Like most accounts of slaves and the families they died serving, Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” seems more about mitigating the feelings of the oppressor than rendering visible the life of the oppressed.
“My Family’s Slave,” the late Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Alex Tizon’s final story published in the June issue of The Atlantic, about the invisible life of Eudocia Tomas Pulido — the subject of the piece, the family slave — is problematic. That’s not a referendum on the stunning quality and craftsmanship of the writing or Tizon’s mission to give voice to “forgotten people.” From the opening sentence to the final paragraph, it’s clear — abundantly clear — that Tizon was at the height of his literary powers when he wrote MFS before his death in March.
No, the problem with MFS has nothing to do with the story itself, and everything to do with the perspective from which the story was written — the coming-of-age tale of the child of an oppressor. It’s a story of how this child, admittedly sensitive and attuned to his surroundings, negotiated hypocrisy and sought to rectify his family’s hypocritical past by offering Lola (as they called her) refuge, compensation and comfort as she inched into her twilight years following his mother’s death.
Tizon is at his best when imploding the “poster family” image of his immigrant family and depicting the growing tension within his breast that frustrated his relationship with his mother. Honestly, that tension is really what the final product of this story is about, not his “family’s slave.” The piece addresses more the emotional turmoil Tizon dealt with after coming into the knowledge that the petite woman who gave him his “first memory” and spent 56 years serving his family met all the criteria of a “utusan.” “A person who takes commands.” A slave, in other words.
The story of how she got to be that way, and why, I felt, should have been the main focus of the article. Instead, we were fed something slightly similar to how the struggles of black mammy figures who took care of middling to wealthy white families are handled. After having their agency stripped from them by the claws of white supremacy, their existence is reimagined and repackaged to suit the perspective of the oppressor.
Of course, this analogy is imperfect; in the case of Lola, we find group infighting. We have an oppressed people subjugating the “low” and “lowest” segments of its own, what scholars call intraracial conflict.
“Slavery has a long history on the island” prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Tizon informs us, without venturing to explore how this circumscribed Lola’s existence and compromised Filipino consciousness in general.
Tizon should have prioritized Lola’s voice, or something close to it. True, he pressed her for stories after she came to live with him. However, by then, it was too little, too late. She had been ignored and muzzled for so long it became a way of life, as natural as breathing. She had become so accustomed to cooking and cleaning and washing and caretaking for her oppressors that even her inclination to behave this way decades later, of all things, annoyed Tizon.
By the time Tizon bothered to ask Lola for her thoughts to form a foundation for MFS, her resignation was final. At more than 80 years old, her habits were fixed and her answers were short. She saw little point in having any opinion at all and little reason for self-reflection. All she knew, all she would ever know, all she understood, was a life of neglect and servitude, where she was tasked with making the lives of her owners more comfortable. All that she would take with her to the grave was her existence as property to be controlled and commanded about.
In fact, the only opinion of hers Tizon leaves the reader with is that Lola’s enslavement to his family was probably for the best and had they only communicated more lovingly with her, things would’ve been better. That it didn’t matter to her one bit that she never had an opportunity to have a lover, children or a life outside the jurisdiction of Tizon’s family. That her condition was merely a matter of her enslavers dropping the ball on their interpersonal communication skills with the help.
Even if a few of you may be thinking, right now, “Well, there’s your answer. He tried, but she had no opinion,” I find that rejoinder to be unacceptable as well. MFS opens with Tizon traveling to Manila to return Lola’s ashes to her family. Yet, even here, Tizon manages to demote her family’s voice as well, reducing it to outpourings of tears and loud “animal wails” that served to aid and punctuate the grieving process.
Yet, it was precisely in those moments that I found myself wanting to know more about “the islands” on the other side the ocean that the older “[Lola] dreamed of returning to.” I found myself hungry for a deeper insight about the familial stock from which she came — at least, the ones still living. After all, even as her life neared its end, she continued to send money to these folks. There is something to be said of that, aside from fulfilling a sense of financial obligation.
I wanted to know more about the woman who hadn’t seen her family, her village, since she was a teenager, who didn’t return to the place of her birth until she was an 83-year-old woman.
I wanted to know why the changes that the old Lola found when she finally did return to her village — the house she grew up in, the fallen farms, the kinfolk and childhood friends who died — had occurred and what that suggested about the evolution, or devolution, of life and government in the Philippines.
I wanted to know her thoughts and opinions on the history of Filipinos enslaving fellow Filipinos — even if I didn’t agree with the response. What did her family think of the practice?
I wanted the slave’s perspective. I didn’t get that, interesting and dramatic though Tizon’s inner conflict — and the familial conflicts that tumbled out of it — were.
So that, by the end of Tizon’s piece, Lola, in death, remains as much a “secret” to the world as she was in life.