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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Slavery in the 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?!

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?