“Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from,” Alex Tizon wrote in his Atlantic essay “My Family’s Slave.”
A thousand objections can be leveled against that piece, and in the few days since it was published, those objections have materialized from all quarters. It’s a powerful story, and its flaws and omissions have their own eloquence. For me, the most important failure is that Tizon seems to attribute Lola’s abuse entirely to another culture—specifically, to a system of servitude in the Philippines—as though he believes, This doesn’t happen in America. But that system is not only in America, it’s everywhere. It ensnares not only immigrants, but everyone.
In fact, Tizon passed away just days before Politico published an exposé of the U.S. Au Pair program, a program in which foreigners (usually young women) stay with a host family in exchange for housework and childcare—a type of “cultural exchange” meant to build good relations between countries. But the program is rife with abuse: Au pairs have reported being illegally worked for endless hours, starved, humiliated, threatened with deportation, and not compensated. “They think we are slaves,” says one. The host families who mistreat them are often upper-class white Americans. Although many au pairs report good experiences, the failures Politico documents illustrate that crippling exploitation can fester even in a supposedly regulated program in ordinary households of long-assimilated Americans.
When Tizon was young, the only point of comparison for his family’s exploitation of Eudocia Tomas Pulido—called Lola throughout his account—was the slave Pompey in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a John Wayne movie he sees on television. It’s not clear from his essay whether the adult Tizon learned much about systems of domestic-labor exploitation across the globe: the mistreatment of au pairs in the U.S., the plight of migrant domestic workers abroad, or the epidemic of abusive marriages in which undocumented wives are cut off from society in ways that mirror Lola’s isolation.
Tizon chose a frame for his essay that omits these systems entirely. In doing so, he missed an opportunity to capture the full context of Lola’s enslavement: that she was his third parent, his true mother, and his biological mother’s battered wife.
Indeed, many of the tactics that Tizon’s biological parents employ to keep Lola trapped are straight out of the same playbook used by the abusive spouses of undocumented wives and the very worst host families of au pairs: Lola is prevented from assimilating into society, she does not have access to her own finances, and she cannot leave the house because she cannot drive. Her immigration status is wielded as a weapon against her. She is physically intimidated and verbally abused; she is beaten down day by day so that she will continue to take care of the children and do the work that the abusers cannot or do not wish to do.
But she lavishes affection on the Tizon children, and the children love her in return. Because the biological parents leave the domestic sphere to Lola, she is closer than either of them to the children: “She got to know the details of our lives in a way that my parents never had the mental space for,” Tizon writes.
The young Tizon fights back his tears while trying to defend Lola, only for his parents to then accuse Lola of turning him against them. His biological mother torments Lola all the more, in retaliation, if the children try to intervene or help Lola with her work.
Tizon and his siblings ask Lola why she stays with their biological mother, and she replies, “Who will cook?” and “Where will I go?” When Tizon reflects on the past, he wonders if he should have told others about what was happening to Lola, exposing the family to the threat of deportations.
Tizon’s emotional turmoil and self-loathing can be read as self-serving, but they also echo common experiences of children who witness intimate partner violence. In a way, “My Family’s Slave” is one more addition to a body of literature in which sons grapple with having to watch their fathers beat their mothers. Who will cook? Where will I go? These statements are likely familiar to anyone who has tried to convince a victim of abuse to leave their partner. And the choice to hide abuse, rather than to risk deportation, is particularly familiar in the context of an immigrant family.
Although Tizon calls his biological parents “Mom” and “Dad,” both figures come off as distant and relatively uninvolved. The essay is not kind to his biological mother, even with his much-criticized attempts to humanize her, including a passage where he describes reading her diaries. Tizon seems surprised at the love and care his biological mother expresses about her children, as surprised as he is by the accounts of the friendships she has formed with other women at work. “Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.”
Tizon admits to, at times, feeling real hatred for his biological mother. In contrast, the most negative emotion he feels about Lola is annoyance when she moves in with him: He is annoyed that she tells him to wear a sweater, annoyed that she gripes so much about his father and stepfather, annoyed that she fills his kitchen with disposable containers. These are the emotions a child feels about an aging, hoarder parent who comes to live with them.
Whether or not he realized it, Lola was his real mother.
Tizon uses “Mom” and “Dad”—parental titles—to refer to two distant figures. And when he looks at Lola’s domestic work and emotional labor—acts that are coded in our culture as motherly love—he thinks to himself, “That is servitude.”
But is he wrong? Marriage, for most of human history, has been a gross violation of human rights. Women were sold or given to men by their parents. Their bodies were used to cook, to clean, to make children and to take care of them—all for free. Violence and exploitation are not incidental to the feminized labor that is coded as motherly love, but historically inseparable from it.
Tizon’s love for Lola, and whatever love Lola bore for him, are not incidental to the violations of her rights. Their bond is not a poignant coda that helps to mitigate the horror of her enslavement. Nor is it an inconvenient detail in a bigger story of oppression. Their mother-child connection was the basis, the cause, and the reason for her exploitation.
The romantic mystique around familial love is used to gloss over matters such as compensation and humane treatment. “Embrace of the kinship idiom can deter [au pairs] from complaining about their living and working conditions,” writes the law professor Janie Chuang of the U.S. Au Pair program. When Tizon accuses his biological mother of owning a slave, she defends herself by claiming that he will “never understand” her special relationship to Lola. What’s wrong with working your mother for 15 hours a day, anyway? It’s all in the family.
* * *
By the time I was born, my extended family in Korea neither arranged marriages nor had servants. But “My Family’s Slave” dredged things up that I had not thought about in a long time. My own late grandmother, the proud matriarch of a large family that included 20 grandchildren, was only 15 when she married my 26-year-old grandfather. He had already been widowed twice by then, and had two small children that needed to be taken care of. He liked the look of my grandmother, and asked her parents if he could marry her. She rarely spoke of her deceased husband, and when other grandchildren attempted to record her life story, they couldn’t get very far before she broke down in tears and refused to continue.
I will never know the full story about my grandmother and grandfather. But I know something was terribly wrong. I feel cheated that I will never get to know the truth, and at the same time, I am relieved that I will never have to reckon with whatever their relationship was.
Unconscionable exploitation runs with the long familial ties that stretch through the centuries. Some people, particularly newer immigrants to America, are much closer to that exploitation than others. But everyone, somewhere down the line, owes their birth and very existence to someone’s degradation.
These days, marriage is thought of as a partnership premised on consent. Motherly love is thought of as something good and pure. An innocent child’s trust is thought of as enriching a mother’s life. In truth, we are poison to our own mothers.
Romantic beliefs about marriage are either modern developments, or, in the case of many families, outright lies painted onto the facade of domestic violence.
To outsiders, Tizon’s biological mother got to live an enlightened modern life. She was an immigrant woman who became a doctor against the odds. Her diaries speak of empowering friendships built with other women in her workplace. To them, she may have been a pioneer, a trailblazer, a female role model. But she achieved this off Lola’s back. The ambitious lady doctor got to have it all because of the enslavement of the woman who played her stay-at-home wife.
When I first read “My Family’s Slave,” I came away convinced that Tizon had died without coming to the realization that Lola was his true mother. Now I am merely unsure. Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s obituary in The Seattle Times six years ago omits mention of the horrific abuse Lola suffered over the decades. (The obituary section is not a place known for soul-baring honesty). But it does say something that Tizon neglects to clarify in his piece: It defines “Lola” as the Tagalog word for “grandmother.”
Since Tizon’s piece was published, I have heard from countless Tagalog speakers on social media about the meaning of “Lola.” Most agree that the correct translation is “grandmother.” Others say that it is an ambiguous honorific for any older woman in a household. Some explain that it is a term of respect and veneration. A few have told me that it is a familial term applied to maids and domestic workers, similar to how “auntie” is used in other cultures. One American woman, who worked as an au pair in Italy, says that she knew a Filipina au pair there who introduced herself as “Lola.”
The ambiguity of “Lola” reminds me that there are aspects of “My Family’s Slave” that are opaque to me as a cultural outsider—for example, distinctions between types of domestic servitude, the legal protections that apply to some but not others, or the concept of reciprocity as utang na loob. I am increasingly convinced that Tizon’s lack of explanation in this case is an intentional omission, that he believed that the very meaning of “Lola” is too close to the problem and too fraught to unpack in an English-language publication for American readers.
And in the end, how much does it really matter what his Lola meant to him? His essay is imbued with the sense that he failed her. Loving someone as your mother—no matter how genuinely she loves you back—does not make up for her enslavement.
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