Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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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What the Backlash to ‘My Family’s Slave’ Obscured

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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?

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.

Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

Genevieve writes:

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?!

Anakbayan USA, a national organization of Filipino youth and students dedicated to advancing democratic rights, sends this response:

In the viral Atlantic article, “My Family’s Slave,” author Alex Tizon tells his account of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was to Tizon’s family both “Lola” and slave. Behind the heart-wrenching storytelling is a reality we must face: the oppressive class structures and culture that brought forth Eudocia’s enslavement and trafficking, and the need to change them in order to address the root of modern day slavery within the Filipino community.

The use of underpaid and overworked katulong, utusan, and kasambahay—the kind of servitude Eudocia was forced to perform—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 the cities, suburbs, and wealthy households in the countryside as domestic help. These domestic helpers are very often young women who must face exploitative conditions. No matter their destination, they are undoubtedly a product of the massive landlessness and joblessness brought about by feudalism in the Philippines.

In addition to the readers who related to the abuses that Eudocia “Lola” Pulido experienced, some readers saw parallels between Alex Tizon’s story and domestic violence they’d witnessed within their own families. Mara writes:

I am a white, American-born woman many years younger than Alex and thus my experiences are very different from his, yet I relate to his story in a way that I have not seen addressed: I grew up in an abusive household and live every day with the guilt of not doing more to rectify my parents’ transgressions.

It must be acknowledged that exposing a child to domestic violence is a form of abuse with lifelong effects; Alex witnessed Lola’s mistreatment as a constant presence in his youth, and clearly struggled with that legacy for the rest of his life. Although he did not recognize himself as such in “My Family’s Slave,” he too deserves our sympathy as victim. A child has no choice but to comply with their parents’ abusive behavior—must comply in order to survive. That normalization of and forced complicity with violence creates a sense of self-doubt and helplessness which does not magically vanish in adulthood. The criticisms of Alex’s decisions have not acknowledged this crucial dynamic, and it’s not something easily understood unless one has lived it.

Bruce gives a wrenching account of what he and his mother lived through:

Like Alex, I grew up with domestic violence. It began even before I could even remember. My mother told me that one time, my dad had her on the ground, and was standing over her, whipping her with his belt. My twin brother and I were cowering in a corner crying, and when my dad left, I crawled over to her and caressed her face. I hadn’t learnt to talk yet.

As numerous readers have written, one of the most moving aspects of “My Family’s Slave” is that Alex Tizon was able to honor Eudocia Tomas Pulido, whom he knew as Lola, by telling her story—while one of the tragedies is that Pulido was never able to tell it herself. My colleague Vann writes:

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.

After reading Alex’s essay and some of the criticism on social media, this reader wrote to us with the subject line, “On Eudocia, from someone who went through it”:

For half my childhood, I was indentured. I was born in Canada, went to school in this country, and it still happened to me. I’m incredibly thankful that I got to grow out of it, but trauma hurts the most in its resonance.

Listening to those claiming to seek justice for Eudocia has felt like a scab opening over and over again. Please, do not take actions on behalf of indentured and enslaved people without consulting them. Do not seek reparations for us without asking. Those in the disability rights movement say, “Nothing about us, without us.” I think this mindset applies to those of us who have gone through forced servitude. We don’t want what you think is best for ourselves.

For my own situation, finding peace and healing after escaping took precedent over any vengeance or confrontation. I would have hated to become a hashtag.

Several other readers also wrote in to say that Eudocia’s experiences reminded them of their own—including Juliet, whose mother came from Tarlac, the same province in the Philippines where Eudocia was born:

I may have accidentally found this article for a reason. I myself was a slave given to live with family members I didn’t even know. I had to wake up in a hard cold cement area under the stairway. Like a cold dog, I’d be woken up with harsh words and a kick on the rib cage jolting my teenage body.  Sad to find out Lola didn’t get an education. I persevered to go to school at night when I was done with all my housework.

I ran away when things got worse and taught myself in a lot of ways to survive. But I don’t feel completely free. It becomes a codependency—it’s hard to explain, but it’s there, a learned trait. Part of life as a slave is interweaving survival and seeking freedom. You never know what freedom is because you have become immune.

Another reader writes:

This essay has brought me to tears as it reminded me of my childhood.

Eudocia "Lola" Tomas Pulido in 1976 Courtesy of Alex Tizon and His Family

In response to Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave,” Richard Buck writes:

I am stunned by Alex’s story. Alex sat at a desk right beside mine for six months when we were both reporters at The Seattle Times. He was immensely talented and well-liked as well as respected.

When I learned his story would be on the cover of the magazine I was proud. Now, my feelings are mixed.

On the one hand, Alex was a dogged reporter, a talented writer, a friendly colleague. He certainly did a good job writing this story. I am sorry for the loss of a good journalist who was my co-worker.

But on the other hand, I’m embarrassed (I wonder: Why does any of this rub off on me?) that he did not do much more, much sooner to improve her life. Knowing what he did, why did he allow his mother to continue to “own” this woman? And why did he want The Seattle Times to publish an obituary after Lola’s death that failed to recognize the most significant fact of her life?

Several other readers also pointed out that obituary, in which Alex had described Lola to a reporter as a devoted grandmother figure who devoted her life to “cooking, cleaning and caring for three generations [and] asked for nothing in return.” The newspaper’s response to The Atlantic’s story is here.

Of the hundreds of emails we’ve received in response to Alex’s essay, nearly all express being moved by the story. Katrina Langford calls it a masterpiece: “I can only imagine how difficult this journey was to make as a writer.” Frank Daniels calls it “an amazing article, by an amazing and compassionate man.” Ruby Moon calls it a love letter: “It touched me to the point that it made me cry.” Many describe intense emotional reactions: tears, shaking hands, sweaty palms, and an inability to stop reading. They write about reading and weeping at work, in class, or in the middle of the night, as if Lola and Alex had entered their lives. From Magdalena Chudzinska:

I’ve just read the article “My Family’s Slave” by Alex Tizon. I cannot thank him, but I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to read such a beautiful story. I’ve been reading it for three days, during my little pauses at work. Couldn’t have finished it at one blow, because was always starting to cry and my team was asking me if everything was fine. I’m puzzled and cracked inside after this story … but that’s good.

These responses point to the resonance of Alex’s personal narrative: His perspective makes the story of Lola all the more vivid, because of—not in spite of—its flaws and his guilt.

However, Rob Byron, another reader, points out the limits of that point of view:

Jeffrey Goldberg hedges in his editor’s note by saying Alex Tizon’s piece is “the sort of journalism The Atlantic has practiced since its inception.” Respectfully, I would ask Mr. Goldberg to prove it. It’s straight memoir, soup to nuts, and the editorial decision to print it without any further reporting to prop it up seems dubious. Readers are left with too many questions: Was the point to raise awareness about the plight of unpaid or underpaid domestic workers in the U.S.? Was it to exorcise family guilt?

A friend of mine who’s a respected editor and colleague had this to say: “Hopefully some talented journalist will pick up the thread and report from [Lola’s] hometown about the slave system still in place there or dig deeper into slavery in the U.S. I’d like to see that journalism.”

So would I.

We’ll be publishing several articles to follow Alex’s essay, situating his story in a broader cultural and economic context. The first, by Ai-jen Poo, discusses the persistence of modern-day slavery in the U.S. We’ll also be publishing the personal stories of readers like Claudia, who experienced conditions similar to those Lola did. If you would like to share your story, please email hello@theatlantic.com; let us know where you’re writing from, and whether you’d like to remain anonymous.

This week, we published Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave,” about the woman he knew as Lola: Eudocia Tomas Pulido, who was enslaved and treated cruelly by his family, and who raised him and whom he loved.

It’s a deeply complicated personal narrative, and the response from readers has been overwhelming. Scores of your emails and comments have expressed being deeply moved by the piece—“feeling sadness, anger, frustration, hope, and relief,” as one reader, Naziat Adnan, put it. At the same time, many others have criticized Alex, who died in March, and The Atlantic’s treatment of the story as an excuse for slaveowners. One reader wrote: “The author aided and abetted in slavery. His pathetic efforts to ease her situation in the last few years of her life were not enough.”

The Filipino magazine Scout published a response to the backlash, noting that “a lot of the international outrage is coming from a place where they don’t fully understand the culture the story is set in. ” (The article was soon revised “to reinforce the fact that the author and Scout don’t condone the Filipino culture of indentured/forced servitude in any way.”)

For my part, I found the story haunting, both for its painful subject matter and by coincidence: I’m half-Filipina, and grew up in the Pacific Northwest where Alex did, so that I could picture the places and landscapes he mentions in the background of Lola’s story. Though he doesn’t explain it in the article, Lola is the Tagalog honorific for “grandmother.” As a child, I didn’t realize this; I thought Lola was simply my grandmother’s name.

We’ll be publishing a number of responses to “My Family’s Slave” in the next few weeks, outlining the economic, cultural, and historical context for Alex and Lola’s personal story. We’ll also be publishing your own personal stories in Notes. From Claudia:

I wept so much while reading Lola’s story because in a way it reminds me of my life. I was also brought to this country when I was a child, lived with my uncle and aunt, and was responsible for taking care of their three kids, cleaning, cooking, and working in their stores (laundromat/salon/pharmacy) for free. This went on for years, except I was lucky enough to go to school.

I was not allowed to discuss the goings-on at the house with anyone. Once, I made the mistake of sharing what was going on at home to my school counselor. The counselor called my uncle to try to setup a time to discuss with them what I told them. When I got home, I got a beating that I never dared to mention it to anyone.

I was luckier than Lola because I was able to leave while in my 20s. I am so sad that Lola never got to live her life, get married or have kids.  Thank you for taking care of her and making sure that her last few years, she was free.  May her soul rest in peace.

If Lola’s situation resonates with you, or if you have another response to the article to share, please tell us your story: hello@theatlantic.com.