Saturday, December 02, 2017

"My Family's Slave": A Story about Modern Day Slavery

Last May The Atlantic published a story by Alex Tizón, called "My family's slave." After I read it, I knew, this is what I want to write about for this year's edition of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. I urge you to read the story for yourself, but a warning: it's not an easy read.


It's impossible to summarize the story in a few sentences, but the first paragraph captures the essence of what happened.

"Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola. She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding."

By the time the author is eleven or twelve years old, his big brother tells him that Ms. Pulido (the author refers to her as Lola) is in effect a slave. When asked who she is, people are told she is a shy relative from back home. Mr. Tizón's best friend at the time doesn't buy it and the author, still a teenager, has to come up with all kinds of improbable excuses to explain the situation.

The situation is being further complicated by the expiration of Ms. Pulido's visa. If the authorities were to discover, chances are the whole family could be deported. Then the father leaves and the mother remarries, Ms. Pulido now has to serve her new husband too. Trying to protect Ms. Pulido, the author confronts his mother. The fight feeds Mom’s fear that Lola has stolen the kids from her, and she makes Ms. Pulido pay for it. Mom drove her harder. Tormented her by saying, “I hope you’re happy now that your kids hate me.”

After his mother dies, Ms. Pulido goes to live with Alex Tizón and his family. By then she is an American citizen. Old habits die hard and despite express wishes of the family she cooks, cleans and takes care of the author's children. Twelve years later at the age of 87 she passes away.

Like I wrote at the beginning, read the story for yourself. It's a very powerful story and it elicits strong reactions. It is hard not to judge but above all I feel sorry for Ms. Pulido, who was forced - for no other reason than that she was poor - to live her life as a slave for the benefit of others.

Two stories

Quite a few comments focus on why Mr. Tizón and his siblings did not do more to help Ms. Pulido. Unfortunately the author passed away shortly before the story was published.  More puzzling, why did he push The Seattle Times to publish an obituary after Lola’s death in 2011 "that failed to recognize the most significant fact [that she is a modern day slave] of her life?" as one former colleague at the Seattle Times is wondering.

Six years later, the reporter who wrote the obituary, considers it a whitewash. "An obituary is a record of a person's life, written for the reader and the community at large", she says. I can imagine that it is hard to come to terms with having a slave at home, but if you can't tell the truth, best to say nothing at all, especially if you are a journalist. As for Mr. Tizón's desire to "acknowledge and honor those sacrifices" what about acknowledging the suffering of someone who isn't free to make their own choices?

Responses to Ms. Pulido's story

Mr. Tizón's article created two specific types of backlash. The first, a predominantly Western one, where the author is accused of romanticizing slavery. Others, mainly the Filipino community, argued that understanding their history and culture was necessary to fully appreciate the story and the writer’s perspective. All that backlash, some worry, turns the spotlight away from what the arrangement was: slavery.

The story also drew responses from people that have been in the same situation as well as highlighting that modern day slavery is a global evil. One comment that struck a particular cord with me is where one of the victims argues not to take action on behalf of them, without consulting them first:

"Listening to those claiming to seek justice for Eudocia has felt like a scab opening over and over again. Please, do not take actions on behalf of indentured and enslaved people without consulting them. Do not seek reparations for us without asking. Those in the disability rights movement say, “Nothing about us, without us.” I think this mindset applies to those of us who have gone through forced servitude. We don’t want what you think is best for ourselves."

I'm still not sure what to make of all this but the suffering of the victims is real and ongoing. Not only Mr. Tizón struggled with what happens, so do most readers. People will continue to debate it, but let's not forget why this story is so valuable. Despite its many flaws, real or perceived, it creates awareness and awareness is the first step towards change.



December 02 is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. As a reminder for us kinky people about the ugly truth of real world slavery, once a year I write about modern day slavery.
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