Telling Lola’s Story
“Lola’s Story” (June), by the Filipino American journalist Alex Tizon, quickly became the most-read story on TheAtlantic.com and garnered many emotional responses from people around the United States and around the world, particularly in the Philippines. Tizon, who died suddenly just a few weeks before the story’s publication, wrote about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, the woman he called Lola and thought of as a grandmother but who was actually his family’s slave. Until she went to live with Tizon and his wife, Melissa, late in life, Lola provided unpaid labor and suffered years of abuse from Tizon’s parents. Since the June cover story was released, Melissa Tizon has, in several interviews, emphasized Alex and his siblings’ love for Lola. While many U.S.-based readers drew parallels to antebellum slavery in America, many Filipino readers elucidated the cultural conditions that can lead to situations like Lola’s. One regional news outlet, Rappler, sought out Lola’s relatives in her hometown. Back in Seattle, where Tizon had lived and worked, the Seattle Times reporter who wrote Lola’s obituary six years ago expressed shock and anger that Tizon had obscured the truth about Lola’s enslaved status at the time. Melissa Tizon told the reporter, Susan Kelleher: “Sometimes it takes people awhile to get to the truth about their lives.” Here is a sampling of responses to “Lola’s Story.” For more, please visit theatlantic.com/contemporaryslavery.
The use of underpaid and overworked katulong, utusan, and kasambahay—the kind of servitude Eudocia was forced to endure—is common practice among many Filipino families. It is an unjust practice that stems from a violent history of colonization and exploitation of the Filipino people. In the Philippines, thousands of Filipinos are brought to cities, suburbs, and wealthy households in the countryside as domestic help. Many of these domestic helpers are young women who face exploitative conditions. They are a product of the massive landlessness and joblessness brought about by feudalism in the Philippines.
Oppressive religious practices combined with lack of access to quality education produce a culture in which people internalize unquestioning obedience and utang na loob (“debt of gratitude”). They produce a society in which exploitation is downplayed as a temporary state worth bearing to prevent any collective resistance and thoroughgoing change.
Facilitated by Filipino laws and institutions, and dictated by foreign demands, migration has supplied the world with at least 12 million Filipinos, 4 million of whom are in the U.S. Beyond the reality that Filipinos are compelled to migrate abroad because of lack of economic opportunity at home, many are actually trafficked and forced to work in different countries. Indeed, Eudocia was one of hundreds of Filipinos who are trafficked into the U.S. every year as teachers, bakery workers, shipyard workers, and more.
San Jose, Calif.
There is no way to excuse or mitigate the incredible cruelty that Eudocia suffered at the hands of Tizon’s father and mother, nor the benefits that he and his siblings accrued from her coerced labor. There is no question that her unfreedom produced a sphere of freedom that could be enjoyed by the family. She was a slave, as Tizon says, in that her life and labor were stolen from her to benefit those for whom she was, at least in the early years, no more than an “utusan,” someone to be ordered around, bereft of rights and dignity.
But despite her lowly status, the fact remained that she was not chattel. That she was not merely property who could be bought and sold might help to explain why she could also become part of the family, albeit a lowly and exploited member … 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. Thus the Tagalog term Lola, “grandmother,” used to refer to Pulido. It is not a “slave name” as others have suggested, but a kinship term to refer to elders in the Filipino community, even as she was often humiliated and abused …
Despite years of captivity, Pulido retains a resistant capacity. Alex Tizon’s essay can be read not simply as an attempt to confess a crime and expatiate his family’s guilt. It is also a testimony to the slave’s ability to deflect the master’s appropriative power. It is as much about Tizon’s secret shame as it is about Pulido’s resistant dignity.
Vicente Rafael Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Washington Excerpt from a Facebook post
In sharing his story, it seemed Tizon wanted to show us that modern-day slavery can appear under many guises, and that the line between intimacy and subjugation can feel complicated. It can feel like love …
When Tizon tells us that Eudocia is most at home within his house, that she is able to forget years of abuse after a day on the coast, that she was ambitionless, selfless, and easy to please, these moments reveal that he has not finished casting aside the fictions he has had to tell himself to live with Eudocia’s enslavement.
Ultimately his story still bears the signs of a slave’s story told from the perspective of the slavemaster’s son.
It’s weird and very fraught—especially in light of some of the slave narratives white slavery apologists have written in the United States—to say that someone who started out as a slave became a “true” member of the family that owned them. But at the same time, it’s hard not to read the story and come away feeling that Tizon really did see [Lola] as a mother figure, and really did care about her. This and a thousand other details are what make Tizon’s story such a gripping and infuriating and confounding read. I can’t stop thinking about it, and judging from the online reaction, neither can a lot of people. The ensuing conversation has been fascinating, ranging from some of the aforementioned questions about whether Tizon comes uncomfortably close to the apologetic slave narratives of the past, to Filipinos discussing the ongoing prevalence of this system of slavery to this day.
One category of response, though, seems to have picked up a bunch of steam online—that the story is simply bad because it “normalizes” or “apologizes for” slavery …
It’s good to normalize evil, in the sense of showing how otherwise “normal” people and institutions can perpetrate evil acts, and every attempt should be made to do so. That’s how you prevent more evil from happening in the future.
One of the key themes of Tizon’s article is that his family was, in many senses, almost a caricature of the striving, American-dream-seeking immigrant experience. They were normal. They were normal and yet they had a slave. To which one could respond, “Well, no, they’re not normal—they are deranged psychopaths to have managed to simply live for decades and decades with a slave under their roof. That is not something normal people do, and it’s wrong to portray it as such.”
But the entire brutal weight of human history contradicts this view. Normal people—people who otherwise have no signs of derangement or a lack of a grip on basic human moral principles—do evil stuff all the time … that’s the human condition: We don’t have easy access to a zoomed-out view of morality and empathy. We do what the people around us are doing, what our culture is doing. Tizon’s Filipino family came from a place where a form of slavery was quite common, and moving to America didn’t change that fact.
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In what I believe is the first photograph of me that exists, there is a woman standing behind me who is neither my mother nor my lola (with whom I lived for the first year of my life). It was a woman casually referred to as the “maid.” In my visits to the Philippines over the years, I had noticed many such “maids.” I was told that these were the poorest of the poor, those from far-flung provinces who had so little that they moved to the cities to clean, cook, launder, and care for the slightly less poor for the sake of survival, for the sake of sending something back to their families so that their children might have more someday.
I had completely forgotten about the woman in that photograph until a number of Filipino friends sent me Alex Tizon’s article. When I read it, I had to fight back tears. It read to me like a confession, a balancing act of hatred for the worst parts of self/family/culture/immigration and love for the best parts of Lola.
But the most important thing about the article was that it called the arrangement what it was—slavery. How complicit am I in such a system? Were/are my family’s domestic “helpers” paid fairly, or were/are they enslaved? Did they choose that arrangement, or were they “given” to someone as Lola was? How widespread is such a situation in the Philippines and among Filipinos abroad today? What can we do for her family? What can we do about it globally?
Without Lola’s story, I wouldn’t have been asking these questions of myself. I hoped to find others’ responses to these questions on social media. Instead, I was confronted with a much simpler one: Is Alex Tizon a villain?
Generally, the tweets I read criticized the article as a well-written attempt to trick readers into sympathizing with a slaveholder. They equated it to the American South’s attempts to justify slavery. They called out Tizon for doing nothing about Lola’s situation once he became an adult. They mourned the erasure of Eudocia Tomas Pulido’s identity and voice. They decried the lack of statistical context. The overall conclusion seemed to be that Tizon and his family should burn in hell, and we should all cheer for that.
These responses baffled me. I didn’t feel as though Tizon had excused himself or his family from their sins. He confessed to his family’s cruel treatment of Lola in great detail. He claimed his complicity and recounted his own feeble attempts to fix a situation he didn’t know how to fix. And, finally, he tried to tell Lola’s story with the information he was able to glean from her and her family.
Of course, Alex Tizon was not perfect and neither is the article. Why didn’t he include interviews with her surviving family members? Did he ever offer her family any kind of reparations? Do they want reparations? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and unfortunately, Tizon is no longer alive to tell us.
But perhaps the answers to a lot of these questions are rooted in the same reasons all of us fail to do what is right in a thousand small ways every day. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re reading this on a smartphone, and I’m guessing that in the past few years you’ve come across a number of reports about the poor working conditions in Chinese smartphone factories or about the Congolese who mine the rare-earth metals that power those phones. Knowing this is all unspeakably unjust, what have you done? I’m not pointing this out to let Tizon off the hook or to put you on trial, but rather to suggest that asking why he wasn’t better at doing what was right every step of the way isn’t the most fruitful line of discussion. We are all complicit in a number of evils. We all perpetuate oppression throughout our daily lives (granted, some more than others). This is not a reason to give up all efforts to reduce the extent to which we do so, but it is a reason not to spend all our time cataloging another individual’s sins.
My main point of contention with Tizon’s article, and perhaps with [my Atlantic colleagues’] 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 … 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 …
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, … warped against their wills. Calling Pulido a “slave” obscures the work that individuals did to assign that status …
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.
(On TheAtlantic.com, readers answered July/August’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)
3. The application of statistics to medical problems. With the help of this tool, we can trace the development of epidemics, analyze the efficiency of drugs and medical procedures, and determine which pathogens cause which diseases.
— James E. Shockley
2. Vaccinations. The fact that we’re seeing nearly eradicated diseases making a comeback shows just how much we have taken them for granted.
— Summer Whitesell
1. Doctors’ washing their hands before examining patients. Many post-op patients die of infection. Simply washing hands and instruments drastically changes outcomes.
— Sarah Brooks
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