US-based Filipino journalist Alex Tizon died last March at the age of 57. He’d won a Pulitzer Prize (shared with a team), and was well-regarded for his writing in the journalists’ community both in the US and the Philippines.
His last piece was published posthumously by The Atlantic, and it garnered him perhaps more attention and publicity than he had experienced in his life.
The article, “My Family’s Slave,” tells of a woman Tizon and his siblings knew only as “Lola” for a long time.
“She was 18 years old,” Tizon says, “when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us.” She was reluctant to go, but was persuaded when Tizon’s mother promised to give her an allowance so she could send money home to her impoverished family.
That promise was not kept, and Lola—Eudocia Tomas Pulido—served the Tizons for 56 years, almost Tizon’s entire life. She slept on whatever surface was free—the couch, the laundry room among piles of clothes. She cooked, cleaned, babysat, performed all the domestic duties so that Tizon’s mother, a doctor, could work.
It wasn’t until Tizon was 11 or 12, he says, that he realized Lola’s situation in the family. Unpaid, overworked, beaten, not given any privacy—she was a slave.
They never spoke of Lola outside the home, Tizon says, and it wasn’t until his mother was dead and Lola came to live with him that he was able to afford her some measure of comfort. But by then Lola was old. It was too late for her; she couldn’t have her life back to live over in a way she would have truly wanted.
This arrangement—for a domestic to live with the amo’s (master’s) family abroad for little or no pay—is not unusual. I heard of a similar incident about 15 years ago. The yaya (nanny) was brought to the US and paid a measly $150 a month. The amount was low because, I was told, “she owes us for her plane fare.” Yaya slept on the floor of the children’s bedroom and seldom got days off. This story has a happy ending, though—she somehow met an elderly gentleman who doted on her, and they married. Not everyone gets such a serendipitous outcome—Lola certainly didn’t.
The cases of Lola and others in similar straits reflect that aspect of Filipino culture that still has not wholly eradicated the slavery practiced in the past. Those who could afford them kept alipin—namamahay and sagigilid. With poverty still endemic in the country—at around 27 percent during the previous administration—and many, especially in the rural areas, uneducated and unskilled thus unable to get better jobs, there are those who enter into employment but in conditions where they are very dependent on their employers for the basic necessities of life.
This imbalance of power can foster the maltreatment and abuse of kasambahay, and many incidences are still heard of, though to a lesser extent after the Republic Act No. 10361 —the Domestic Workers Act or Batas Kasambahay—was made into law. With social media widespread and easy to access, it is now easier to report abuses.
Working abroad, particularly in the Middle East and some parts of Asia, is also risky for overseas workers who toil as domestic helpers. There have been many cases of “DHs” who have been starved, beaten, raped, and murdered by their “amo”—masters—with some not having received justice to this day.
Website globalslaveryindex.org puts the Philippines at rank 33 out of 167 on its prevalence index, with the US at rank 52 and North Korea at rank 1. There are an estimated 401,000 Filipinos “living in modern slavery,” the majority of whom are in forced labor (OFWs whose employers withhold their travel papers, fail to pay their salary on time or at all). Other forms of slavery are commercial sexual exploitation, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and pa-aling fishing (deep sea fishing by diving).
Tizon’s story strikes deep chords within Filipinos because it describes situations that are familiar to us. Though we do not condone, we understand the motivations for Tizon’s mother and Lola herself for behaving the way they did. This is because abject servitude and warped loyalty to benefactors is still a part of our societal mindset. These are repellent and reprehensible attitudes that we must do away with, if we are to aspire to the highest standards of human rights and values.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. FB: Jenny Ortuoste / Twitter: @jennyortuoste, @gogirlracing (sports) / IG:@jensdecember, @artuoste (art)