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Lito Gomez: A hero without a cape

Lito Gomez: A hero without a cape

Filipinos in France during a rally organized by Lito Gomez.

Filipinos in France know that when there is immigration trouble, Lito Gomez is the man to call. Meet the man pushing for human and labour rights for Filipinos in France.

Many aspire to do good, help the oppressed, and change the world. These are lofty goals, but Lito Gomez, a community leader of Filipinos in France, proves they’re not impossible to do.

Service is second nature to Lito. A native of Quezon City, he served in the Armed Forces of the Philippines K9 core while still a student. In 1984, he left the Philippines for France. At that time, there was already a Filipino community in France but very few had legal status because of restrictive immigration laws. Gomez arrived on a tourist visa but knew he wanted to stay.

If you want apples, you go to an apple tree. If you go to a pechay plantation, you won´t get an apple there.”

The “apple” he is talking about is the carte de sejour (CDS), a legal document that allows foreigners to live and work in France. So, he went straight to the CDS issuing body- the French prefecture.

Lito spent weeks outside his local prefecture, patiently observing what people did and engaging in conversations with them. A few weeks later, he met an employee working for the prefecture who told him what he needed to do to get a CDS.

His patience and grit bore fruit. In less than a year, he was able to get the much coveted récépissé, the pre-CDS document. One may call it destiny or a stroke of luck, but one thing is for sure- he used his newfound knowledge and legal status to help other Filipinos struggling to become documented.

Meet the man pushing for human and labour rights for Filipinos in France.
Lito Gomez uses his knowledge to help Filipinos in Paris to become documented.

Unlikely hero

Lito didn’t plan for this to be his life’s work. Shortly after getting his papers, some friends of his got controlled by the immigration police. They had no papers and were detained. Armed with his knowledge and a desire to act, he got them released and they successfully applied for papers. Word spread through the tight-knit Filipino community and the next time someone had the same problem, they called on him. It started to become a regular thing, but he never saw it as a burden. He took these as opportunities to help and learn.

“The more they came to me, the more I learn”. 

He studies each case a kababayan brings to him and research what they can do about it. Soon, he knows exactly what to do for a certain problem.

Human and labour rights champion

The clamour for legal work permits and regularization of stays were unceasing the first decade Lito was here. To organize his efforts, he founded the Maharlika Association in 1995. Aside from helping undocumented Filipinos get the right to stay, they also assist Filipinos in France who are victims of labour and conjugal abuse. 

In 2007, after a year-long demonstration in France, Lito and Maharlika Association achieved one of their landmark successes– the passage of a French law that granted qualified, undocumented Filipino’s work permits and carte de sejours. For the sans papiers, it means finally being able to roam the streets of France with peace of mind, without the constant fear of deportation. That also meant no more putting up with abusive employers. La vie en rose has become reality.

The law continues to be used to this day, with over 70,000 permits issued over 16 years. With Lito at the helm, Maharlika Association works like a well-oiled machine, able to solve 80% of problems brought to them, without having to resort to legal action.

The man to call

He is very hands-on. He gives advice to those who need it, acts as a translator and mediator in immigration hearings, and talks to employers about salary negotiations. His phone is constantly buzzing with calls and texts. During our interview at one in the afternoon, he has already had three distress calls and several texts from different people. 

Our kababayans in Paris protests against Chinese presence in the Spratlys.

Sometimes, he even finds himself in movie-like situations.  Lito was present during the recent incident involving a Filipina domestic worker in Paris who jumped from a second-floor balcony. “Jenny” had tied a blanket to the grills to escape her abusive employers. In the press video, we see her falling onto the sidewalk, her cry waking up her employers. Emerging from a dark corner, in a crouched position is Sir Lito, clad in an all-black outfit and dark-tinted eyeglasses. He rushes to help Jenny and commotion ensues as her employers find out about the attempted escape. Jenny was rushed to the hospital and the rest of them went to the police station.

Her manner of escape was unusual, but Lito says that these types of abusive employers are much more common than what’s shown in the news.

Balancing act

The fight for change is rewarding but wrought with many challenges. Aside from police station stays, heated arguments and threats from angry bosses also come with the territory. “Take note, I don´t start the  fight. I to talk to them about the worker’s legal rights, and they are the ones who usually start the fight. They take us as “third-class citizens” and I want to combat this view by showing them we are not ignorant.”

When asked about how his wife and children handle his extra duties.

My wife jokes that I haven’t given her a “peaceful life”, but she is very supportive and is used to it. During the recent incident with Jenny, my son asked his mom why she wasn’t panicking when the police called. She told him, “You still haven´t gotten used to your Dad, he knows what he’s doing.”  

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Lito Gomez

Lito always makes sure he does all his responsibilities as a husband and father. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve done my part as a father and husband”.

Lito also manages to balance all of this with his professional life. In the 90s and 2000s, he owned a company that specializes in the maintenance and repair of Macs and PCs. Currently, he and his son run an advertising company. He is two years away from retirement and works flexible hours, choosing to dedicate his extra time serving others- almost half of his time is spent on Maharlika and their advocacies.

Our Kabayans in Paris showing solidarity with their Parisian friends and neighbors.

30 years on, the fight continues

Despite the law that provides more rights to immigrants, many are still in fear of speaking out against labour abuses. Many don’t know that they have rights and access to services, no matter their legal status.

“The top two reasons why Filipinos can get abused is that number one, they don´t have the legal papers. Number two, they do not know their rights.” 

The language barrier poses a big problem too. Sometimes, he encounters cases where a kababayan still can’t speak French despite living here for more than a decade. He tells them something that is also true for every Filipino who wants to live abroad.

The top two reasons why Filipinos can get abused is that number one, they don´t have the legal papers. Number two, they do not know their rights.….It is important to integrate into your new home country. You can’t just stay inside a cocoon; you need to go out. That means learning the culture, learning the language.” 

Lito Gomez

Lito brings together the best values of the Philippines and France: the Filipino bayanihan and the French fraternité to uplift the Pinoy community in France. Today, Maharlika Association has grown and has a team of like-minded, dedicated members and volunteers at the service of our kababayans. Lito is a man who walks the talk when it comes to fighting injustice and human rights violations. He is a proof that you don’t need a cape, a government position, or deep pockets to do good and create change in your community.

This article was previously published in TFEM Spring Issue 2022.

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