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.