Alex Tizon’s piece, My Family’s Slave, is one that by now, you should have read if you are regularly on the Internet. It drew tears, anger, controversy (so much controversy), and perhaps its magic is that it will always be open-ended. There would be no resolution for Lola, for Alex, for the Tizon family, and we are left to pick the pieces of their tragic stories and continue to make sense of it.
Tizon’s article, from how I see it, was never meant to be condescending or sympathetic to Philippine slave culture; he simply told a story about how his family acquired and exploited a human being in their household for three generations. Alex shared the unfortunate circumstances that led to Lola staying with her mother until she got married, had kids, and her kids got children of their own.
As a Filipino, I was both shocked and understanding of Lola’s situation. “Slavery” is common in the Philippines, even until now, where women from provinces or poor families are employed by middle- or upper-class families to take care of their household chores and children. They are not called slaves here; rather, they are called “katulong” or “kasambahay”, which translates to “helper”. Parents of said households have full-time jobs and other obligations that make them unequipped to handle domestic tasks, so they find others to do it for them. Certainly, this is a normal set-up, but the fact that most families pay their helpers a minimum of Php 3,000 a month (approximately 60 USD), without signing them up for healthcare or any employee benefits makes the helpers’ situation more oppressive than other job opportunities.
I understood perhaps the circumstances that led to Alex’s father and mother basically forcing Lola to come with them to the United States – they both had full-time jobs and children; who’s going to take care and raise said children well? Forcing her was callous, downright horrifying, but practical considering what they were going through. What led me shocked and angry was how abused Lola was when she was in America. Alex’s parents verbally abused her and did not pay her for her services. They did not take care of her until her teeth started falling out from lack of care. This stumped me; if Alex’s mother and father were still alive and I was in front of them, I would have not hesitated. I would have punched them both in their faces.
See, despite employing and giving them meager allowances for their services, most of us Filipinos never physically or verbally abused our katulongs. They were family to us; we eat with them, we talk and share stories with them, we go out with them when traveling, we take care of them and pay for their medical fees when they are sick and, in my case, cry tragically when they leave our families to either pursue greener pastures or return to their own families. Our katulong was like my second mother; I respected her and loved her even if the circumstances that led to her being with us were not favorable.
Despite my mixed emotions while reading the article, one thing stood out to me like a glaring light, something untouchable and quite terrifying: in all the horrors Lola experienced, she never once lost her self. She cried and suffered under the Tizon’s, her metaphorical skin scratched raw until the abuse was so close to her core, but she fought back with all her strength the Tizon’s attempt to get to her further:
One day, while Lola and I were putting away groceries, I just blurted it out: “Lola, have you ever been romantic with anyone?” She smiled, and then she told me the story of the only time she’d come close. She was about 15, and there was a handsome boy named Pedro from a nearby farm. For several months they harvested rice together side by side. One time, she dropped her bolo—a cutting implement—and he quickly picked it up and handed it back to her. “I liked him,” she said.
“Then he moved away,” she said.
“Lola, have you ever had sex?,” I heard myself saying.
“No,” she said.
She wasn’t accustomed to being asked personal questions. “Katulong lang ako,” she’d say. I’m only a servant. She often gave one- or two-word answers, and teasing out even the simplest story was a game of 20 questions that could last days or weeks.
There are aspects of her that are hers alone and would rather not share, and perhaps this presented a worn-down reflection of her self-worth, but I’m glad she still had the strength to not give the Tizons all of her. That there are certain things she kept to herself. That she still had the courage to fight for what was right, like when Alex’s mother remarried to a freeloading, abusive gambler and Lola protected the woman from his ire. That she still cared for Alex’s mother when she got divorced and was in her deathbed, even if the mother was so cruel to her. If I were Lola, I would have left her to die in her misery. I would not have cared for her if she spent most of her life enslaving me. It’s so easy to give in, to be weak and submit to negativity when you have experienced it your entire life, but somehow, Lola touched that negativity, told herself she didn’t want it, and continued to shine life in the morose circumstances of the Tizon family.
There may never be justice for Lola for all the years she had been enslaved – hell, even her last years with Alex’s family where she was treated well was not enough to make up for all she went through. Despite all this, the only bright spot in Alex Tizon’s article is not his voice, his ability to write well, or his opportunity to share a controversial story with deeply-rooted issues – rather, it is Lola, who would wake, sit up and stand every morning to face another day under the Tizons with her heart still intact, still kind. Still kind.