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.
Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, University of Washington
Excerpt from a Facebook post