INCREDIBLE how a deceased Filipino-American journalist's memoir of how his family kept a yaya as a "modern slave" for 50 years stirred a social media storm of praises, accusations, and reflections.
The article, "My Family's Slave", written by the late Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Alex Tizon, tells the story of his family's caretaker Eudocia Tomas Polido or Lola, who at age 18 was sent to Alex's family as a gift and joined them in migrating to Seattle. Told from Alex's perspective, his view of Lola changed from innocence as a child to a bitter awareness later on that his family kept Lola like a slave for not paying for her labor and being reprimanded for the slightest mistakes.
Lola later aged and lived past Alex's parents, and Alex took over as Lola's "master". He tried to make amends by telling her to stop doing house chores but Lola continued to do so. He gives her a chance to go back to her hometown in Tarlac, but Lola still flies back. Lola is pictured as someone who has learned to live and accept a life of pain and servitude with the Tizons until her death.
On the first read, I was pained by the story of Lola. The words and memories make you feel such. How Lola slept in a pile of laundry, how Lola lost her teeth without seeing a dentist, how Lola gets scolded but still prepares the food for the family.
Memoirs like this open the deep scars of a family secret and guilt. But what makes Alex's story a debatable one is how such "slave-like" conditions exist. Those who rage against Alex cry for blood, especially Western readers who are appalled by the word "slave" on the title.
It is not enough, though, that defenders of Alex's story say there is a cultural difference between the East and the West. That the condition of Lola exists in a migrant Filipino family's life tells of problems not just about the writer's family, but also of society in America and in the Philippines in how they look at caretakers and the Filipino family.
Yayas, or caretakers, have been part of the Filipino family, instilled in the Spanish colonization and such feudal remnant of servitude and class continues during the US colonization up to today's age of globalization.
And in today's reality of migration, most Filipinos end up working as caretakers in other countries.
Theirs is a story of pain for leaving their own families to serve others. Theirs is a story of hope that their sacrifice will uplift their families out of poverty. But there is no happy ending for all. At worse, some OFWs working as caretakers end up coming home in a casket. Plantation workers also work like slaves to make oligarchs rich.
Such realities are often not seen, or if we do, it is seen as a reality that is okay. But Alex's story of Lola opens our eyes to see that this is a troubled reality.
Alex's story may be filled with gaps as friends and fellow columnists pointed out. How he romanticizes seeing the beauty in the rural village of Lola's in Tarlac, but not see the feudal poverty typical in the rural areas. One wonders how Alex's ability as a journalist failed to draw insight on the deeper social dynamics of migrant families burdened with work and the problems of migrant workers.
But maybe we expect much from a memoir. In the end, we have to appreciate Alex's words for the truth. It makes us weep, it makes us talk and feel that there is a need to unshackle the many forms of slavery existing in our midst.
Published in the SunStar Davao newspaper on May 24, 2017.
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