My Immigration Story: Michelle Desiderio, First Generation, The Philippines

It’s a major sacrifice to leave your family and friends behind to move to another country and find ways to support loved ones from afar by sending them money. We’ve shared several of these stories through our #WhyISend stories before.

Our understanding and empathy for immigrant communities come from listening to our customers as well as our own team members. Many of our team members are immigrants themselves which help us more deeply understand and care so we can work to build the best financial services for them. We’re sharing these stories through our new blog series,  “My Immigration Story,” where we will highlight the journeys people faced when they or their families moved to a new country.

Leaving the Philippines

One of the first stories we’re excited to share comes from Michelle Desiderio, a Product Manager for Remitly’s Compliance product. She focuses on building experiences that make it easier for a customer to use our service for the first time while keeping customers and their information safe and secure remaining compliant with government regulations related to international money transfers.

Both of Michelle’s parents are from the Philippines; her mom grew up in Iloilo and her dad grew up in Manila. After college, they both found job opportunities in the U.S. Their decision to move was not an easy one. They knew they could build a better future for themselves in the U.S. while earning money to send to loved ones in the Philippines. However, this meant they had to leave behind their first daughter, Michelle’s older sister, with their parents until they could obtain a Visa for her to join them in the U.S.

Leaving Michelle’s older sister behind in the Philippines made the decision to live abroad very difficult for Michelle’s parents, but they did this to invest in a better future for their family as a whole. They had Michelle after moving to the U.S. and continued sending money home to support their daughter and their parents in the Philippines.

“I didn’t meet my older sister until she was about 8, and I was 4 years old when she finally moved to the U.S.,” Michelle shared. “I can’t imagine ever having to do this and go through such a challenging sacrifice, but many other immigrant parents have had to do this — it’s not uncommon.”

We see many of our customers making this difficult decision. In a survey of our female customers, we learned that a little over 40% had to move to the United States without their children, to provide them with basic necessities and about 30% have not seen their children in over 3 years.

Here’s a photo from Michelle’s Instagram account of the day she met her sister :


Growing up in the United States

While growing up, Michelle never really considered how her own upbringing in the U.S. was quite different from her parents. “As an adult, though, the difference in our upbringing is like night and day,” Michelle shared.

Her grandmother, for example, was determined to make sure her daughters got an education and thought big about their future, despite the common opinion among their town that girls didn’t need to go to school.

“My lola ignored the naysayers, and as a result, my mom had a career in the U.S. as a registered nurse and raised a family here. One of my aunts is a successful businesswoman in the Philippines, and another is retired from a long career in education as a teacher.”

As a first-generation American, Michelle experiences her own various challenges on a regular basis. She explained that she felt a sense of identity crisis growing up in Virginia. “I was just trying to fit in with my white, American friends and I wouldn’t say very much about my Filipino background even though other kids would always ask me about it because I obviously looked different,” she shared.

But while she spoke English more at home with her parents, she stopped practicing Tagalog. When visiting the Philippines, since she doesn’t speak the language fluently, she says that she’s “very clearly American. I seem to stick out like a sore thumb.”

While living in Virginia Beach, Michelle felt that her family was really Americanized and assimilated compared to other Filipino families. The food, though, was the biggest connection to their family back in the Philippines.

“Some of my favorite pastimes with my parents and sister include sitting around the dinner table, enjoying my mom’s sinigang or chicken tinola, and listening to my dad’s stories about the mischief he would get into as a kid growing up in Manila,” Michelle shared.

She explained how it’s the flavor, the ingredients, and the Filipino family parties that kept traditions from the Philippines alive in the U.S. “There’s always pansit (noodles) for birthday parties. Food is the easiest and most delicious way to keep in touch with our culture,” she said.


Being part of a global community

Today, Michelle sees her mother’s strength and determination as her own motivation within her career. While figuring out what she wanted to do in product management, she heard about Remitly’s mission and the CEO’s passion to improve how immigrant communities send money abroad so more money makes it to their loved ones who need it instead of pocketed in fees by other providers.

Michelle saw firsthand how much trouble her own parents would go through to send money home. They would drive to Western Union, pay high fees, go through a complicated process, and wait a long time for the money to arrive.

When Michelle started working at Remitly and showed her parents the service, they loved the express product option, along with the notifications and receipts that the money was delivered. This has been especially helpful when her parents want to send money on a tight deadline to Michelle’s cousin for tuition payments.

“As a product manager, I want to make sure I’m using those experiences to build that empathy with my customers because we’ve experienced it. We get their pain points so we want to build the best product for our customers.”

Michelle and her family send money home quite often, especially for medical needs, tuition, and for caretakers. “It’s so important to us because our family made the sacrifice to leave home to build a future and support our loved ones.”

Being part of a global community is especially something to be proud of, in Michelle’s view. As a first-generation American, she feels that there’s a lot of learning to do about her Filipino heritage, and she wants to share and contribute to the diversity of the communities she’s part of.

“My family’s not the only one that’s been separated, and my mom isn’t the only one to leave the Philippines. Knowing what my mom and my dad and my sister had gone through, I want to take actions as a product manager that are directly making an impact and create less friction for users.”

When sharing a final word of advice to other first-generation Americans, she said, “Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all about what they were like when they were your age. Travel back to the homeland if you can.”

This can often be hard to do, as traveling abroad is quite expensive. But Michelle believes that connecting with your family and learning their history is so important.

“I love hearing my parents’ stories and flipping through old photo albums of my parents in their younger years. It gives me a deeper understanding and connection to my parents and our culture, and it gives me a greater appreciation for what they’ve done to raise me and my sister here.”

We would love to hear your experiences and why you send money home to your loved ones. Share your #WhyISend story here!

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