Mitch Villaseñor picks up a balikbayan box. Boxes will then be loaded onto a container, driven to California, and shipped to the Philippines. Credit: Pat Nabong

As a kid living in Laguna, a province in the Philippines, Janette Santos always looked forward to the large cardboard boxes that her aunt sent from Chicago. These boxes were big, sometimes even bigger than moving boxes, and typically arrived at her doorstep during the holidays. As she opened them, she caught a whiff of a familiar detergent smell that Filipinos who have received boxes from the U.S. describe as the scent of “imported goods” or of “America.” Packed to the brim with household supplies, small toys, chocolates, and canned goods, there was at least one item for every member of her immediate and extended family.

“[My aunt] makes sure at least once a year, everyone will receive something like at least a piece of chocolate,” said Santos, 56. “When it comes from [the U.S.], it’s different.
. . . It’s the thought that it comes from the U.S. that [makes it feel] special.”

Janette Santos packs clothes into a balikbayan box.Credit: Pat Nabong

A balikbayan box sits in Janette and Nate Santos’s living room. Since collecting goods and filling up balikbayan boxes take time, balikbayan boxes are ever-present items in many Filipino households.Credit: Pat Nabong

Almost every Filipino knows the tradition of sending balikbayan boxes, which translates to “coming back to your country.” Contents range from the everyday (like bath and cleaning supplies) to the oddball (like muriatic acid, cooking oil, and tiles). The boxes also typically hold clothes from discount stores, cans of Vienna sausage, bags of chocolate, and small toys that people collect over several months. Once a box is full, a shipping company picks it up at the customer’s doorstep and leaves another empty box to fill up.

The balikbayan boxes that Santos received from her aunt left an impression on her. “I guess in America they have a lot of nice things,” said Santos, who migrated to the U.S. in 1978. “I said, ‘Someday maybe we should go to America, then you will just get it anytime you want.'”

Now that Santos lives in Wilmette, she and her husband, Nate, send balikbayan boxes four times a year to their relatives, house helpers, Santos’s former high school, and their church. They ship dozens of books, used clothes, shoes, snacks, and anything lying around the house that they no longer use.

“We have a lot of wasting here,” said Santos. “Somebody else’s waste is somebody else’s treasures. Over there, people are, you know, appreciative of things. Like for us they don’t like it anymore, and there they will really [be] so happy to get it.”

Nate and Janette Santos know that stores back home are filled with American products. But they know that the act of sending something from the U.S. sends a different message.

Jing Panlilio’s balikbayan box contains old clothes, canned goods from Aldi, and some books.Credit: Pat Nabong
Panlilio and her daughter Julianne check whether Julianne’s dress still fits her. Jing usually sends her kids’ old clothes back to her sister in the Philippines.Credit: Pat Nabong
Worried that liquid might spill, Panlilio tapes the caps of shampoo bottles before packing them into the balikbayan box. Some say that the process of packing a box is in itself an expression of love.Credit: Pat Nabong

“We Filipinos still didn’t get rid of this colonial mentality,” said Nate. The Philippines was colonized by the U.S. from 1898-1941 and 1944-1946. Many academics argue that it has left a mark in the Filipino psyche. “American product, it must be good.”

Since no weight limit is imposed, most balikbayan boxes weigh 70 to 100
pounds, according to Forex Cargo, one of the
Filipino-owned balikbayan box shipping companies in Illinois that started as a money remittance service. Balikbayan box shipping companies charge a fixed price that ranges from $60 to $110 depending on which region in the Philippines it is being shipped to.

Mitch Villaseñor drives all over Illinois and sometimes even Wisconsin to pick up balikbayan boxes.Credit: Pat Nabong
When Villaseñor picks up full balikbayan boxes, he drops off empty boxes. Packing boxes is a continuous process.Credit: Pat Nabong

The tradition has its roots in Operation Balikbayan, a government program that was instituted in the 1970s by then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos after he declared martial law in the Philippines. The program offered privileges to Filipinos overseas who were visiting the Philippines. During a time of political unrest, it aimed to convince Filipinos abroad to visit and “improve public opinion in the United States about the loss of democracy and the beginnings of martial law in the Philippines,” according to research by Cristina Szanton Blanc in the Philippine Sociological Review. Those who came back to the Philippines were allowed two tax-free boxes that contained personal effects and pasalubong (gifts from people coming home). From there, “special companies have set up businesses in the United States and in Europe to facilitate regular unaccompanied shipments to relatives in the Philippines,” wrote Blanc.

Today, it is an entire industry. Forex Cargo alone sends 1,200 boxes every month, according to their estimates. During September and October, their shipments double or triple, since delivery takes 45 to 60 days and people want their goods to arrive in time for Christmas.

After a year of collecting gifts, Pamela Villa del Rey’s balikbayan box is almost full. Half of the box she sends every Christmastime is occupied by cleaning supplies, which her sister loves.Credit: Pat Nabong

Victor Velasco rummages through Pamela Villa del Rey’s balikbayan box. The two moved to the U.S. on a work assignment for the same company many years ago.Credit: Pat Nabong

The boxes are also a tradition that connects the Filipino diaspora: In 2013, over 10.2 million Filipinos lived and worked abroad and 3.5 million of them were in the U.S., according to the most recent available data from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, a Philippines government agency.

To many Filipinos, it is their way of maintaining ties to relatives they haven’t seen in years.

That was the case for Victor Velasco, who didn’t see his family in the Philippines for almost nine years after moving to Chicago for work. The boxes brought a sense of pride that didn’t come from receiving imported goods but from the “assurance that that person [who] has been away for so long from too far has not forgotten you and [is] still connected to you,” said Velasco, who now lives in Florida. “That’s what connects us. . . . That’s why it’s called balikbayan. Go back. But it’s the box [that goes back], not you.”

More than anything, the balikbayan box is a reminder to people back home that they have not been forgotten.

“I think it’s one form of showing your family that you love them,” said Pamela Villa del Rey, now a resident of Skokie, who used to include cans of peaches, her mom’s favorite, in her box before her mother passed away. “The main thing for me is I want them to experience and to taste things that we have here. . . . It’s one way of reaching out and saying, you know, I’m here; I’m sending this to you just so you know that I remember you.”   v