the process a part of the country’s modern culture.

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