I was speechless after reading Tizon’s article because I realized my family also had a slave.
She wasn’t “Lola,” though, she was “Ate”: the Tagalog word for “older sister.” Ate was in her early 20s, had long, black hair, and a honey complexion like the rest of our family. When I was in first grade, my family had a vacation going to Seattle. She came with us when we went back home, and I didn’t question the situation at all.
Ate became the older sister I never had. She cleaned, and she worked in my family’s assisted-living homes. She didn’t go outside very often. During family vacations, she would stay behind and care for the house. Thankfully, my parents did not beat her, and rarely scolded her. Ate also had her own room, had her own laptop, and was free to do what she wanted on her own time. She was almost another member of the family, but I could never acknowledge her existence outside my home.
The rest of my extended family had no idea Ate was living at our house. My parents told me and my brother to never mention her, and to keep her a secret. And for good reason: Like Lola, Ate had also overstayed her visa, and was here illegally.
During family gatherings, Ate would stay in her room. I had to make sure that no kids ever went upstairs, where Ate’s room was. There was one instance where my aunt arrived home unexpectedly, and I distracted her by showing her my bike in the garage as Ate snuck upstairs.
Ate left when I was 11. The main reason she was able to leave is because my father killed himself. During the night of his death, she hid in my parents’ closet, keeping away in case police officers would find her. Only with his passing did my mother come clean about Ate to her sister, and they gave her the means to send her back to the Philippines.
It’s been years since I’ve spoken to her. I’ve never spoken about her with my mother, and I’m working out the courage now to talk to her and understand what was going on. I have few pictures of her, but the ones that exist show a young skinny woman who has long black hair, and incredibly pale skin. Towards the end of her stay with us, she had become a ghost of who she was.
I only know through social media that she is now happily married with a child. She has bangs and a tan, and just celebrated her mother’s birthday. She was able to escape and have the life Lola never had.
We’ve heard from several readers who said they were able to escape conditions of servitude, some of whom said they’d been forced to work for members of their own families. Their stories are here. Meanwhile Sheila de Guzman, a Filipina American reader, reacts to the irony of using familial titles like Ate or Lola (an honorific for “grandmother”) to refer to exploited workers:
This Filipino family, more specifically the parents, called Eudocia Tomas Pulido “Lola” and felt no sting in their words or actions when they were cruel to her. How?!
This is the same culture that requires mano—a gesture where you take the hand of an elder and put it to your forehead as a sign of respect. Filipinos are taught this when they’re babies and keep doing it all of their lives. This is the same culture where there is a breadth of prefixes to acknowledge where you are in the family: manong/manang for firstborn male/female and ading for younger siblings (commonly used in retail settings to show respect to a younger customer). My parents’ friends still call them Ate Lilia and Kuya Cris, and my brother and sister have only ever called me Ate—the prefix that means “older sister.” How, then, did they not feel the hypocrisy of calling her Lola and then mistreating her? How could such blatant disrespect toward an older individual continue for decades?
Vicente Rafael, a scholar of Philippine history, explains:
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. … 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. …
The fact that Pulido was not property who could be bought and sold might help to explain why Tizon presented her as part of the family, albeit a lowly and exploited member—an aspect of the essay that some American readers found difficult to accept. Echoing pre-colonial practices, contemporary power relations between masters and servants in Filipino culture are mediated not just by the imperatives of the marketplace and ideologies of race. In Tizon’s narrative (and in the everyday experience of Filipinos who grew up with servants), affective ties of pity (awa), reciprocal indebtedness (utang na loob), and shame (hiya) hold together the master and servant as much as they pull them apart.
The household dynamics that made Eudocia Pulido part of the Tizon family even as she was abused and enslaved led some survivors to describe her life as a story of domestic violence. Meanwhile, other writers and readers have noted how extreme poverty can lead women like Pulido to accept inhumane working conditions in the hope that they’ll lead to a better life. As one reader, Gabriel, put it on his blog:
I remember the concept of “giving” children away to other people as either “gifts,” as a way to pay debt or as a means of saving children from difficult or impossible lives. I do not consider this uniquely Filipino. I see it as a last-resort way out of poverty … While their situations are far from ideal, it is understood that whatever it is they are escaping from is far worse.
The most disturbing part of Mr. Tizon’s article however isn’t necessarily hiding Lola, but his parents’ cruelty and indifference. While her situation is not uncommon, their inhumanity is to me.
Call me naive but that abuse is generally looked down upon … and eventually gets exposed and dealt with by relatives of either the employer or “slave.” The fact [that] Lola is abroad severely limited her options, making her case so much more heartbreaking. If they had not left the country, Lola may have found a way to get a message to her relatives, if not gotten up and hiked back to her province altogether. I’ve seen this happen myself and as I read this it made me wish Lola had the same opportunity.
And this story from another Filipina American reader, about cousins of hers who were forced into unpaid labor for an uncle, illustrates how poverty and family pressure can create a seemingly impossible situation:
A few months ago, I went to the Philippines and reunited with the majority of my family. One of the ongoing stories I heard was about the years my cousins spent caring for our sick uncle. My cousin, Alexander, had been forced to drop out of school by his parents because they could barely afford to feed him and his siblings, let alone send him to school.
My uncle, who is disabled, made them an offer: Alexander would go live with him, 16 hours away from his family, and he would take care of him. In exchange, my uncle would provide his school, food, and shelter. So at the age of 13, my cousin became my uncle’s domestic helper.
Little did he know the extent of the help my uncle would need. Alexander would have to cook for him, carry him to the toilet, bathe him, feed him, and help run his store. In exchange, he would get 20 pesos (about 40 cents) each school day, which was barely enough for his fare to school. If there wasn’t school that day, he wouldn’t get paid, but he would still have to do the work. He was fed once a day. He had to sleep next to our uncle. He was also constantly put down, just like Lola was. This went on for four years until his brother was able to save enough money to get him out of there.
Unfortunately, another one of my cousins went in his place and suffered the same abuses for a year until he got very sick and his siblings sent him money so he could leave.
I knew what had happened was wrong, but I didn’t realize that they had been enslaved until I read “My Family’s Slave,” which opened my eyes to just how serious the abuses they had faced were. What is even more horrifying is that my uncle and our other relatives are constantly trying to berate them into coming back—and because they are still in impoverished conditions, they still consider it. Because this simple trade-off (help us around the house in exchange for food, shelter, and schooling) seems so innocent, even I almost advised them to go back. However, they made it clear that they never wanted to go back, and fortunately were able to get temporary jobs so they don’t have to resort to becoming someone’s slave.
What I implore your magazine to do is to help people find solutions to this problem. I have no idea how I can help them, especially from here in the United States, and I’m terrified of what may become of them if nobody steps in and advocates for them. But I know I can’t simply just tell them not to do it, because their situation is more complex. They’re kids. They need to eat. They want to go to school. Their parents can’t afford to take care of them and they don’t want to be a burden—so they succumb to slavery.
All I know that I can do for now is to try and help pay for school and their meals, but what about the rest?
For one part of the solution, Ai-Jen Poo wrote about the “Beyond Survival” campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which supports survivors of trafficking and abuse. Sheila flagged HelperChoice, a start-up that’s designed to empower domestic workers seeking employment. And this response from the Filipino youth organization Anakbayan USA recommends collective action to promote human rights and social change. If you have personal experience to share about how to help victims of trafficking, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.