There are few subjects more painful than slavery. The word itself conjures images of the most shameful and ugly parts of humanity and our past, histories most would prefer to distance themselves from. This may in part be why, in just two short days, The Atlantic’s article “My Family’s Slave,” by the journalist Alex Tizon about his family’s enslavement of a woman named Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido, has caught the attention of and moved thousands of readers. The title itself is shocking in its admission of slavery tucked right into a modern American home.
The story of Pulido is extraordinary in many ways, especially in terms of the length of her enslavement. But what should be more shocking is that her story is not as rare as one would hope. While slavery today doesn’t include the chains and horrors typically associated with it, it is unmistakably slavery, existing in modern America. In an ordinary American community. In a residential neighborhood. Where neighbors met her.
She was enslaved. She lived among us, hidden in plain sight. And there are many more women like her.
How does this happen in America today? Some of this story’s readers have blamed immigrants, claiming that such a practice is un-American. Some have pointed the finger at Tizon’s Asian family, claiming that Filipino culture is at the root of this case of slavery.
But I can tell you, having worked with domestic workers since the mid-1990s, that extraordinary acts of cruelty are unfortunately not limited to people of any one culture. To the contrary, completely ordinary people can be incredibly cruel when they have a decided power advantage and no checks on their power. There is a known pattern of abuse with foreign diplomats and professionals who import “help” from their home countries, but Americans enslave people too. There is a deep history of these arrangements among families at the U.S.-Mexico border where U.S. citizens regularly exploit the insecure citizenship status of workers by forcing them to clean, cook, and take care of children and elders. And across the country, community organizers have encountered enslaved and exploited domestic workers in city after city.
How can such a thing still happen? The pervasiveness of the problem is in a sense an answer to that question: When there is an extreme power imbalance, people—particularly women—are vulnerable to slavery. In every story I’ve heard from women who have survived these atrocities, there are two commonalities: invisibility and vulnerability.
There are many other examples of stories like Lola’s, stories sensitive enough that the last names of the women who told them have been withheld here. For example, there was Lilly, who was brought to Texas at the age 15 by a couple of American executives at a technology company. They promised her an American education and a path out of poverty for her family in Jamaica, in exchange for working as a live-in nanny for their three children. Instead, as soon as they arrived, they cut off her communication with her family and the outside world. For 15 years, her mobility was restricted. She was not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied or talk to any of the neighbors. And she was never paid.
And there was Karmo, who came from Nepal to a Virginia suburb, also escaping extreme poverty, to work for an Indian diplomat. Upon arrival, she was forced to work from early morning until late at night, isolated and prohibited from talking to other people. Karmo’s passport was confiscated by her employer and she was told she could be picked up by the police if she complained. For both Lilly and Karmo, the extreme economic hardships of their families left them vulnerable to false promises of a better life; once in America, force, fear, and lack of other jobs and options made it hard for them to leave.
Slavery doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, as some perversion from the bigger economic context that people live in. Deep poverty and few options for economic mobility make a person vulnerable to slavery. Language and cultural barriers, and being a woman make a person vulnerable to slavery. Being dependent on an employer for visa access makes a person vulnerable to slavery. Immigration laws that trap a person in the shadows for fear of deportation keep them vulnerable.
The organization I lead, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and our affiliates have found that for women who have survived slavery or trafficking, the single most important factor for enabling women to escape from slavery is knowing that they are not alone and that they will be supported when they do.
If Tizon had known there was an organization of women who shared Lola’s experience and helped her connect to them—and if Lola had known she was not alone, met other women like her, and seen that it was possible to rebuild and live a different life—would her story have ended differently?
The National Domestic Workers Alliance started a campaign with this question in mind. It’s called “Beyond Survival,” and its goal is to support women who have survived extreme abuse by giving them a chance to heal, connect with others like them, and, for those who choose to do so, share their experiences publicly so that others may be encouraged to escape enslavement. Through this campaign and an organization called Adhikaar, Karmo not only found the courage and support to escape, but she now organizes and assists others like her in New York City. Additionally, programs like these can help policy-makers learn how to best address the needs of survivors.
Their stories and Lola’s story remind us that we must take courageous action to end trafficking and slavery. Their resilience brings us face to face with the most painful aspects of humanity, so that we may collectively become more humane.