So, the front page story in the latest Atlantic is causing a stir on the Net. In the article, the author, Pulitzer prize winning writer Alex Tizon, shares an eloquent, painful story of the domestic worker who raised him and his siblings, who took care of the household, who cooked and cleaned for the family, and who never received a cent for her hard work. Tizon says that the woman, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, was given as a “gift” to his mother from her military-minded father. Tizon makes a point to mention several times that his mother did not want the gift, but could not refuse it. Tizon’s mother grudgingly accepted Pulido, (called Lola by the family), but hurled a lifetime of emotional abuse at her. When Tizon’s mother finally died, Tizon himself tried to “free” Lola in subtle ways. He offered her a stipend. He offered to teach her to drive. She never really became free, still doing the domestic chores because that’s what she always did, and she knew nothing different. When Lola passed away, Tizon traveled to the Philippines (something Lola was not allowed to do when Tizon’s mother was still alive) in order to deliver her ashes to what was left of Lola’s family.
The story struck a chord all over the place. Many wondered why Tizon never stood up for Lola against his mother. Many suggested that he was complicit in Lola’s suffering. But for me, it’s very hard not to view this story through a personal lens. I’m Filipino American. I have relatives in the Philippines whose households are run by servants. My mom once told me of a distant cousin of hers who has a huge house in Manila, and the family has a cook, a housekeeper, and a chauffeur. To me, a kid who grew up in the working-class Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi, these stories sounded made up. No one except royalty could afford such extravagance. And it wasn’t until much later, until I started working myself, that I realized that perhaps these servants weren’t getting paid at all. But, should I question it? I’ve never met this cousin, or their family. I probably never will. Am I complicit in these people’s treatment because I did not question or speak up about it to other relatives who might be able to do something about it? And would talking about it help? Or would it be like talking to an older relative who holds racist views? You want them to become a better person, but are they too set in their ways to change?
It’s a hard thing, and a part of Filipino culture that often gets swept under the rug. Yes, there was slavery in pre-colonial Philippines. Yes, the “barbaric” nature of Filipinos was used as an excuse for Westerners (first the Spanish, and then the Americans) to take over and teach the savages some religion so they know not to enslave others. Still. among upper middle class and high class Filipinos, having servants is expected and encouraged. In a developing country like The Philippines, any kind of work that pays money (even if it doesn’t pay as much as some other jobs) is a blessing, and many become domestic workers, joining households, and becoming part of the family. It’s clear that Tizon loved Lola, and perhaps Lola loved him back, but does that excuse the way Lola was treated by the family?
There’s also the unique experience of Filipino immigrants, who tend to assimilate into American culture quite easily, thanks to working knowledge of English. It could be that Lola could not have found a support group outside of the family because in general, Filipinos don’t congregate together in urban hubs. There aren’t any Little Manilas anymore, even in cities with thriving Chinatowns. Filipinos tend to be very clannish, though. There’s a constant wave of birthdays, baptisms, weddings, and funerals that you’re expected to attend, even if you’re a distant relative. So, Filipinos congregate because of families, not shared culture. And there’s also the Asian idea of not allowing outsiders to know what goes on in your own family. There’s a great degree of shame in Filipino culture, a need to show that everything is fine, to keep up appearances even if your personal life is a mess.
And even now, many Filipinos travel abroad to become domestic workers. The bulk of the Philippines’ GNP is wrapped up in whatever money overseas workers send back home. I’ve heard that the “in” thing now among young, well-to-do Western families is to have a Filipino nanny for their kids. One can only hope that these workers are treated better than Lola was. Filipinos all over the world work as caregivers, as nurses, as nannies, as domestic help. It’s because Filipinos will give up so much of ourselves because we believe that it’s expected. It’s in our culture to care too much. And you’re an evil person if you’re selfish. I’m a selfish person, and I don’t think I’m a very good Filipino, but that’s a hang up for another time.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I, perhaps, needed to get some of this stuff off my shoulders because it’s been weighing me down for the past day or so. My hope is that the controversy surrounding Lola’s story will only shed light on Filipino domestic workers everywhere.
One thing that bothered me about Tizon’s account, he had Lola cremated, presumably so that it would be easier to travel to the Philippines to deliver her body back to her village. Most Filipinos are Roman Catholic and do not believe in cremation. None of my dead relatives have been cremated. I wonder if being cremated was in accordance to Lola’s wishes.
One last kicker. Lola, in Tagalog, means “grandmother”. She was, for all intents and purposes, considered family.
And you don’t pay family.
But you’re not supposed to treat family like the Tizons treated Lola, either.