Reporter's Notebook

Your Responses to Lola’s Story
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Reader discussions, reflections, and personal stories related to Alex Tizon’s June 2017 cover story “My Family’s Slave.” See all responses to the essay here.

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‘If We Employ Somebody Who Wants to Leave, and Can’t ...’

A woman draws the curtains at a shelter for foreign domestic workers fleeing employer abuse in Dora, Lebanon, on March 15, 2010. Cynthia Karam / Reuters

In our ongoing series of responses to “My Family’s Slave,” we’ve heard from a number of readers who saw aspects of their own lives in Eudocia “Lola” Pulido’s situation, as well as some who recognized her story in arrangements made by their own families. Another reader, Dina, affirms:

The kind of “slavery” the author narrated is not news to me. Even nowadays, if you are poor here in the Philippines, enslaving oneself in another person or family’s household is very common, especially for poor people from the province who are uneducated and have no other skills but to do household chores. But what would be uncommon in this story is the maltreatment and the lack of remuneration for decades. In the Philippine setting, such practice is so backward and it is shocking to know it happened in the 20th century in an educated family residing in the world of the free.

Lola represents modern-day Filipino slaves—the overseas foreign workers who would work as domestic helpers, mostly in Asian countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Middle East.  Some of these women would themselves be mothers sacrificing to leave their small children behind under the care of others (sometimes strangers) so they would be able to give them their basic material needs. Unlike Lola, they are paid but some would experience the same abuse, verbal or physical sometimes both. There could be multiple horror stories published about these women, and it would not be limited to Filipinas only.

Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told the stories of women enslaved in homes across America in her own essay “Lola Wasn’t Alone.” And Alice Su, who has spent several months reporting on migrant domestic labor in the Middle East, covered several more. From Alice:

Jordan has about 50,000 migrant domestic workers, of whom the largest subgroup are from the Philippines. Lebanon had nearly 170,000 registered domestic migrants in 2016. Most of them—about 105,000—are from Ethiopia, but Filipinas are the second-biggest group, at roughly 18,300.

In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers are specifically excluded from labor laws, which means they have no legal guarantee for basic rights like a minimum wage and maximum work hours or days off, and nowhere to appeal when they are verbally or physically abused. Their work contracts require that they live in their employers’ homes. When abuse happens, they have nowhere to go.

For Ihab, a reader from Lebanon, these articles hit close to home:

Alex Tizon’s essay on Lola was one of the most powerful, personal reads I’ve had in recent memory. I immediately asked the rest of my family to read it—hoping that, like me, they would make the connection between Lola and the domestic workers in our home country of Lebanon. Then, The Atlantic published Alice Su’s piece making that connection explicit.

The problems with Lebanon’s migrant domestic worker industry are well documented, and I wanted to share my personal experiences with it. I wish I could offer more of the victim’s perspective, but can only reflect on my own role and, like Tizon showed, on how cowardice can take over when facing shame in your own family.

Kohei Hara / Getty

Randy Ribay writes:

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 with for the first year of my life). Instead 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.” These women were all but invisible. 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 the morning when a number of Filipino friends sent me Alex Tizon’s article “My Family’s Slave” published online by the Atlantic on May 16.  When I had the chance to read it, I had to fight back tears so I wasn’t crying in front of my colleagues and students. It struck me as beautifully written, not because of flowery language, but because of its brutal honesty. I found it nuanced and unflinching. 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 Eudocia, as noted by @sarahjeong. Throughout it all, I felt the author acknowledged how fucked-up the entire situation was, especially his own complicity.

But the most important thing about the article, in my opinion, was that it called out the arrangement for what it was—slavery. I finished that article empathizing with Lola Eudocia’s tragic life, and a number of questions haunted me throughout the day: 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 like Lola Eudocia? Should I ask my family? 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? What else am I complicit in perpetuating?

Without Lola Eudocia’s story, I wouldn’t have been asking these questions of myself. I hoped to find others’ responses to them around social media when I logged on after work. Instead, I was confronted with a much simpler one: Is Alex Tizon a villain?