Originally published on Medium.
I have not been sleeping well lately. I’m not a good sleeper in general, especially when I’m stressed or emotional. I stay up on my phone, reading things, Facebooking, arranging my calendar, trying to assert control over my unruly life. Since reading the late Alex Tizon’s groundbreaking essay about the woman he called Lola—whose actual name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido, and whose family nickname was Cosiang—and many of the responses to it, a full night’s sleep feels like a distant memory.
I call Tizon’s article groundbreaking not to glorify his story or romanticize his family’s role in the enslavement of Ms. Pulido, but because his article has provoked a widespread debate on the topic of enslavement and servitude in Filipino and Filipino-American culture that I have not seen in my lifetime. Despite the horrific stories that have been told about the violence that Filipina domestic workers face, especially those working as overseas contract workers outside the Philippines — from the unjust execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore to the numerous other vulnerable women who have been abused and even killed by their employers — this story has, for some reason, struck a deep chord. It is a tragic story, a brutal story, a needed story.
But there is a whole other side of this story — for me, perhaps the most important side — that we will now never know. Lola’s story. Eudocia Pulido’s story.
What was her life really like? What did she think about, what were her dreams? What were her regrets, her joys? Did she love the family she lived and worked for? Did she hate them? Both? Did she love herself, hate herself? Both?
We will never know the answers to these questions. Because Eudocia is dead. She cannot speak. Her voice and her story are missing from this whole debate. Not to mention the voices of the millions of other Filipinos who serve in the Philippines and around the world — the yayas and maids, drivers and cooks and house boys, the katulong, utusan, kasambahay. Servants.
I love British period dramas, especially the ones that explore the fascinating dynamics of the servant-master relationship: Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey, Gosford Park. In early 20th century in England, if lower servants (like maids) in British aristocratic households were in a room “upstairs” — airing out the sitting room or fixing beds or cleaning the dining room — and the Lady or the Master of the house came in, they were to make themselves invisible, to turn away and go into a corner as far away from the family member as possible, so that the masters would not have the unpleasantness of having to interact with them.
To be invisible. Voiceless. This is part of the servants’ job.
“It is imperative that we center the narratives of those who have experienced or witnessed what Lola Eudocia has lived. Don’t you dare speak for her. . . . Remember that she was abused and enslaved but never domesticated. The women of my families were warriors. Don’t you dare speak for us.” —Melissa R. Sipin
Lucky. It’s a word that my Mom uses a lot to describe our American-dream lives here in the United States. We were lucky to always have a home to live in, food to eat, decent clothes to wear, a job, schooling for me, lucky to have had the family and friends who cared for us when my Mom was a single mother, living in the sleepy island town of Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco.
We are very lucky.
“She’s like my Mom,” my mother says, about a woman I’ve called “Auntie” all my life, as she is married to my “Uncle”, though he is not my mother’s brother and I can’t tell you how exactly she is related to him. Still, my mother says, my Auntie is like her Mom.
I’ve heard my mother say this countless times before about my Auntie. Never mind that this woman bore no blood relation to her, that they weren’t even from the same province in the Philippines. They have a bond of history, of shared experienced, of living together in the same house for nearly two decades, of raising children together, albeit in different roles and from different levels of power. This bond will never be broken.
The thing is, my Mom was my Auntie’s servant. They met because my mom was a maid for my Uncle’s family — her wealthy, distant relations — and after he married my Auntie, my mother was given to them as a gift. Much like Eudocia Pulido was given, as a young woman, to Alex Tizon’s mother. My Mom, who was perhaps fifteen years old at the time, became the yaya of the couple’s young son. And though her life shared similarities with Pulido’s, my Mom’s path was also different. Her new ‘employers’ allowed my mother to continue going to school. She ate dinner with the family but slept on the floor. She became my Auntie’s confidant and was, according to my Mom, treated as a member of the family. A lesser member, but a family member nonetheless.
In 1967, when my Uncle received a job offer in the United States (this was during the massive “brain drain” of professionals during that decade, spurred by a lax immigration policy that encouraged American companies to recruit employees from Asia), he and his wife decided to emigrate. They asked my mother if she would like to come with them. She agreed.
My mother was not coerced, or at least that’s what she tells me, into coming to the United States. She genuinely wanted to go. But what were her other choices? To stay in the Philippines as a poor servant girl, with little opportunity to change her situation? Even as a young woman, my mother knew that she had more opportunities in the US than in her homeland, and so she was soon on a passenger ship with my Auntie and Uncle and their two children, sailing across the wide Pacific to a country she’d never been to, thousands of miles away.
When my mother arrived here in the States, she continued to live with my Uncle and Auntie’s family, taking care of their two small children while my Auntie worked nights at the local hospital (of course, since we are Filipino, my Auntie was a nurse). My Uncle and Auntie never paid my mother a wage for her work, but they paid for my mother’s travel expenses from the Philippines, gave her free room and board, and offered to send her to school to learn a trade. She chose beauty school because it was something she was interested in — she tells me she used to use malunggay stems in the Philippines to curl people’s hair — and they were one of the few vocational schools that would take someone who only had a tourist visa. My mother was on her way.
Until something unexpected happened: me. I was the product of a brief relationship with a Filipino sailor whom my mother had met through friends. When my mother found out she was pregnant and tried to get my father to take responsibility for this, he refused, so my Auntie went with her to my father’s commanding officer on the naval base to force him to be honorable. My father flatly denied any wrong-doing, and the matter ended there. (Later, my mother would tell me that he probably did not want to marry her because she was not educated enough. I interpreted this to mean she was not from a good enough class of people. My father comes from a landowning family in the Philippines.)
My mother worked as a hairdresser in San Francisco during her pregnancy, and when I was born, my Auntie chose my name — naming me after 1970s gossip columnist Rona Barrett. When I was a baby and small child, the family, including my “cousins” (who were ten and six years old when I was born) doted on me. I’ve heard plenty of stories and have many photos showing my Auntie, Uncle and their children playing with me, their chubby-cheeked, smiling little doll. I was a happy, loved child.
Of course, there are the stories that I don’t know. Stories that I wish my talkative mother would tell when I ask, Did people gossip about you? Was it hard to be a single mother? But her smile just fades and her eyes droop slightly, her sentences become clipped and nondescript. All I can gather is that there was talk — tsismis. But it always comes back to the fact that she was lucky to have my Auntie and Uncle to look after her. They didn’t kick her out of their house, did not shame her (at least as far as I know). I don’t know what they told my cousins about her pregnancy and my birth. I grew up being told my father was dead, and for many years I didn’t question that. I didn’t really miss having a father — I grew up in a house full of people and was never alone, had plenty of food to eat, cousins to play with, living in a safe, middle-class suburban neighborhood. Eventually, I went to a good school that was across the street from our house — the same school my cousins attended — and got piano lessons and dance lessons, too.
When I was no more than five or six years old, I would fetch my Uncle’s things for him when he asked me to — his cigarettes, the newspaper, his slippers. I liked helping out and being a good girl. He called me hija which I thought sounded nice , asked me to read the stock numbers for him from the newspaper so he could track his investments, would call me “bright”, and listened to me play piano.
The childhood memories I have of my Mom are a bit scattered. Many of them take place at night, lying in bed with her — or on the floor, actually, for we slept on my girl-cousin’s bedroom floor for the first several years of my life. If I couldn’t sleep, she would pat my bottom gently, which made me comfortable and drowsy. She would sing a strange song to me, a song that I can still hear in my head to this day, “Make your nose higher, higher, make your nose higher, higher — “ as she gently tugged on the bridge of my nose to try and achieve plastic surgery-like alteration in my bone structure (my nose, to my mother’s dismay, is still quite flat, and I have no plans to change its shape).
I vaguely remember my mother picking me up from the babysitter’s after work and her face feeling cold from the night air outside when she kissed me. I remember later on, when I was in elementary school, my mother coming home from work around dinner time, as the whole family — my Auntie, Uncle and cousins and me — sat at the dining table. On Fridays, sometimes she would bring me a bar of Toblerone, my favorite candy, and my Auntie or Uncle would get Kentucky Fried Chicken or pizza as a special treat.
I remember going to work with my Mom sometimes on the weekends when I was old enough, and making coffee for her “ladies” (as she called her customers, little blue-haired old women who were kind to me and loved my Mom), for which they gave me a quarter each. I was already learning how to earn my keep.
I loved my Mom, with her sleek black pyramid haircut, her fashionable 1970s outfits that she wore with four-inch platform heels or dark brown knee-high leather boots. But mostly, I don’t remember her being around much. She was usually at work. And when she came home, she had other work to do — helping my Auntie with the cooking and cleaning, looking after me, helping out with my cousins. She did give me baths, and of course we had our time together in bed at night, the one time that I had my Mom all to myself.
Our family arrangement was not something that I ever really discussed or questioned as a child, even though I did not know any other families who lived the way we did. It was just like the air we breathe, something we took for granted. But I would be lying if I said it was all just lovely and pain-free, that there were no problems. My mother and I were not treated like slaves at all, far from it, but there were subtle things, clues that told me that my mother and I were not quite the same as my Auntie and Uncle, or my cousins.
The hand-me-downs. Dolls and other toys, clothes and shoes. I would eye my girl-cousin’s nicer dolls and prettier dresses, wondering when she would tire of them so I could have them for myself. I didn’t always get the things I wanted, and sometimes got stuff that I thought was ugly or stupid, and didn’t understand why I was still supposed to act thankful for these unwanted cast-offs.
The things that my cousins got away with little or no consequences or punishment. My girl-cousin talking to my mom disrespectfully, as if she were stupid, telling her what to do, laughing at her if my Mom didn’t get something right, or said something the wrong way with her Filipino accent. Or the time when I was six years old and had just put one of those hard round peppermint candies in my mouth, and for some reason my boy-cousin — who was sixteen at the time — decided it would be fun to pick me up and turn me upside down and laugh as I cried, afraid I would choke on the candy. Luckily, I swallowed the candy whole and it slipped all the way down my throat without catching there, but it hurt — my pride as much as my throat. He didn’t get reprimanded for that, nor for the numerous other times he teased and bullied me.
The ways that my Auntie and Uncle, as well-meaning as they were, put limits on what my mother or I could be and do. The nearly constant lecturing, from every member of their family. My Auntie, Uncle, and even my cousins telling my Mom how to do things — from cleaning chores or cooking, speaking or dressing. The scoffing at her small mistakes, like when she gave my Uncle his Coors in a glass with ice. The way they talked to her like she was stupid.
The way my Auntie and Uncle never tamped down their own children’s ambitions, how theyencouraged them to dream big in the American way. But with me, it was different.
Even as a small child, I was ambitious and book-smart, a teacher’s pet who always got straight-A’s. When my Auntie asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say that I wanted to become a doctor. She tilted her head as if in sympathy, and shook her head slightly, almost imperceptibly.
“Maybe a nurse,” she said. Her answer felt like a sharp shove. I knew that I was smart enough to become whatever I wanted to. Why was she telling me to aim lower?
Years later, after my Mom got married and moved out and had her own house, my Auntie and Uncle’s lecturing did not seem to end. I remember being a teenager when my Auntie came over once, and saw that my Mom was sweeping the floor as they sat on our dining table. One of my Mom’s big sources of pride was her cleanliness, and I saw this as just another of her cleaning compulsions. My Auntie, however, thought it was rude. She made a face as if she’d smelled something foul and scolded my Mom.
“Don’t clean when you have company over!”
My Mom laughed a little, as if saying, Oh, I’m so silly, and put her broom away.
I didn’t understand why she was still acting like we lived in their house. Her constant deferring to them started to get on my nerves.
There are more stories, more anecdotes, I’m sure, but I can’t remember them clearly. Perhaps because I’ve waited too long to tell my story and my memories have faded, like old photographs left out in the sun. I can’t summon all of these memories that I know live in my body, perhaps they need more time before they will surface, more coaxing. They feel stubbornly stuck inside me somewhere, not wanting to come out.
But I do remember some things: the tone of my Uncle’s voice when he scolded my mother, the way my cousin’s chin would jut out indignantly as he rolled his eyes at her or at me, the way this would make me feel: small, stupid, inept.
I remember the way my mother would respond to their cutting remarks: with a smile or a laugh as if what they said didn’t bother her, as if laughing at her own ignorance, a good sport; or when the barbs landed closer to home, how her chin would drop and press backwards, shifting her head so that she would be looking slightly up at my Auntie or Uncle or cousins, her cheeks flattening as she frowned. How she would grow quiet, or offer a weak reason for her offending behavior, but even this would draw another retort from the family — again.
They always had the last word. Always knew best. That’s what I remember.
After we left my Auntie and Uncle’s house, my education and Americanization seemed to widen the gap between my Mom and myself. I eventually learned that normal people stood up for themselves when people made fun of them, that we didn’t let others talk down to us, no matter where we came from, that in the United States we were all equal. So when my mother would sit and smile at these mini-lectures and insults from my Auntie and Uncle, I started to get angry — not at my Uncle and Auntie or my cousins, but at my Mom.
Why does she just let them treat her like that? I would think, wanting her to disagree with them, to snap back, to stand up for herself. She hardly ever did.
When I became a teenager, my Mom and I fought more often, including about the way my Auntie and Uncle treated her. I was becoming a young woman, and was thoroughly American. I had never been to the Philippines and knew little about my Mom’s life there, since she rarely talked about it.
During one of our more heated exchanges, during which I cajoled her for not standing up for herself with Auntie and Uncle, she suddenly lost it and shouted, “Before Auntie and Uncle brought me here, I was only a maid!”
A maid? What? I remember thinking. My mother was visibly upset, nearly shaking. I didn’t say anything, too dumbfounded by this revelation to respond.
Maid. I had never heard my mother referred to in this way. It all started to make sense. The constant deference. The way they talked down to her, and to me, how we slept on the floor, why she would never stand up for herself, even years after she had moved out of their home. A maid.
I finally began to understand.
“Feudal-patriarchal relationships, such as the one that existed between the Tizon parents and Eudocia Pulido, are sometimes disguised as familial ties in Filipino culture. In actuality, the Tizon parents had an employer-worker relationship with Eudocia Pulido that they severely abused. This is not an example of a moral conflict based on murky familial relationships, it is the most extreme form of labor exploitation, and it is far too common.” —Damayan Migrant Workers Association, statement on Alex Tizon’s article
It wasn’t until I went to the Philippines that I really understood how deep, how far-reaching this hierarchy of servitude and deference is.
Though my first and only trip to the Philippines happened in 2007, I knew enough Filipinos here in the States to have an inkling of how entrenched this system was. I had met progressive and radical activists from the Philippines who spoke casually about their maids and other house help, which puzzled me. No one I knew personally in the United States had a maid. These activists were only self-critical of servitude in the way that we here in the States might feel a moment of guilt over buying Victoria’s Secret bras because we know they’re made by prison labor. We buy them anyway, shrugging.
But during my trip to the Philippines, I saw that this was just how it was, that only the poorest of the poor did not have some kind of helper, katulong, around. Even I, American-born and with disposable income to share, was constantly ‘helped’ by my cousins in the Philippines, who did not own land, and though they were not starving, had seen their fair share of poverty and hardship. My cousins washed my clothes by hand, cooked my meals, drove me to the places I wanted to go, but this was not an utusan relationship — I was a relative from the States, not a master. I gave money to my cousin who was in charge of cooking for our whole clan while I was visiting, not as payment, but as a token of gratitude. Not one of my eleven cousins, nor my Auntie or my Grandma, ever asked me for any money—not once—but I gave it to them freely. I knew that it was part of my responsibility as the Stateside relative who had dollars in my wallet and not pesos, who was college-educated and had “made it”, to help take care of my family.
The way things were in the Philippines felt both foreign and familiar to me — foreign because I was used to being on the lower rung of the ladder, and here I had more power and privilege than I probably had ever had in my life, and familiar because I had seen this dynamic before, back in my Auntie and Uncle’s house, but with a different flavor. I didn’t talk down to my cousins — at least as far as I know. To do so would have been both disrespectful and ungrateful. We were not equals, per se, but we were more equal than my Mom was to my Auntie and Uncle.
Even relatively poor people have katulong in the Philippines, people to help them with the often back-breaking labor of everyday life — washing laundry for the whole family by hand, cooking over open fires or coals, farming the land, caring for young children. My cousin, who lived in and cared for the house of a wealthy relative, had her husband’s younger sister come and help her with her toddler son. I don’t know if this young woman got paid; at minimum, she received food to eat and something to occupy her time in a country where ‘real’ jobs are scarce, especially in the countryside. She ate at the table with the rest of us, she was part of the family. No one would think she was of a lesser class than the rest of us.
On the other hand, there was also the silent yaya that I saw elsewhere in the Philippines, in the home of other well-off relatives. This particular family had a doctor among their children, giving them a status that many Filipino families aspire to. Their yaya did not eat with the rest of the family at the table, at least not while I was there. I never knew her name, and she did not speak to or make eye contact with me, nor did I expect her to. She stayed with her young charge, a small boy, for the entire time that I was there, as if tied to him by an invisible string. I have no idea if she was a relative or not.
There is a continuum of servitude in Filipino culture, just like there is a continuum of labor exploitation in this country. Alyss Dixson, a writer I met via the social media storm that followed the publication of Tizon’s article, accurately identified the Filipino katulong system as one of kinship servitude, which gave me a name for the first time for this system that I grew up in and knew so intimately but had never really analyzed, talked or wrote about—a system where relatives employ or press into service their poorer relatives, forging a power dynamic that is lifelong and doesn’t end even when the ‘worker’ is no longer in the employ of their ‘boss’.
But not all katulong are treated as savagely as Eudocia Pulido was treated, and not all servants are treated well. Just as not all workers in the United States are treated well — many are not — and not all are treated like slaves (though there are many examples from the past and the present of those that are).
But the activist in me can’t help but think: if a boss chooses to be “good’ to his employees and pays them the highest wages, gives them the best health care package and a say in how their workplace is run, is he any less of a ‘boss’ than the employer who cheats minimum wage laws and doesn’t let his workers take any sick time? Of course not. He still has the power to hire and fire, can still abuse his power if he chooses to, or can be magnanimous and follow the law and thus be praised for just being a decent human being.
And that — in the end — is what’s wrong with this whole damn picture. It’s a system, and it relies on people being poor, of someone always being worse off than you are, and of someone being at the top, benefitting from the labor of the people at the bottom. Poverty is a great motivator — people will do almost anything to stay out of it, or keep from sinking deeper into it.
But is this the way things should be? Should the lives of millions of Filipinos around the world be so dependent on the luck of the draw, of whether they happen to get a decent, humane employer or someone who treats them like a slave?
The Philippines has a large domestic worker labor force, estimated to be up to 2.5 million people, most of these women. And this doesn’t count the large number of Filipino domestic workers who migrate to work overseas, whether in the United States as Eudocia did, or in the Middle East, Australia or other parts of Asia. Again, more than half of these overseas workers are women. This is not because Filipinos like doing domestic work better or because they have no other skills. This is because of poverty and a lack of jobs in the Philippines that pushes people out and into whatever the jobs they can get. With the passage of the Kasambahay Law in 2013, which is aimed at protecting domestic workers and improving their working conditions, things are changing in the Philippines, but they have not changed a lot since my mother left and came to the States in the 1960s.
When I tell her about the Tizon article, about Eudocia Pulido, about how she was beaten by the family she worked for, about how she was a slave, my Mom nods knowingly.
“Yes, even if they are their relatives, some people treat their maids like that. That’s why we are so lucky to have Auntie and Uncle.”
I can’t help but grimace a little, remembering how hard she worked when I was a child, how little time I had with her. My mother’s work ethic had very little to do with luck.
Mine and my mother’s story is not a story of slavery — as it was for Eudocia Pulido and too many other Filipino domestic workers in the Philippines and around the world. Our story is one of servitude and generations-deep clannishness—in which living with people who we knew and were related to, if even distantly, even if they did not treat you as equal, was better than trusting in strangers. But without this rigid, hierarchical system, which is rooted in the deep and persistent poverty and inequality that is widespread in the Philippines, the enslavement of the Eudocia Pulidos of the world would not be possible. The Tizons were just on one extreme end of the spectrum, and that my mother and I were just lucky to be on the opposite end.
The economic system here in the United States is not perfect either. If it were truly geared towards equal opportunity for all, no matter where they came from or what their circumstances of birth, why have I not met dozens of people like me — relatively successful, college-educated, Americanized children of Filipino immigrant katulong? I’ve met three — three — that I know of outside of my own blood-kin. If others are out there in my wide circle of Filipino friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I don’t know who they are. It could be that they have been silent, like me, that our collective shame and the unspoken rules of our feudalist Filipino-American culture kept us from speaking up about our experiences. Or perhaps there are not many who have had the privileges I have had. Who weren’t as lucky as I was.
My mother lives a fairly comfortable middle-class life now, though our family is not without its dings and hardships, its particular dysfunctions which stem as much from the systems that we are part of as they are about our own individual choices. But did our lives improve by design, was this meant to be? If my mother had not been hard-working, persistent and accommodating, what might have happened to us? Was it really about luck, about the generosity of my Uncle and Auntie? Where does the credit lie? And does my mother, or do I, take enough credit for our own role in shaping our destinies?
It has been difficult for me to write this piece. It required an emotional excavation that was exhausting, and I have only scratched the rough, hard surface of my memories. I have not written much about this part of my life before, not in this way, and I’ve realized how my silence helped to perpetuate my own and my mother’s shame about our poverty and lack of power, though those things had nothing to do with our self-worth, our potential or our dignity.
I worry that my story will be used to justify this system of servitude and indebtedness, to stifle critique, that Filipino elites who don’t want the system to change will point to my story and say, “See, we are not so bad.” That it will be used to take attention away from the Ms. Pulido’s story, from the story of other human beings who are enslaved and trafficked and trapped in a world not of their own making.
I only want to tell my own story, in hopes that others out there with similar stories, who themselves served or are the children of kasambahay and katulong, will also tell theirs. For we are the only ones that can tell our stories, we cannot rely on the Tizons of the world to tell it for us. We must free our tongues and, in doing so, perhaps free ourselves and others who are in the same or in far worse situations.
Of course, I say this as the American-born, college-educated daughter of a woman who served, I am not kasambahay myself. I don’t stand to lose much by writing this piece, except perhaps the respect of those whom I’ve criticized here, but that’s a small price to pay for the truth. Others have more to lose if they speak up — jobs, livelihoods, money, security. The system silences people at the bottom because that’s the only way it can keep going.
Which is why the lucky people like me who have had the privilege of education and access to voice cannot be satisfied with just speaking up for ourselves. We have to encourage others to speak, and we have to stop listening primarily to those with the advanced degrees or the Pulitzers, the hefty bank accounts or the grand, dynastic Filipino last names. Those that hold power and don’t question why they do, those whose investment in our liberation is perhaps merely charitable, tenuous, for they perceive our freedom as an infringement on theirs.
And there already are others speaking out—we should stop and listen to them. Some of them are organizing to change the system from the bottom up. Domestic workers in the Philippines organized for and won the Kasambahay Law, which mandates that employers provide their helpers with basic decencies like eight hours of rest per day and employer-paid health care. In the United States, Anakbayan-USA and Gabriela both released statements in response to the Tizon piece, decrying the oppressive forces that perpetuate the intense poverty that keep the katulong system going. Also, the Damayan Migrant Workers Association continues to fight the ongoing human trafficking and enslavement that people like Eudocia Pulido have suffered for too long.
Yes, slavery still happens, and in this country too. Eudocia Pulido’s case was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a much bigger problem.
There is still much work to do.
Our silence has been part of our legacy as descendants of katulong, utusan, kasambahay. It’s given the masters like the Tizons and so many others the ability to dominate the conversation, still reaffirming to them and the world that theirs are the only voices that matter, that they know best, that they are the ones who will save us. But there are more of us than them, and our stories are beautiful and anguished and complex and brutal and extraordinary too. And I have no doubt that when we all speak our deep truths, that our voices will create a symphony of sound that can bring this whole fucking system down.
Let’s do it. Let’s leave our silence behind, once and for all.