When a Filipina Hits the Dance Floor - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When a Filipina Hits the Dance Floor

When a Filipina Hits the Dance Floor

By Emelyn Ocampo

Emelyn Ocampo’s mother leaving the Philippines for the United States.


Because if you’re not bothering to dance, you’re not trying to live.

By Emelyn Ocampo

As the mother of a toddler, my mind often wanders to what my own mother did in certain situations. How did she handle potty training? How did she discipline me? Then I think about how different our worlds were as new moms.

She was a 20-something immigrant from the Philippines who arrived in New York in the late ’60s, leaving a country of corruption for something better. I only recently found out that she didn’t want to come here.

I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker who has all the luxuries of a middle-class kid turned middle-class adult. I grew up with technology and easy access to almost everything.

I can’t imagine what “coming to America” was like for my mom. I try, but she hasn’t shared many stories. I know there was struggle, and strife. Good for my mom, she’s built tough.

She took to the dance floor for the first time since the
accident. I could see her pain overcome by pure joy.

My titas have told me about the lineage of strong, fierce women I come from, and I feel them in my blood. My mother and the women before her were quietly tough. I was raised to be the same.

My mom — Maria Ignacia Castro San Agustin Ocampo — loves to dance, travel and give. She worked at Flushing Hospital in Queens from 1969 to 2009 as a lab technician, testing blood and specimens for viruses.

Every day she went to work dressed to the nines under a white lab coat: beautiful dresses, print skirts, silky tops and kitten heels. Diana Ross’ iconic side-swept bob was my mother’s hairspiration and she rocked it on her 5-foot frame. She lined her big, round eyes with black kohl to complete the look. She always looked good.

Her love of dance took over in my early teens and she and my father took ballroom classes regularly until they didn’t need them anymore. They were the dancing stars at the local Filipino parties.

When I was in high school, my mom would travel “back home” to the Philippines for a few weeks every January to run medical missions with her friends. They started their own, independent mission to help people in remote provinces get medical care.

As a child, I didn’t understand why my mom needed to be away for so long. Eventually, I got used to it, and she extended her stays, sometimes for months. It took me a while to understand that she felt more at home there than she did in New York, which is why she always called the Philippines home.

Mom Ocampo!

Goodbye, Philippines. Hello, New York.

In my 20s, while my mom was on one of her medical missions, I got a call that she had fallen while getting off a bus in a small mountaintop province. The fall was so bad that she needed hip replacement surgery.

I still vividly remember that moment. I wanted to fly to the Philippines ASAP to be with her, but I was told to wait. Finally, I got a call from her; she sounded fine, great even. She told me not to come and “don’t worry — I’m OK! I will call you after my surgery.” I immediately felt better, calmer.

My parents had separated a few years before the accident, and since then I had watched my mom fully spread her wings. She gave more to the medical mission, growing and expanding it. She gradually spent more time in the Philippines or traveling elsewhere to volunteer or on vacation.

She hit all parts of the globe, too many countries and cities to name. The dancing star at every party, she was having the time of her life. Finally, her life was hers. A week after the surgery, she returned to New York and stayed with her sister to recover. And for the first time, I witnessed her inner strength in a way I came to revere.

Physically, mentally and emotionally, the recovery took its toll on her, but she pushed through, chin up. She wanted to dance again. A few weeks passed and she was making progress. Then we found out that her surgery in the Philippines hadn’t been performed correctly and would need to be redone.


My family was crushed. We were glad she was with us, but we couldn’t believe she had to take several painful steps back.

After the second surgery, recovery once again took its toll. This time it was even harder. My mom kept her head high through it all, even when I knew her heart, body and soul were so very heavy and in pain. Watching her recover for the second time gave me an even higher level of respect and admiration.

There were moments when her weariness showed, and I wanted her to let it all out. And I hoped she found quiet moments to do so, because it’s hard being strong for so long.

Over time, she got better, stronger, worked even harder and started to walk again, with a cane. That cane cramped her fabulous style, and I knew she was going to push herself to walk without it. She did. Weeks later, she started walking unassisted, with a small limp. I know the limp bothered her too, but she refused to let it show.

Finally, she was ready to dance again. As she took to the dance floor for the first time since the accident, I could see her pain overcome by pure joy. I beamed with pride: Her smile was back and so was her radiant spirit.

Our worlds as new moms may have been very different, but as moms I hope we’re the same. I hope I teach my daughter to always keep her head to the sky, especially through the storms, because they will come, and I will work tirelessly to hand her the keys to life that my mom handed me.

She taught me how to be a woman, and a mom. How to travel, give, love and, of course, how to dance.

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