The Atlantic's 'My Family's Slave' should not end with a feast

GRIPPING STORY. Philippine-born journalist Alex Tizon's posthumous story on her family's slave appears on the cover of the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic. Photo from The Atlantic

GRIPPING STORY. Philippine-born journalist Alex Tizon's posthumous story on her family's slave appears on the cover of the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic.

Photo from The Atlantic

Alex Tizon, the Pulitzer-award winning journalist born in the Philippines, wrote a story about Eudocia Pulido, a woman he called "Lola," their family's slave for 56 years. It's "the story Alex was born to write," says his widow Melissa.

Tizon died at age 57 last March in their home in Oregon.

"My Family's Slave" is the cover story of the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic, touted by observers as the return of the magazine to its roots of being abolitionists of slavery.

I, however, find it difficult to share praises.

Tizon ends the story with a description of Lola's family as they receive her ashes. Tizon had traveled to Lola's hometown in Tarlac to return the dead Pulido, decades after holding her hostage in America.

Lola's relatives sobbed, of course, but just like a typical Filipino family, they prepared a feast. 

"Everybody started filing into the kitchen, puffy-eyed but suddenly lighter and ready to tell stories," Tizon writes.

It concludes his well-written account of his Lola's life, the woman who served their family without being paid and the woman his parents subjected to verbal and emotional torment. 

Slave

Lola was Tizon's grandfather's gift to his mother, who had just then turned 12. According to Tizon, his grandfather offered Lola "food and shelter" in exchange for "committing to care" for his mother if only to escape an unhappy life where she was set for an arranged marriage.

Lola became their maid since then, which continued until they moved to America where she would eventually become an illegal immigrant as the rest of the family became citizens.

The family never paid her, nor gave her any allowance. Tizon's parents were also cruel to her, described in detail in the article.

"Mom would come home and upbraid Lola for not cleaning the house well enough or for forgetting to bring in the mail. 'Didn’t I tell you I want the letters here when I come home?' she would say in Tagalog, her voice venomous. 'It’s not hard naman! An idiot could remember.' Then my father would arrive and take his turn. When Dad raised his voice, everyone in the house shrank. Sometimes my parents would team up until Lola broke down crying, almost as though that was their goal," Tizon writes.

His parents did not allow her to fly home to the Philippines when her parents died. His mother had refused to pay for dental checkup when she squirmed with toothache. 

"She used to get angry whenever Lola felt ill. She didn’t want to deal with the disruption and the expense, and would accuse Lola of faking or failing to take care of herself," Tizon writes of his mother.

And so, that the story ends with a light feast angers me. For me, the real story is what was left out, what follows that feast in Lola's home in Tarlac.

What does Lola's family think of her fate, or of the Tizon family? Why had they stayed quiet? Could they have fought for Lola? My guess is maybe not. 

I grew up in that province, I grew up immersed in the kind of poverty that makes it bearable for a mother to give up a child, a sibling to give up a sibling because it's the only way they have a chance. 

I grew up immersed in the kind of culture that glorifies being in America. I wonder whether Lola's sister thought it better that she was living the American dream at least, never mind that she doesn't send money home. I wonder whether Lola had told them she was not being paid. I wonder what she had told them at all.

I am angry that the story ends in Lola's relatives feeling light and ready to eat. The story should have ended openly.

Off the top of my head, I ask: What are the laws, whether Philippine or American, on human trafficking that had been violated in the unpaid employment of Lola? Would Lola's relatives be able to claim compensation from the living relatives of the Tizon family?

Editorial choices

According to Jeffrey Goldberg, Tizon's editor in The Atlantic, Tizon had sent the story to the magazine before his death. He never found out of the magazine's decision to put him on cover. 

We will never be able to tell whether Tizon would have edited his writing, stuck to it, or how he would react to the contoversies that his story has stirred.

So we are left with only this piece to analyze. And in the piece, there is a sense of justification. Tizon devoted a huge chunk to describing the good things he had done for Lola when his parents were already gone.

Tizon flew her back to the Philippines. By then his own family had started paying her handsomely – $200 a week, he says. Then he followed her to the Philippines and asked "You want to go home?" Lola said yes.

Tizon then follows that with stories of a happy Lola, the happy family vacations, the room with word-puzzle booklets. 

It doesn't talk about how Lola must have felt to realize she had been robbed of her home, forced to go back to America because it's now the only place she knows.

Instead, Tizon talks about the garden she returns to in America, the "roses and tulips and every kind of orchid" and that she "spent whole afternoons tending it."

Why did she love gardening? In that chunk of the story, Tizon writes about always reminding Lola she was no longer a slave. But why did Lola become a compulsive cleaner, even when Tizon had made it clear she was no longer required to clean? Maybe Tizon had asked, but he doesn't tell us.

Tizon's widow also reveals on Facebook that the black and white portrait of Lola was taken several years ago. It had been a longtime plan to turn Lola into this story – why wasn't she interviewed, why wasn't her voice given more prominence?

Some people say it is for Tizon to write this story in any way he wanted, that this was his memoir, his tale to tell. If so, then let his editorial choices speak of his intentions.

Perhaps the latter part of the story where he describes Lola's happy last years is his way of asking for forgiveness. Forgiveness from himself, or from Lola, or from Lola's relatives who now have to confront what I could only imagine is a turbulence of emotions having to read what became of Lola's life in the Land of the Free. 

Casting judgment

Every apocalypse is personal, a friend likes to say. "Don't be so righteous," some readers exclaim on social media.

Perhaps it wouldn't be fair to cast so much judgment on Tizon and his family. We do not know their circumstances. However, when he decided to write the piece, he had given us – the readers – the right to his story. It is no longer just his.

 And as parts of the story, it is just right, even necessary, that we ask questions. 

"Why did you wait that long to help?" 

"Did you not earn enough to pay Lola yourself?" 

"How far did you go – other than teaching her to drive a car – to try to help her?"

"Did you say sorry to Lola's relatives when you met them?" 

"What story did you tell authorities when you applied for her amnesty?"

"When you 'searched for your Asian self' when writing your book, what did you realize about your roots that are in conflict with how your family treated Lola?" 

Had Tizon not been part of this family and was tipped to this story, I would like to believe that as a journalist, he would have also wanted to ask these questions. It's just what journalists do. And it's what the readers need.

Which is why I believe that Tizon should have gotten somebody else to write his story. When The Atlantic allowed him to write it, they allowed for a singular view on an issue so complex. An outsider would have asked the hard questions, it would have afforded us a more objective view into the Tizon family and Tizon himself – his inner struggles and how he resolved it as time passed.

An outsider would have exacted some accountability.

Most importantly, an outsider would have talked to some of Lola's relatives. Are you not interested to find out how they really feel outside of Tizon's description of them in that feast in Tarlac?

Because at this point, with Lola dead, their voices are the voices of justice, not Tizon's. And justice is what stories are for. 

"Take this piece as it is, which is a memoir, and not an investigative piece," says someone else. 

When the issue is slavery, which resonates around the world especially to Filipinos who send millions of our own for domestic jobs abroad, we shouldn't ever adjust our standards so low that we let a piece go unchallenged "because it's a memoir."

There is also a cultural justification when Tizon refers to our pre-colonial history of owning slaves.

Then he adds: "Traditions persisted under different guises, even after the U.S. took control of the islands in 1898. Today even the poor can have utusans or katulongs (“helpers”) or kasambahays (“domestics”), as long as there are people even poorer. The pool is deep."

A fellow journalist defends Tizon as a "person who represents the marginalized, the immigrant, the victim of a feudal society." 

We conveniently forget that Tizon is the son of a lawyer and a doctor and afforded education from no less than Stanford. Just on that he's already a cut above the rest of Filipino immigrants in America.

It doesn't take away his struggles and hard work, but to afford him the narrative privileges of being minority just because he was born to the ethnic minority is also cultural misappropriation.

And in any case, whether he's Asian, or white, or black, he was complicit to slavery, and that in itself is wrong, no matter the race.

I struggled to write this because it feels betraying my own: Tizon is a Filipino, a journalist and an immigrant. I should be empathetic.

But I'm choosing to take a hard look at the mirror and recognize that this is my problem too, that this is our problem too.

Have we treated our house helps in the most humane way we can? Are we paying them the minimum wage? Are we giving them statutory benefits? Are we allowing them 8 hours off daily, two days off weekly? All of which, by the way, are provided for in the Kasambahay Law.

This is the conversation now, the conversation that The Atlantic evaded when they decided they were going to go for a beautiful memoir, instead of a hard-hitting piece.

"I glanced at the empty tote bag on the bench, and knew it was right to bring Lola back to the place where she’d been born," is Tizon's final sentence.

Lola is home, so it's now up to us to continue the conversation. To stop would be to betray her memory, and maybe even Tizon's.

Because the story sure should not end with a light-hearted feast, because if Lola had been your lola, would you have been able to eat in peace? Rappler.com

Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email lian.buan@rappler.com or tweet @lianbuan.

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