Survivors Respond to ‘My Family’s Slave’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As numerous readers have written, one of the most moving aspects of “My Family’s Slave” is that Alex Tizon was able to honor Eudocia Tomas Pulido, whom he knew as Lola, by telling her story—while one of the tragedies is that Pulido was never able to tell it herself. My colleague Vann writes:

Tizon doesn’t know her desires, fears, attachments, or even very much about her own story. He attempts to learn these things, but doesn’t get very far, and we never learn whether the failure is due simply to Pulido’s reticence or to the fact that years of servitude had minimized her story even in her own mind.

After reading Alex’s essay and some of the criticism on social media, this reader wrote to us with the subject line, “On Eudocia, from someone who went through it”:

For half my childhood, I was indentured. I was born in Canada, went to school in this country, and it still happened to me. I’m incredibly thankful that I got to grow out of it, but trauma hurts the most in its resonance.

Listening to those claiming to seek justice for Eudocia has felt like a scab opening over and over again. Please, do not take actions on behalf of indentured and enslaved people without consulting them. Do not seek reparations for us without asking. Those in the disability rights movement say, “Nothing about us, without us.” I think this mindset applies to those of us who have gone through forced servitude. We don’t want what you think is best for ourselves.

For my own situation, finding peace and healing after escaping took precedent over any vengeance or confrontation. I would have hated to become a hashtag.

Several other readers also wrote in to say that Eudocia’s experiences reminded them of their own—including Juliet, whose mother came from Tarlac, the same province in the Philippines where Eudocia was born:

I may have accidentally found this article for a reason. I myself was a slave given to live with family members I didn’t even know. I had to wake up in a hard cold cement area under the stairway. Like a cold dog, I’d be woken up with harsh words and a kick on the rib cage jolting my teenage body.  Sad to find out Lola didn’t get an education. I persevered to go to school at night when I was done with all my housework.

I ran away when things got worse and taught myself in a lot of ways to survive. But I don’t feel completely free. It becomes a codependency—it’s hard to explain, but it’s there, a learned trait. Part of life as a slave is interweaving survival and seeking freedom. You never know what freedom is because you have become immune.

Another reader writes:

This essay has brought me to tears as it reminded me of my childhood.

I was brought to the city by my grandparents to study at a Catholic school back in the Philippines. That was in 1980. My parents were left in the province, as they had their jobs there.

My grandparents and my mother’s brothers and sisters would ask us to do errands, household chores, and wash their laundry while our cousins just sat down in the living room playing or chatting. When I was in elementary, I used to clean my aunt’s house during the weekends to be able to read my cousin’s fairy tale books in her library. This I did secretly.

There was no snack when we went to school, as my grandmother would constantly complain of having no money while we eat our meals. We were also prevented from eating anything from the fridge. Our parents were sending money, but it seems that it was not enough for them.  

Finally, J. shares the long and painful story of her own escape:

I was brought to America from Korea when I was 6, and raised by my dad and a woman who I thought was my mother. I found out when I was 11 that she was my stepmother and that my real mother was the lady I was taught to believe was my temporary babysitter.

From age 6 to 14, I was a butt of every type of abuse this woman could throw at me. Words can not describe the cunning cruelty of this woman, who learned the most peculiar punishments from heaven knows where and decided they were appropriate to dole it out on me to get back at my dad for messing around behind her back. She used me as bait, calling my father to come home and “rescue” his daughter telling him that I would be punished until he raced back home from his mistress’s place. I was responsible for pleasing her by keeping a clean house, massaging her back and shoulders for hours after she finished work, and taking care of the dog she loved so dearly, all the while making sure to bring home straight As from school.

Everyone knew I was abused. Everyone saw it, pitied me, but no one did anything. Once I went to school with a giant, visible bruise and when the teacher asked what happened, I nonchalantly said that my mom hit me with the Barbie as punishment. Social services was called and my stepmom was hauled away to jail, but not before I came home and she beat everything out of me while my father stood by idly as he always did. My friends all knew, their parents knew, but no one did anything. They thought it wasn’t their business.

My dad did one thing that was in my favor—he sent me away every summer to his sister, who lived a very comfortable life in Canada with her husband and son. She taught me things about homemaking, took me on trips, gave me attention, and was a mother figure to me. And when I was 16, he sent me away to her for good. He said it was just for a year, but it wound up being much, much longer than that.

My second “Lola” story began there. I was now her burden, and my father did not give her any support to take care of me. She had lost her husband suddenly to a brain aneurysm three years prior and she was alone with a son in his teenage years and trying to manage a donut store that was failing against its fierce big-brand competitors.

From 16 to 17 when I graduated high school, I worked every day after school and weekend, sometimes into the wee hours of the night and morning because it was a 24-hour joint. And when I tried to leave to move back to NYC, she begged me to stay—after all, who was there for me all these years?

We all moved to another part of Toronto and we opened up a bagel store. For two years, I worked from crack of dawn until close, with no days off—96 hours a week while she golfed and dealt with her depression and anger issues. Never was a given a single dollar for work—never one penny. When push came to shove, I told her I needed to go to college. She agreed to let me go under two conditions—that my mother (whom I’d reconnected with) pay for it and that I continue to work for her, for free.

For four more years, I busted my ass morning and night. I took Civil Engineering and was offered paid internships—which she made me turn down, because who would run the store for her? I was broke, trapped and broken.

I understand Lola—she could have run away, she could have revolted, but in her way, she loved her owners. And she was scared to make waves. It was up to her to keep the peace in the family, her responsibility and burden to keep things going.

During my last semester, my aunt and my entire family moved to NYC and left me to fend for myself without a penny. I quickly found a job as a cashier in downtown Toronto restaurant and got my first pay in years. It was an amazing feeling. Within weeks, I got a promotion and within a year, I was a manager making excellent money.

That was 10 years ago. Today, I run two departments in a tech company. I travel the world, meet all kinds of people, and coordinate donations and volunteer activities with several charitable organizations that my steering committee and I select every quarter.

My “Lola” story is one with a happy ending. I am loved, I am strong, I am able to empathize with others, and I am able to give. Tragic events don’t have to remain that way. Cowardly people don’t have to remain that way either. And we all have the power to rise above.

Thanks for listening to my story.

If you would like to share a similar experience, please email us at Update from another reader, who was born in Korea:

When I was 12, my mom passed away suddenly and my brother and I were sent to my father’s sister’s family in Dallas. She and her husband were and are a well-respected deacon family running a dry cleaners. They demanded green card fees and money from my family for the trouble of taking care of us.

I was woken up every morning at 5:30 to make breakfast for everyone while my aunt and her husband went to morning prayers and to work. My brother and I were never given lunch money, so we would have to bring something from home while our cousins of similar ages were paid for. We had to walk to and from school under hot Texas sun, while our cousins were picked up. They bad-mouthed us to our family back in Korea, as if we were partying and failing school while we were doing great. They made us write sobbing letters to home so the family would feel sorry for us and send more money, while we had to work at the dry cleaners on the weekend and during summer. I cleaned my aunt’s closets full of clothes and name-brand bags. I cleaned their bathrooms and made meals. I felt sorry for my brother, who is two years younger than me, so I would save up small coins I got from working at the store and gave it to him so he could buy something sweet at the school cafeteria. I was only 12, so I didn’t know how else to protect him. When my older cousin gave me an old shirt of hers, my aunt slapped me asking me if I had lost my mind. I prayed to God to take my life away in my sleep or wake me up from this horrible dream.

This continued until eventually money ran out and they sent us back with our expired passports. Even though they claimed that they paid for lawyers to get us green cards, there wasn’t such a thing. I begged my aunt to at least keep my younger brother so he could study in the U.S.—I would send money from working at a factory or something when I went back to Korea. They sent us back anyway because we were useless now.

I did well for myself. I had a good career. But I will never forgive and forget the life I went through and the trauma I had to get over because of them.