It has taken me some time to write my thoughts on Alex Tizon’s posthumous memoir that was published in The Atlantic last week. As a Fil-Am, I was thrilled to hear about a Fil-Am story being published in a nationally-recognized magazine. But the excitement was short-lived, when I read the entire memoir about the Tizon family and their “katulong,” Eudocia Tomas Pulido. In the beautifully written narrative that depicted a certain aspect of Filipino life and culture, I felt unnerved and triggered by its contents.
This is because Lola Eudocia was familiar to me…
She was a woman. She was a Filipina woman. She was born into a society that carries the legacy of colonization through servitude of Filipina women, specifically as “caretakers” or “the help” to other, more affluent Filipinos. She was a Filipina woman that was forced to work for survival, to sacrifice herself for the ones she was “hired” to take care of, to receive the bare minimum of living with the family she serves. She was someone to be addressed as “Lola”, a name meant to be used with endearment, but to be treated otherwise. Eudocia reminded me of women I know and women I may never meet but know that they live through what she lived through.
The piece made rounds on my news feeds across multiple social media sites. Many have said that it was a touching piece that made them cry. A story about a woman that raised three generations of the author’s family for more than 70 years–starting with The Mother, six years younger than Eudocia–only to be treated more like a “slave” than a “grandmother” or respectable elder relative of the family. (According to the author, Lola Eudacio was a distant cousin “rescued” by his maternal grandfather and became his mother’s yaya or “caretaker”–a very common form of servitude in the Philippines.) The piece hits on every pathos and ethos that rhetoric has to offer, to make the audience sympathize with Lola Eudocia and her condition.
Some have also criticized the memoir because it glosses over the “master-slave” relationship of his family. The narrative itself was constructed by the child of the “master” that enslaved Lola Eudocia for more than 50 years, before being “handed over” to the author’s family for another few years until her death. The author describes his journey to Lola Eudocia’s hometown in Tarlac, carrying her ashes in a plastic box, while inserting bits of her life story and his memories of growing up under her care. The criticism lies in the author’s complicit view of the situation, coated with well-written prose; nowhere in the essay did he express contempt, shame, or any apologetic feelings for his family’s treatment of Lola Eudocia.
With all of these mixed reviews, all I can say about the piece itself is that I was angry.
I was angry because this is prevalent in Filipino culture. What really made me angry about what happened to Eudocia is that it is sadly characteristic in Filipino family dynamics, which is almost never talked about. We have that one relative that no one wants to mention for many reasons. Some of those reasons may be justifiable, as it may bring back the trauma of the past, but they are nonetheless regarded as things not worth mentioning ever again, only to be swept under the rug and pretend that nothing happened. Lola Eudocia was the “family secret” that cannot be explained outside the family, for the sake of not embarrassing the family. They completely ignored her humanity. They verbally and emotionally abused her so that she could remain compliant and silent. And from reading Tizon’s piece, I could imagine some Filipinos revere her behavior as “strong-willed” and “admirable” because she was doing what every Filipina woman should do in her position–“take care of the family without complaint.”
And all of this happened, while she was referred to as “Lola” by the author and his family. Lola means grandmother, and it is a name used as a term of endearment to an elder woman in the family (blood-related, extended, adopted, or distant). It carries the weight of respect and reverence given to the person. I saw none of that in the piece.
In the days following the publication of Tizon’s piece, I read numerous reactions that began to confuse and overwhelm me because I was still trying to process my own thoughts. I wanted to write my own reaction, but I needed to be sure that I was not the only one conflicted with what transpired in the piece itself. I was particularly looking for other Pilipinx voices and what they had to say about it, and most of them hit on the points that I struggled to articulate. But what more can be said about Eudocia, the Tizon family, the history and perpetuation of “modern-day slavery” in the Philippines and among Filipino families, and the complicated feelings attached to it?
All I can offer are things that I wanted to know, that I felt were missing, in the context of Filipino family dynamics:
- Why did the author’s mother treat Lola Eudocia that way? What was her upbringing like, prior to Eudocia’s entry? What was it like for another Filipina to grow up in a household without her mother (who, according to the author, died giving birth to her) or any other Filipina presence? What was it like to grow up with a military father? Did all the expectations of being a dalagang Pilipina drive the mother to take her anger out on Lola Eudocia through the years?
- Did Eudocia ever share stories with Tizon and his siblings, as their “Lola”? Did she have memories from her childhood and teenage life that she wanted to share? Did the children care about who she was, as a person outside of her role as servant?
- What about the Pulido relatives? Did they never cross the minds of the Tizons? Did the more affluent family not have enough sympathy or “pity” for their “poorer relations” to send money back home? (There is a piece from Rappler that gives us a better picture of who was Eudocia Pulido, from the perspective of her relatives.)
- Lastly, did Eudocia ever keep a record of her own life–in a diary, journal, scrapbook, anything she kept personally for herself? Did she ever feel that her own story needed to be told, in her own words? Or did she feel that she was “too insignificant” that her own story would not be worth mentioning?
The story unfolds further, with the rise of other reactions coming from those within the Fil-Am community and outside of it. A lot of time has passed, and the words I wanted to write down have disappeared with the time.
I will say that I am sorry for the Tizon family and their loss of Alex Tizon and his mother.
I am also sorry for the loss of Eudocia Tomas Pulido and her chance to tell her story, in her own voice.
I am also sorry that there is nothing more that I can do, from my position, to make sense of the story and its nuances.
But it is important that more Pilipinx voices rise up and show up with our arsenal of narratives, to not make this story “the only story” about Filipinos. In the words of my influence, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. (From her TED talk)
Tizon’s story is just one of many Fil-Am stories out there. But it cannot be the only story for and about Eudocia. It cannot be the only story that represents an entire demographic in the Filipino diaspora. It cannot be the only story that defines the Philippines, as a whole. We have many stories; we need the courage, the motivation, and the calling to tell those stories. And I hope this becomes the major spark to start telling those stories, if it has not already happened. This is why we need more Filipino stories, coming from those in the community.
Special thanks to Anthony C. Ocampo and Kevin Park for allowing me to vent my frustrations in the advent of the story’s release. To Michael Marbella for exchanging with me our personal experiences, which helped me to formulate my thoughts better.
Especially grateful for other Pilipinx, for voicing what I have struggled to shape in my own words, including: