“My Family’s Slave” and the Scourge of Modern Slavery
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By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

“My Family’s Slave” and the Scourge of Modern Slavery

May. 25, 2017  |     |  0 comments

Alex Tizon’s confessional essay “My Family’s Slave,” which was selected as the cover story for the June 2017 edition of The Atlantic, has triggered outrage and controversy in the US and the Philippines. Published just weeks after his untimely death in March 2017, Tizon’s essay documents the life and death of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, his family’s longtime domestic maid, and his childhood discovery that she Eudocia Pulido was actually their household slave. What makes the story especially shocking is that much of it takes place in the United States — the world’s unipolar hegemon and exemplar of Western democracy, where it is expected that crimes like slavery no longer exist. However, as we shall see, slavery does continue to exist in the US and around the world, and Eudocia Pulido puts a human face on this often-hidden problem.


According to Tizon’s narrative, Pulido was 18 years of age when her cousin — Tizon’s grandfather — invited her to take care of his daughter in exchange for “food and shelter.” (As observed by many readers, in his narrative Tizon primarily refers to Pulido by “Lola,” the Tagalog honorific for “grandmother.” While this displays respect for his caregiver, it also performs a symbolic erasure of Pulido’s individuality.) Tizon notes that his grandfather was “shrewd — he saw that this girl was penniless, unschooled, and likely to be malleable. Her parents wanted her to marry a pig farmer twice her age, and she was desperately unhappy but had nowhere to go.” Pulido became trapped in forced servitude when Tizon’s family moved to the US. To persuade her to come along, Tizon’s father promised to pay her a salary, which would allow her to “send money to her parents, to all her relations in the village.” However, once she was in the US, she never received the salary that she had been promised:


“She asked my parents about it in a roundabout way a couple of years into our life in America. Her mother had fallen ill (with what I would later learn was dysentery), and her family couldn’t afford the medicine she needed. ‘Pwede ba?’ she said to my parents. Is it possible? Mom let out a sigh. ‘How could you even ask?,’ Dad responded in Tagalog. ‘You see how hard up we are. Don’t you have any shame?’”


Once they were in the US, Tizon’s parents did not allow Pulido to return to the Philippines, even to attend the funerals of her parents. At that point, the visa Tizon’s father had applied for her to enter the US had expired, and she could have been returned to the Philippines had she gone to the American authorities to explain what had happened. However, this would likely have meant the deportation of Tizon and his family back to the Philippines as well. Pulido would remain an illegal immigrant in the US until the Reagan administration’s immigration reforms allowed her — aided by Tizon and his siblings — to claim amnesty and citizenship.


Tizon himself and his siblings soon came to realize Pulido’s true status by their daily observations of their parents’ abusive treatment of her: “Wasn’t paid. Toiled every day. Was tongue-lashed for sitting too long or falling asleep too early. Was struck for talking back. Wore hand-me-downs. Ate scraps and leftovers by herself in the kitchen. Rarely left the house. Had no friends or hobbies outside the family. Had no private quarters.” As Tizon recounts, he had hitherto “thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they — and the whole arrangement — could be immoral.”


Pulido came into Tizon’s care after the death of his mother. At that point, she was 75 years of age. Determined to end her servitude, Tizon did his best to give her a comfortable retirement. She received an allowance of $200 a week — which she remitted back to her surviving family in the Philippines — and when she was 83, Tizon paid for her to return to her home village of Mayantoc in the Philippines for an extended visit. She eventually decided to return to live with Tizon and his family in the US, but this just reflected the devastating loss of agency she had suffered. By being forced to take care of his mother and her children, Pulido had lost her opportunity to make her own family and a life of her choosing. As Tizon recalled:


“Sometimes, when Lola was young, she’d felt so lonely that all she could do was cry. I knew there were years when she’d dreamed of being with a man. I saw it in the way she wrapped herself around one large pillow at night. But what she told me in her old age was that living with Mom’s husbands made her think being alone wasn’t so bad. She didn’t miss those two at all. Maybe her life would have been better if she’d stayed in Mayantoc, gotten married, and had a family like her siblings. But maybe it would have been worse. Two younger sisters, Francisca and Zepriana, got sick and died. A brother, Claudio, was killed. What’s the point of wondering about it now? she asked. Bahala na was her guiding principle. Come what may. What came her way was another kind of family. In that family, she had eight children: Mom, my four siblings and me, and now my two daughters. The eight of us, she said, made her life worth living.”


This however is an instance where, as Sarah Jeong notes, Tizon displays a “dearth of skepticism for the answers that Lola actually gives him.” This is also an instance of Gayatri Spivak’s (1993) famous answer to her question “Can the subaltern speak?” — No, “the subaltern cannot speak” (p. 104). In Pulido’s case, Tizon does the speaking for her. But can we trust his interpretation? At this point it should be noted that, following the publication of “My Family’s Slave,” the Seattle Times has had to issue a correction and apology for its 2011 obituary of Pulido, which had been written with very different information provided at the time by Tizon. (Tizon’s widow has since explained that “at that time he hadn’t come to grips with what Lola’s role was in the family.”) Tizon’s narrative in “My Family’s Slave” ends with Pulido’s death at the age of 86 and his trip to her home village in the Philippines to return her ashes.


Tizon makes a point of noting in his essay that slavery is a long-established fact of life in the Philippines: “Before the Spanish came, islanders enslaved other islanders, usually war captives, criminals, or debtors. Slaves came in different varieties, from warriors who could earn their freedom through valor to household servants who were regarded as property and could be bought and sold or traded. High-status slaves could own low-status slaves, and the low could own the lowliest. Some chose to enter servitude simply to survive: In exchange for their labor, they might be given food, shelter, and protection … 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.”

The Global Slavery Index 2016 estimates that there currently are 57,700 slaves in the US, with domestic work being one of the major sectors.

Indeed, some of the Filipino readers of the essay have highlighted this
“Filipino context” to defend Tizon from those who were outraged by his family’s treatment of Pulido or who see his essay as “romanticizing slavery” — in particular, the context that “employing household help is still the norm for many Filipino families. Many have ‘stay-in’ maids like Pulido who cook, do laundry, and look after children in exchange for a small monthly salary.” However, the highlighting of this contextual information misidentifies the source of the outrage. These stay-in maids, after all, are in a relationship of employment, and receive a salary from their employers for their labor. Indeed, the Batas Kasambahay (“Domestic Workers Act”) makes it compulsory for employers in the Philippines not just to pay their domestic workers a minimum wage, but also to contribute to their social security and health insurance, and also to pay them a 13th month annual bonus, among other benefits. The unremunerated labor of the sort that Pulido was forced to perform for the Tizon family would hence be illegal not just under US law, but under Philippine law as well. While there are cases of employers who fail to comply with the law, the Batas Kasambahay does offer an avenue for victimized domestic workers to seek legal recourse. As Filipino journalist Lian Buan points out, the problems highlighted by Tizon’s essay are problems for Filipino society:


“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.”


Shakira Sison, however, reminds us that class expectations in society often lead Filipino employers to treat their domestic workers poorly. Hence, even if they have not enslaved their helpers, they may still force them to labor under inhumane working conditions. The problem then moves from an issue of law to an issue of morality:


“While it’s true that we don’t beat or work our helpers without pay, we believe that inferior versions of what we get are enough for people of their class. Many homes feed their help a different grade of rice, or vegetables and fish instead of meat. Take a look at maids’ rooms and you can see the disparity between our perception of their comfort levels versus our own. There is an unspoken objective to never spoil one’s help lest they get accustomed to a life like their master’s and demand more … Even by your silence or complacency, please don’t be complicit in maintaining subhuman conditions for anyone.”


Jesse Singal expands on Sison’s point by observing that evil can be committed by anybody: “It’s safe to say, to a certain approximation, that all of us — I really mean this; I really mean you and your family and everyone you love — could, in a different historical context, have been a slaver or a Holocaust-perpetrator or at the very least decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to contest these grotesque crimes. Because that’s the human condition: We don’t have easy access to a zoomed-out view of morality and empathy. We do what the people around us are doing, what our culture is doing. Tizon’s Filipino family came from a place where a form of slavery was quite common, and moving to America didn’t change that fact.”


Indeed, research shows that slavery of the sort suffered by Pulido isn’t uncommon, even in the US. Today, the US government would classify Pulido’s slavery case as one of labor trafficking (when she was deceived by Tizon’s father to accompany his family to the US) and involuntary domestic servitude. Other modern forms of slavery recognized by the US government include sex trafficking, debt bondage, and forced child labor. A recent analysis of 32,000 cases of modern slavery by the anti-slavery organization Polaris reveals “25 types of human trafficking in the United States. Each one has its own business model, trafficker profiles, recruitment strategies, victim profiles, and methods of control that facilitate human trafficking.” These 25 modes of trafficking and slavery are: escort services; illicit massage, health, and beauty; outdoor solicitation; residential; domestic work; bars, strip clubs, and cantinas; pornography; traveling sales crews; restaurants and food service; peddling and begging; agriculture and animal husbandry; personal sexual servitude; health and beauty services; construction; hotels and hospitality; landscaping; illicit activities; arts and entertainment; commercial cleaning services; factories and manufacturing; remote interactive sexual acts; carnivals; forestry and logging; health care; and recreational facilities.


The Global Slavery Index (GSI) 2016 estimates that there currently are 57,700 slaves in the US, with domestic work being one of the major sectors where these slaves can be found. Another major sector affected by slavery is that of restaurants and food service, where victims from countries like “Vietnam, China, Mexico and Guatemala” are deceived by “promises of better-paying jobs and legal immigration,” but instead find themselves “smuggled into the US, forced to work around the clock as bussers, wait staff and cooks, and housed in cramped living quarters. For this, they must pay exorbitant fees that become an insurmountable debt, even as their pay is often withheld, stolen or unfairly docked … Workers who try to leave may face threats of deportation. Traffickers also may threaten to injure or even kill the worker’s family back home.”


Globally, the GSI 2016 ranks the US at 52nd out of the 167 countries surveyed. The GSI estimates that the world today has 45.8 million slaves: “In terms of absolute numbers, India has more people in slavery than any other country — an estimated 18.3 million … North Korea, where an estimated 4.37% of the population is enslaved, has the highest incidence of modern slavery, followed by Uzbekistan at 3.97% and Cambodia at 1.65%.” While slavery doesn’t capture the headlines the same way issues like climate change or terrorism have, it clearly is an issue of significant global impact to human welfare. Hopefully the publicity surrounding the tragic cases of Eudocia Pulido and other modern slaves will prompt greater government action worldwide to combat this global scourge.




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