Further Thoughts on “My Family’s Slave.”

The other day I attended a panel discussion entitled “My Family’s Slave and the OFW Experience,” part of the Filipino American International Book Festival held at the San Francisco Public Library. (I don’t think I need to summarize Alex Tizon’s article, published in The Atlantic in May of this year.) It was both a puzzling but ultimately instructive experience, as it seemed to replicate, to an odd degree, the Filipino reaction to the article itself.

Hosted by journalist and all-around multi-talented writer Benjamin Pimentel, the panel included Cathi Tactaquin, Executive Director of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; Vivian Araullo, journalist and union organizer with UAW International; USF professor Joaquin Gonzalez; and fiction writer Mia Alvar, author of the lauded short-story collection In the Country. (I know both Boying and Jay professionally and personally.) Perhaps most important was the inclusion of Albert (Al) Tizon, the late Alex Tizon’s brother.

I didn’t quite know what to expect regarding the latter. What was Tizon’s role? To explain his side, provide a different angle, or discuss the article’s intentions? To defend what his family had done, or more precisely, had not done? To stand in for his late brother? (This was made all the more uncomfortable when one of the presenters kept looking at Tizon and mistakenly saying “your article.”)

Tizon reminisced about Eudocia Pulido treated him and his siblings: she fed them, clothed them, tucked them into bed — underscoring more painfully, in my mind, the differences between the woman whom they called mother and the woman they called “Lola.”

“She was mean to her at certain points,” Tizon said, referring to his mother’s treatment of Pulido. “But to yank her out of the house and forcibly send her home — nobody wanted that. Lola didn’t want that.”

“Lola loved my mom; my mom loved Lola,” Tizon said.

When asked by friends who could not understand the situation, Tizon steered them to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: “Lola was the help, but she never went home. She never left.” (One of his sisters pointed to the same book in an interview with People magazine. Alas, I am unfamiliar with neither book nor movie; I’ll leave that for someone else to unpack.)

“And to the critics,” Tizon said, “I want you to have lived with us, and see what you would have done.”

It would be wrong for me to portray this as Tizon’s last word — he spoke more at the end about the need for structural change and how “each one of us can do something” — but his words nonetheless connoted a kind of finality, and represented a challenge to critics like me, who had a strong adverse reaction to the piece. “See what you would have done.”

The original article was overshadowed — haunted, if you will — by the two absences (read: deaths) around the narrative: Pulido’s and Tizon’s. Only one of them was able to speak.

Tizon got to tell Tizon’s story and called it “Lola’s Story.” Eudocia Pulido did not.

But Tizon’s death (the article was published posthumously) also foreclosed any reckoning, as he was no longer there to further explain or defend himself.

Albert Tizon’s presence at the panel paradoxically prevented any kind of direct confrontation of the issues — or, at least, his family’s issues — or discussion of the shortcomings of the article. He was, after all, a man who was mourning two losses, and forced to grieve publicly after the article’s publication. I doubted any of the strangers in the auditorium, myself included, would be so churlish as to interrogate that grief further. As the panel title promised, the discussion would also revolve around “the OFW experience,” and so in many ways the panel hovered, perhaps safely, over generalities.

I am by no means criticizing this macro-level approach to discussion, but I have my biases. Alvar introduced herself with something of a disclaimer: that she was looking at migration and OFW lives from the lens of a fiction writer. I’d argue though that she may be in a better position to explore questions of a different register, to hone in on and illuminate emotional truths. Things like guilt, loyalty, regret, the awareness of class differences, the lived experience of inequality.

Or questions like: How do children discover — to use Victoria Araullo’s words — discover that “something is not quite right?” How do family members calculate between a moral and a familial obligation? How are such reckonings deferred and complicated as the children grow into adulthood? How is it possible that such cruelties could be inflicted on someone considered as family? Or, to zoom up a little higher: How does Philippine society itself somehow make this hierarchy, and the brutality accompanying it, socially permissible?

The panel’s consensus, at least (other than pronouncing that the situation was complicated, and that the discussion raised more questions than answers), was that Alex Tizon deliberately used the word “slave,” knowing full well what the word “slave” meant in US history. (There is, in fact, no ambiguity behind this; Alex Tizon himself wrote in his article: “No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived.”)

Albert Tizon said at the panel: “One of the downsides of using the word ‘slave’ was because of the historical connotation.” “Alex probably overestimated the American public’s sense of nuance,” Tizon said, referring to his brother’s “poetic” use of the word “slave” (I assume he meant “metaphorical”).

“‘Slave’,” he said, “was sociologically inaccurate but emotionally honest.”

It was arguably the intentionally provocative use of the word “slave” — not to mention the abuses that Pulido suffered, or what critics pointed to as Tizon’s culpability, or that The Atlantic had somehow “romanticized” slave ownership (to me this is a stretch) — that tipped the scales towards such a viral reaction. But the article also triggered a cascade of self-defensive explanations from Filipinos and Filipino immigrants in the US alike. No, it was never that bad; no, we really did treat them like family; no, you don’t understand the cultural meaning of having a maid; no, maids aren’t really treated that way; no, you’ll never understand what it’s really like in the Philippines; and so on.

Such explanations are valuable. They provide a deeper, more complex historical and cultural context. And as someone with a background in cultural anthropology, I take the side of nuance all the way.

But such explanations also obfuscate, most damagingly, what is, for me, the moral clarity of the circumstances: Eudocia Pulido was not free, and her labor was not paid. I do not have the strength for the mental gymnastics that will allow me to conceive of “unfree labor” as something other than slavery.

Sadly, though unsurprisingly, the chorus of #NotAllMiddleClassFilipinos apologies that followed the publication of the article was reproduced in the panel discussion and the Q&A portion. Almost to a person, each one who held the microphone began with an admission of complicity, followed by “Yes, we had maids, but we paid them / but they sat with us at dinner / but we sent them to high school.”

These are certainly crucial differences from the tragic circumstances that befell Pulido. But it was only until Rona Fernandez — here’s her powerful Medium piece — stood up to characterize the social-media reaction (and by extension, I think, the folks in the room) as “middle-class hand-wringing” did the audience erupt into scattered applause. (Fernandez was also the only one to point out the connection to Duterte’s extrajudicial killings, as part of a wholesale war on the poor.)

This middle-class complicity is precisely why structural change seems like the impossibility that it does today, trapping its willing participants in a state of helplessness. You have a state that relies on — no, encourages — the docility of its overseas foreign workers. You have a culture that systematically devalues domestic and menial labor, despite the middle class’s utter dependence on domestic housework to run the engines of capital and government. All are massive, monolithic targets that, it seems, can only be chipped away at, policy by unenforceable policy, or through more radical means.

Words matter. Tizon used the word “slave” and meant it. Cathi Tactaquin spoke of “terms that hide a women’s status as a worker:” yaya, maid, servant, and so on. Words that, as she put it, “shielded a historical condition that was truly abusive.”

To which I might gently add: words like “Lola.” Words like “love.”

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