In words prettier than most of us will ever write, late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Tizon confesses to an atrocity uglier than most of us could ever fathom: His parents owned a slave — and when they died, he inherited her.
"My Family's Slave," Tizon's widely circulated and effusively praised cover story for the June issue of the Atlantic, purports to tell that slave's story. She was born Eudocia Tomas Pulido. Pulido's family, Tizon writes, was too poor to provide a decent life for her. He illustrates her family's squalor by conjuring dirt floors in her family's hut.
When Tizon's grandfather, the cigar-smoking family patriarch, tricks Pulido into trading her freedom for the food and shelter he could provide, they no longer call her Eudocia. Instead, they rename her Lola.
Lola is a name the story never quite contextualizes within Philippine culture and our emphasis on family. In Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, "lola" means “grandmother.” Lolas are the backbones of so many traditional Philippine households. It is a name that evokes immediate reverence. Lolas are our second moms. They work. They take care of us when we are sick, even when they are sick themselves. They cook for us — and every child knows their lola cooks better than anyone else does. They never seem to sleep. The name "Lola" likely traces its roots to "dolor," the Spanish word denoting pain — but Lola, a diminutive of Dolores, connotes the strength that suffering builds.
To call a slave “Lola” and to treat her not only as less than kin but less than human is a malicious perversion of everything that honorific stands for. It is all suffering, no strength. In Pulido's case, the name shackled her to the domestic duties of a grandmother within the traditional Philippine household, all while affording her none of the respect a grandmother would receive from a family that loved her.
In her 56 years as a slave to the Tizon family, Pulido did not escape the name "Lola." It is a final indignity from which no one— not even the writer, in all of his attempts at benevolence— spares her.
Her birth name, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, shows up only once in the story he writes, at the very beginning. Tizon's story will refer to her as Lola more than 100 times before it ends with Tizon delivering her ashes back to the family his grandfather stole her from.
She was born free and Pulido; she dies Lola, a slave.
Though Pulido may have outlived Tizon's parents, Tizon ensures she never outlives the name they gave her — a name she only had in proximity to the family that stole her, first from her home, then from her homeland, convincing her to follow them to America under the false pretense that they would pay her enough that she could remit U.S. dollars back home to her family. The name "Lola" was shackled inexorably to Pulido's bondage.
In Atlantic Editor Jeffrey Goldberg's accompanying note to "My Family's Slave," he recalls a recent conversation he had with Tizon’s widow, Melissa.
“[Tizon] was always impatient with small talk,” Goldberg recalls her telling him, “because he believed that all people had within them an epic story, and he wanted to hear those epic stories — and then help tell them to the world.”
It is a noble pursuit, for sure. It’s why we, as readers, seek out stories like "My Family's Slave." It’s why some of us, as writers, pursued careers in journalism in the first place: to find the marginalized and disempowered people of the world and help them tell their stories; to help them, in the hopes that their lives — and the lives of people like them — might be improved.
But what happens when the writer is complicit — directly complicit — in their marginalization, their disempowerment, and in this case, their enslavement?
Tizon's wife said his mission was to tell the epic stories inside of people. By the rubric Tizon set for himself, he has failed. This is not Pulido's story. It is the final link on the chain Tizon's family forged for her, a chain that Tizon sets out to break but then, discovering the potential for his own redemption (he notes that he paid her an allowance and gifted her a round-trip ticket to the Philippines), forgets to do so.
He could've called the authorities on his parents when he turned 23 and moved to Seattle. He could've helped Pulido learn to read, rather than watching from the sidelines, bemused at her ability to piece together the English language from word puzzles and television. When Pulido died in 2011 and Tizon, who had won his Pulitzer over 10 years prior for exposing the injustice of indigenous Americans, contacted the Seattle Times to write her obituary, he could've told them the truth. As a writer who'd won journalism's top prize, he had an ethical obligation to do so.
Instead, Tizon told the lie his family had been telling since they had moved to the U.S., giving the paper the whitewashed version of Lola's bondage. And it was this appalling untruth about her life — that she was a servant of the Tizon family who faithfully served them out of a sense of honor, love and obligation — that the paper then memorialized.
In the wake of the Atlantic story, the Seattle Times has amended its account of Pulido's life and death. On Wednesday, Susan Kelleher, who originally wrote Pulido's obituary in November 2011, published a response to Tizon's final work, saying that knowing the truth about Pulido's circumstances makes her sick.
It should. "My Family's Slave" is the story of a slave's captor arguing for his own humanity — all while denying someone hers.
The Tizons robbed her of her prospects. They stole a life. It’s a wrong the late Tizon likely attempted to rectify by setting out to write her story. But nothing can give Pulido the freedom that was taken from her because she believed in the benevolence of monsters.
Pulido is dead. Tizon is dead. There is nobody to hold accountable.
But there is his surviving family.
In his final act, the Tizons once again profit directly — and this time explicitly — from Pulido's pain and labor. He looks at the abject ugliness inflicted upon Pulido's life by his family and attempts to find poetry in it, to make her suffering rhyme. It shouldn't.
For his story, the Atlantic likely compensated Tizon a fee befitting a Pulitzer-winning writer. His widow has an obligation to remit a sizeable portion of the money her late husband made to Pulido's blood family — or barring that, a charity like Children International, which strives to end the cycle of poverty in the Philippines.
The Tizons benefitted enormously from the free labor they choked out of Pulido. Tizon may never have gotten the education he needed to win that Pulitzer were it not for the thankless, forced labor of Eudocia Tomas Pulido.
And under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose so-called war on drugs has resulted in the deaths of thousands, the Philippine poor need our help, now, more than ever.
No amount of money can rectify this atrocity. But that doesn't mean the surviving Tizon family doesn't have an obligation to try anyway.
At the end of his note, Goldberg imagines what the abolitionists who founded the magazine would think if they heard that "154 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, humans would still be enslaving other humans."
Certainly we can do better things with our time than imagine what is obvious.