A housing project in the PhilippinesBullit Marquez / AP

This article is part of a series of responses to Alex Tizon’s Atlantic article “My Family’s Slave.” The full series can be found here. For another historical perspective, please see Micki McElya’s essay on how Lola’s story echoes the American “faithful slave” narrative.

Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave” has stirred considerable controversy. Readers have struggled to understand the conditions that allowed for the enslavement of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, the complex dynamic of her relationship with the Tizons, and the highly conflicted reactions the story has elicited across the Pacific.

Many commenters from the U.S. saw the Tizons’ relationship with Pulido through the lens of antebellum American slavery. Such views tend to conflate the Tizon family with white slave masters, Lola with black slaves, and their household with the plantation. Once you’ve made these alignments, it’s easy to condemn Tizon’s confession as insufficiently repentant, and the narrative as self-serving.

There is no way to excuse or mitigate the incredible cruelty that Pulido suffered at the hands of Tizon’s father and mother, nor the benefits that he and his siblings accrued from her coerced labor. Her un-freedom produced a sphere of freedom for the family to enjoy. She was a slave, as Tizon writes, in that her life and labor were stolen from her to benefit those she served.

But slavery has taken various forms in different places, and some Filipino readers have argued that Westerners who read the story in terms of antebellum American slavery were guilty of ethnocentrism. To understand why, it helps to get some historical perspective. (I have spent more than 30 years studying the colonial and post-colonial history of the Philippines, where I was born and raised.)

In pre-colonial Philippines and Southeast Asia (and many other parts of the world), practices of enslavement revolved around debt bondage rather than chattel slavery. For this reason, the master-slave relationship was highly contingent, depending on how much debt the slave owed to the master and the purposes to which the master sought to use his or her slaves. There were also fine gradations of enslavement that allowed slaves to change their status through intermarriage and manumission. Slavery was not necessarily a permanent state, in other words.

Pre-colonial Tagalogs had two main kinds of slaves, or alipin. The first was alipin namamahay, the slave who had his or her own house and family and, like a vassal, was expected to help the master during harvests, raids, trade, and feasts. A lower form of slave, alipin sagigilid, had less autonomy, lived inside the master’s house, and was on call 24/7. Many of the latter were poor relatives who had fallen on hard times. Slaves could move out of their station through intermarriage with free or partly free people or through participation in commerce and raids. Hence slavery as debt bondage was characterized by considerable flexibility and contingency.

The alipin structure changed with the advent of Spanish colonial rule. Spain abolished slavery but replaced it with forced labor, which can be thought of as a form of officially sanctioned enslavement, but not by way of the captivity and sale of people. Elements of pre-colonial practices of enslavement survive today in varieties of indentured servitude both in the country and among the millions of overseas domestic workers. Indeed, some Filipinos have referred to Pulido’s enslavement as analogous to that of an alipin sagigilid.

Pulido was certainly enslaved, but not as chattel who could be bought and sold. Tizon explains that entering into domestic service was Pulido’s way of escaping forced marriage to an older man. She thereby incurred a kind of debt whose costs were steep: She served Tizon’s mother for more than 20 years without pay in the Philippines. We don’t know how Pulido saw the arrangement or to what extent she had a choice. But both Tizon’s essay and subsequent interviews with Pulido’s relatives indicate that Pulido agreed to go to the U.S. with the expectation of sending money back home. This, of course, did not happen. Tizon’s parents reneged on their promise to pay her for her services.

Tizon’s parents probably justified their cruel bait-and-switch by telling themselves that providing Pulido with room and board in a foreign country was compensation enough, especially given their own financial situation. But Alex, who grew up in the U.S. and knew almost nothing about his parents’ country of origin, could only make sense of Pulido’s condition through the historical lens of American slavery—a frame suggested first by his older brother, and then later through his viewing of the slave figure in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In Alex’s telling, the familiar figure of the black slave substituted for the foreignness of the Filipino alipin.

But the fact that Pulido was not property who could be bought and sold might help to explain why Tizon presented her as part of the family, albeit a lowly and exploited member—an aspect of the essay that some American readers found difficult to accept. Echoing pre-colonial practices, contemporary power relations between masters and servants in Filipino culture are mediated not just by the imperatives of the marketplace and ideologies of race. In Tizon’s narrative (and in the everyday experience of Filipinos who grew up with servants), affective ties of pity (awa), reciprocal indebtedness (utang na loob), and shame (hiya) hold together the master and servant as much as they pull them apart. Thus the Tagalog term used to refer to Pulido: “Lola,” or grandmother. It is not a “slave name” as some have suggested, but a kinship term to refer to elders in the Filipino community, even as she was often humiliated and abused.

In Filipino culture, these affective ties in turn provide servants—no matter how oppressive their situation—a kind of moral leverage that they can use to hold the master accountable. And Catholicism as practiced in the Philippines has its own discourse about the universal enslavement of humans to God, which has at times been used as a kind of ideological screen for reproducing and sustaining relations of inequality—while also calling those on top to account for their treatment of those below. It is this moral economy—rather than purely material calculations and racist ideology—that pervades Tizon’s account and sometimes can come across as condescending or politically naive. But it also opens up spaces, however attenuated and elliptical, for Lola to act and speak.

“In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father,” Tizon writes. This does not cancel out her subordination. But it does make her central to the household, a person on whom everyone else depends—giving her a certain kind of power. Throughout, she is not merely a slave; she is also the other mother. She cares for Tizon’s mother when her husband leaves her, stands up to her second husband’s abuse, holds the household together when it is falling apart.

She provides both physical and emotional labor that endows her with a subversive authority such that Alex’s mother comes to see Pulido as a rival for the children’s affections. Beaten down, she nonetheless survives, turning her weakness into a reservoir of strength. And once she moves into Tizon’s house after his mother’s death, she manages to make a world of her own. A key scene for me is when Tizon comes home one day and sees her with her feet on top of the table, watching TV and working on word puzzles. “Progress,” he thinks—for him and his attempts at reparative justice, but also for her ability to become other and more than the victim she started out as.

Here, then, is part of what is so compelling, at least for me, about this story: that despite the history of her oppressive domestication, there is always something about Lola that she holds back. Tizon probes into her past, asking her questions about her life, but she retreats. Her reticence becomes a kind of resistance to his aggressive curiosity. She is not merely disempowered, but radiates a certain power manifested in the deep affective bonds forged between her and Alex’s family. Her labor is exploited, but not exhausted.

She remains singular, even in death—especially in death, as the author is taken aback by the grief that her return elicits among her relatives. That collective grief surprises Tizon and exposes the limits of his own understanding of Eudocia’s life. His guilt does little to shore up his authority as the benevolent master who did right by his slave.

Tizon’s essay can be read not simply as an attempt to confess a crime and expatiate his family’s guilt. It is also a testimony to the slave’s ability to deflect the master’s appropriative power. It is as much about Tizon’s shameful secret as it is about Pulido’s resistant dignity.

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