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An Extraordinary Family Secret

The Philippine-American journalist Alex Tizon flew thousands of miles carrying the ashes of the woman who had raised him, cared for him and been a constant presence in his life for many years. That’s not so unusual. Many people in our globalized world return to the lands of their birth with the ashes of their loved ones.

But the woman he loved and whose ashes he carried wasn’t his mother, his grandmother or any other kind of relative. She had, in fact, been his family slave. Tizon tells the strange and disturbing story of their relationship in an article called “My Family’s Slave” in Atlantic magazine. And he doesn’t pull his punches. The woman’s name was Eudocia Pulido, but he and the rest of his family called her Lola. And “slave” is the only word he thinks right to describe her role within the household.

After all, servants get paid and can choose their employers. Lola didn’t get a penny and came into the family when Alex’s grandfather gave her to his mother as a gift. That was in 1943 in the Philippines, where slavery already had a long and sorry history. It wasn’t over, as Lola’s story proves. She stayed with Alex’s mother when she married and moved to the Filipino capital Manila, where she had the first of her four children. Lola herself never married and never had children.

She never had time: she was too busy caring for the children of Alex’s parents, her master and mistress. She raised Alex from his earliest days and travelled with the family when they emigrated to America. Alex grew up loving her: she was the first face he saw in the morning and hers was the last voice he heard at night. She was more important in his life than either of his parents, who were very busy with their careers as they tried to realize the American Dream and become rich and successful.

It was only gradually that he began to realize what Lola’s true position in the household was. When his older brother Arthur used the word “slave”, he had to accept that it was true. Lola worked all day without pay, often falling asleep over a pile of laundry, and Alex’s parents kept her firmly under their thumbs, scolding and belittling her constantly. She had no freedom and no choice in anything about her life. She cooked delicious meals for the Tizon family, but she herself ate scraps and leftovers. She didn’t even have a room of her own or more than a handful of personal possessions. There was no other other word for it: she was a slave.

And slavery had been illegal in the United States for many years by then. If Alex or his siblings had reported her situation to the police, she would have been freed. And that’s what they all wanted. But the flipside was that Alex’s parents would have been in trouble. They might have been imprisoned or deported. He loved Lola and hated what was done to her, but he also loved his parents. It was an impossible situation.

It continued after his father abandoned the family. Lola comforted his mother, then stayed with her for more long decades of unpaid work and bullying. It wasn’t until his mother died in 1999 that Lola was free. Alex brought her to live with his own family in Seattle. She was seventy-five by then. He gave her an allowance every month and gradually managed to persuade her not to do all the work in the house. She could relax, enjoy her retirement and do the word-puzzles that she loved.

He paid for her to travel back to the Philippines and told her she could stay there if she wanted. But her old life there was gone. Her parents had passed away long before and almost of the people she had known had followed them. She returned to the United States and stayed there until she too passed away in 2011. After her cremation, he kept her ashes until he could return with them to the place she had been born in the north of the Philippines

Alex Tizon himself has passed away too at the young age of 57. He was a compassionate man and an insightful journalist who won many awards. But even if everything else he wrote is forgotten, the story of his relationship with Lola will have justified his career. It is sad, strange and haunting, and no-one who reads it will remain unaffected by it. Lola was an amazing woman who repaid cruelty with kindness and loved the children of those who had enslaved her.