‘My Family’s Slave’: Romanticizing slavery or mirror of reality?

PHOTO: Screen grab from The Atlantic website.

It’s routinely taught in journalism classes that journalism isn’t about you. That when pursuing the news and producing stories, one — ideally — should remove oneself from the picture.

But for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist Alex Tizon, one of his most compelling stories would be an intensely personal one, and the last story he would ever write.

In his widely read essay for The Atlantic last week, Tizon revealed that his family’s helper growing up, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, a woman he knew as “Lola” — an endearing term for “grandma” — was not his grandma but a slave, a distant, poorer relative of Alex’s mother who had been given to her as a “gift” by his grandfather.

It wasn’t until a conversation with his brother at 11 years old that he finally realized the stark reality of Lola’s existence.

The discussions now erupting across Facebook and Twitter – not only in the Philippines but across the globe – bring to mind 2011, when another Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino-American journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, penned his essay “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” for the New York Times, opening up heated discussions on the polarizing topic of illegal immigration.

A common criticism I’ve seen across social media in the past week is that Tizon’s essay romanticized slavery or was self-serving. As a journalist who has published personal essays in the past, I can assure you that the moments before an article goes live online or is printed are not particularly exciting; they’re nerve-wracking.

Rather than thoughts of glory, you’re more likely to be consumed by anxiety over the personal consequences one might face in the days after the essay is published.

When a journalist chooses to publish something so personal, there are always consequences to consider. How will this affect me and my family’s reputation? What kind of scrutiny will I face after this essay is published? Will there be legal consequences?

As a veteran journalist, Alex would have been well aware of all of this.
His wife, Melissa Tizon, said in a recent radio interview that Alex knew there would be questions, and if he were alive, he would be ready to face them.

If he were alive.

But he’s not. Neither is his mother, the story’s antagonist. And neither is the victim, Lola.

Many in the academic community in Metro Manila has been quick to condemn the Tizons as criminals, and a hashtag #JusticeForEudocia trended the day after the essay was published, demanding the surviving members of the Tizon family pay Eudocia’s family in the Philippines reparations for her 56 years of slavery.

On the other side of the debate, some have taken pains to explain that there is historical context and nuance in this story that is being missed. They insist Lola was not a slave in the same way as say, Soloman Northup, the author and protagonist of “12 Years a Slave.”

There is, of course, truth in both points. Is there cultural nuance involved in understanding the story? Yes. Does it excuse Alex’s mother for enslaving Lola? No.

And if the story were happening now, hardly anyone would disagree that Alex’s mother must face legal consequences for the mental and physical abuse she put Lola through.

But it’s too late for that now.

Lola never married or had any children. If the Tizons were to pay reparations, to whom would they pay them? Lola’s nieces, nephews or distant relatives in Tarlac who she hardly knew?

It is clear from the story that after Alex’s mom died and Lola came to live with Alex, he tried to make it right. She was paid an allowance, legalized, was entitled to receive social security, and offered support if she wanted to move back to the Philippines.

But when she refused to learn to drive, or drop her old habits of cleaning and cooking too much, it seemed Alex knew it was too late to make up for the decades of abuse she had to endure. The best he could do was to make her a part of his growing family in the last decades of her life.

The trouble with philosophizing, deconstructing and circling around the now-academic issue of punishing the Tizons is that it misses the bigger picture, the one Alex was bringing to light. There are about 45.8 million people still living in some form of modern slavery in over 167 different countries today, according to data published in the recent 2016 Global Slavery Index.

The index estimates there are currently 401,000 people in slavery in the Philippines alone and another 57,000 in the United States.
These include those in sex slavery, forced migrant labor, child labor, and slavery by descent, among other forms.

Was “My family’s slave” really romanticizing slavery? Or was he simply holding up a mirror and forcing readers to confront a hard truth that’s for too long been pushed into the corners of our minds?

Was writing the essay Alex’s way of atoning for his and his mother’s sins? While I cannot speak for Alex, as a fellow Fil-Am journalist, my strongest guess would be that Alex wrote this story simply to give perspective into what slavery looks like for the over 45 million people still living it.

We can continue the overly intellectualized discourse and put the dead on trial.

And we can pay some relative money for Lola’s pain and suffering, tell ourselves we did a good job, forget Lola, and move on.

But there’s a danger in treating Lola’s case as exotic, of using it to lower the bar and excuse similar, if less egregious, examples of an increasingly outdated way of life. If we don’t examine the root issue and how it affects all of us – the potential Lola next door or even in our own kitchen – what will we have learned?

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