The Enslaved Woman They Called Lola

Enslavement is a process, not an identity. The use of the word “slave” obscures that fact.

The Atlantic

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.

Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s 2011 obituary in The Seattle Times is now a curious artifact of the cruelest irony. Six years before Alex Tizon wrote about Pulido in The Atlantic as “a slave in my family’s household,” he urged The Times, where he had previously worked, to write a tribute to her life. The task fell to Susan Kelleher, who based the obituary on Tizon’s recollection and saw in his account “remarkable aspects to her life that I thought would be worth sharing.” That account, which painted Pulido as a free woman, was of course a lie. But the foundation of the most beautiful of lies is often the ugliest of truths.

“A devotion so rare that even those closest to her still struggle to comprehend it” is how Kelleher described the woman the family called Lola in that obituary.* Alex Tizon’s struggle for comprehension did not end with Pulido’s death. Rather, it’s clear from his recent Atlantic story that even in revealing the depths of his lie, Tizon was still grappling to understand it.

Near the end of his story, Tizon describes his efforts to liberate Pulido after his mother’s death and atone for the pain she endured while raising him. He gives her a $200 weekly “allowance,” helps her travel back to their native Philippines, and attempts to steer her away from a life of domestic servitude. But Tizon’s well-intended efforts to unbreak Pulido are mostly thwarted by her inability to stop cooking, cleaning, and caring. “She didn’t know any other way to be,” Tizon laments.

The sad truth is that he could never fully release her, try as he might. Although my ability to understand the Filipino katulong structure that Tizon describes is clouded by my own cultural and familial context of American slavery, one thing is clear to me about all systems of bondage: Emancipation is a process. Enslaved people are not so much set free as they are made free, a long and hard process of reconciliation and reparation that can span years, if not generations, if not centuries. Power, wealth, and labor transferred from one person to another are not so easily reconciled, and most often simply aren’t.

One of the tragic consequences of slavery is that it makes both enslaved people and those who exploit them unfree in a way, and unable to simply extricate themselves from the consequences of servitude. Tizon may have done all he could for Pulido, but he couldn’t change the fact that her vitality—at one point in the story she literally chews his food when he is ill as a child—and forced labor were part of the fuel for his life and work. His successful career—which included a Pulitzer prize—came out of a childhood nurtured by her love and care and a life at least partially enabled by her labor.

My main point of contention with Tizon’s article, and perhaps with our own editorial choices, is that the deep power dynamics of slavery are not always clearly articulated. The first clue is the use of the word slave to refer to Pulido, even in the title “My Family’s Slave.” My guess is that Tizon chose slave both because it is provocative and because he wanted to invoke the searing reality of American slavery. In doing so, he chose not to hide from an awful truth. His use of the word also undercuts the often pedantic debate over just how unfree labor has to be in order to be called slavery. That instinct works for those purposes, but I find that it also obscures just how Pulido’s enslavement came to be. “And then I had a slave,” Tizon writes when she comes to live with him as a seemingly free woman. But how?

The debate over the terminology of slavery has too long a history to be litigated here, but enslaved person has begun to supplant slave in scholarly circles (including among the curators of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture) as a way to “carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time,” according to the writer Andi Cumbo-Floyd.

I prefer enslaved person not just because of that nod to humanization, but because of its closer proximity to the verb enslave. Especially in Pulido’s case—absent the generational and legal context of African American slavery—slavery is not a fixed state. Enslavement is not a single action, either. Rather, like emancipation, enslavement is a process. Enslaved people are made over decades by the process of enslavement, they are broken and bent, their persons warped against their wills. Calling Pulido a slave obscures the work that individuals did to assign that status.

Tizon chronicles the horror-show elements of this process: the physical abuse Pulido suffers at the hands of Tizon’s father and the inhuman treatment at the hands of his mother, who lets Pulido’s teeth rot out of her head for years rather than sending her to the dentist. But Tizon is less clear about how affection, motherly love, and even attempts to set people free can strengthen the bonds of bondage. Sustained abuse and forced dependency have a way of creating real psychological dependency, and it must be noted that Pulido’s turn as a surrogate mother came in the context of her de facto forced desexualization by the Tizon family: She was not allowed to have a biological family, and confessed to Tizon that she had never had sex. Tizon’s mother’s seeming softening near the end of her life, as well as Pulido’s obvious love and care for Tizon’s children as her grandchildren, are both real instances of compassion and also ways in which Tizon’s family filled the psychological needs and kinship bonds that they prevented Pulido from building on her own.

The Seattle Times obituary proved that in 2011 Tizon could not quite grasp the full gravity of Pulido’s position. Her selflessness is presented as a saintly virtue, not as a possible survival instinct ingrained by abuse. Tizon’s essay in The Atlantic is more self-aware and honest, but still not quite there. Even Tizon’s name for Pulido, Lola, is an assignment (“we called her Lola”) by her enslavers and not an expression of her being—even if it is a familial honorific. 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. Tizon’s intentions are noble. But “Lola’s Story” is not a final story of retribution or atonement, but the first step in a journey of absolution that was tragically cut short.

This is not a damnation of Alex Tizon. His position from birth was impossible. It’s a tragedy that he is not here to respond, learn, grow, and engage with both the criticism and praise his piece inspired. Filipino readers and friends have lauded his bravery for opening a taboo topic, and domestic laborers and victims of human traffickers now have an ear at The Atlantic, and some of their stories are relayed in responses.

But the consequences of human exploitation run much deeper than Tizon appeared to recognize, and perhaps much deeper than our own editorial staff realized. One of the common critiques of “Lola’s Story” is that it failed to shed much light on the fascinating woman Tizon called Lola, and seemed to view her only in the wide angles of Tizon’s arc of redemption. That critique seems somewhat limited to me—Tizon did chronicle his efforts to interview her, and did present some moments when we saw her personality. But perhaps it’s also true that her lack of voice and independence in his story are part of the nature of enslavement. The worst sin of the peculiar institution in any of its worldwide forms is that it erases some lives to nurture others. Tizon’s account does not grasp the extent of Pulido’s erasure, but that inability highlights just how slavery warps both the enslaver and the enslaved. To this writer, that makes “Lola’s Story” all the more necessary to read, and mourn.

* This article originally misattributed this description to Alex Tizon. We regret the error.