May is Asian Heritage Month. We recognize Socorro (Cory) Alfonso, who came to the Yukon in 1986 as one of the first Filipino nannies to work here. She was an adventurer, willing to leave the familiar for unknown challenges and the hope of a better life.
Members of the Hidden Histories Society of the Yukon got to know Cory in her retirement years, when she recorded memories of hope, persistence and courage as lived throughout her life.
Cory fondly remembered her birthplace on the small island of Bacacay Albay with her large extended family, following subsistence lifeways by the ocean. Cory recalled idyllic childhood days, running through sand and waves with siblings and cousins, eating delicious fresh fruit and seafood, cooled by soft breezes drifting through their home built of woven grasses and palm fronds. Most of all she cherished the love of her family and her whole community.
The family moved to a city called Papanga near Manila in the early 1950s when Cory was two years old. Cory remembers her mother telling her: “Socorro means ‘help’ in Spanish.”
From a young age she lived up to her name, helping at home, going to school and working part-time as she got older. The city was more taxing than island life and school fees were expensive. Losses compounded their problems when Cory’s mother died and her father fell ill.
Cory made the first of many moves to improve her situation, relocating to Manila at 14 to live with relatives who paid her high school fees in exchange for domestic work.
She returned to Papanga to look after her father for several years, moving back to Manila after he died. After a decade of struggle at low paying government jobs, she launched into foreign adventures – working as a caregiver in Singapore for an elderly couple.
Then Canada beckoned, and she accepted a job as a nanny in the Yukon! A devout Roman Catholic, Cory had prayed for help and she thought: “…this is the answer, coming here in Canada. I lived in Singapore for two years… but if you have a dream… come to Canada. Nothing to stop me, so I came here.”
At first the Yukon was cold and strange, but Cory was determined to pursue her dreams. She lived with several families, caring for their children, while studying to improve her English. Cory firmly believed in education, advising young people: “Just work and study hard, that’s it… finish university or college… At the end, you don’t [say] to yourself, ‘I wish I went to school.’ No, not like that. Go to school while you’re young.”
The Philippines always remained close to Cory’s heart. She sent money and goods home to support her family. She adopted a young girl and paid for her school fees.
She always returned to her island home to soak up the sunshine and warmth of family.
“Oh yeah. I love it,” she says. “If you’ve got lots of kids in the Philippines, you know, a neighbour will be looking after you… lots of people there know you… So, they don’t need daycares there because everybody can help.”
Cory was a pioneer of the Filipino community here, bringing her gifts of love, humour and boundless optimism to all who met her. She was one of only six Filipinos living in the Yukon in the mid-1980s.
Despite hardships brought on by cancer a few years later, Cory never gave up – persevering through long and difficult treatments. Then she went back to work for many more years caring for others.
She valued friendships and family above all, giving thanks to “all the people that helped me when I was sick… you can find a lot of money, but friends that love you so much, is very seldom. So, treasure [them].”
One of her favourite pastimes was karaoke – Celine Dion was her idol, singing along with her, especially the high notes!
Cory battled cancer again in the last years of her life. She returned to the Philippines, knowing her time was limited and wanting to be near her family. She passed away on March 9, 2017, mourned by hundreds of people in both countries. Her gift to Hidden Histories Society of the Yukon – and to all who hear her stories through our recordings and displays – is the gift of joie de vivre – her joyful embrace of life with all its challenges and changes, her steadfast faith in her Christian beliefs, her devotion to caring for others, and her generous contributions to our community and the world.
Her parents named her well at birth – Socorro – she spent a lifetime helping all who came her way. We send our heartfelt thanks to her for sharing her stories with us, and condolences to all her family and friends in the loss of this very special person. See the Socorro Alfonso exhibit at the Whitehorse Public Library this month.