Alamon: Atonement

PULITZER Prize winning Alex Tizon’s moving long-form piece is now all the rage in the interwebs for the right and wrong reasons. The Filipino-American journalist wrote so honestly about his family’s conflicted relationship with their own Filipina nanny, whom they fondly called “Lola.” But it was his brutal but accurate framing of Lola Eudocia’s status within their family household for 56 years that caught the attention of many.

At a tender age, the young girl’s fate was intertwined with the Tizon family when the family patriarch gifted her, the poorer relative, who had a bleak future, to his daughter, Alex’s mother, to be her own personal nanny. When her ward got married, raised a family and moved to the US (United States), Lola also moved with them and served her children for decades without remuneration or vacations.

Alex was one of the children she raised and he bore witness to his nanny’s difficult and sad life. Her every hour revolved around serving the emotional and household needs of the family. This burdened him with such great guilt that he wrote about it in adulthood and in a brave but controversial admission of complicity gave the piece the name “My Family’s Slave.” What added to the poignancy was his sudden death last March 24, 2017, before even knowing that his piece was to be published as the cover story of the national magazine, The Atlantic.

The reactions revealed more about where the critic came from than actually diminishing the value of Tizon’s beautiful swansong. Among these are two persuasions worth looking into.

The American radicals, latching on to the phrase “slavery” in the title, have called for blood. The more extreme of these opinions complained about how the piece “humanizes the oppressor” and demanded that Alex and his family face the bar of justice for what they did and did not do for Lola Eudocia. For this set, the nanny was obviously a victim of human trafficking and the Tizon family should pay for their transgressions. A tamer position calls out the privileged position of the author and his indulgence to merely wax sentimental and write about his complicity when he should have done more to make amends.

Many Filipinos, on the other hand, find these accusation incredulous not because they are sympathetic to Alex but because they find nothing wrong with Lola’s Eudocia’s experience. Opinions vary on how Lola should have been thankful for being brought to the land of milk and honey; that she should have been blamed for her timidity, which gently put across by Alex’s prose. She embraced her “unfreedom” so to speak and Lola had no one to blame but herself.

It is also serendipitous that news this week revealed the dominant disposition regarding the unending Filipino Diaspora in chase of the American dream. A Filipina nanny was reported to US authorities after she abandoned her senior Korean employers currently in the US for vacation. These conflicting positions reveal the sociological moment that Alex’s controversial piece has been able to reveal.

In the lexicon of the first world, what many of us regard as examples of family loyalty and service, is construed as acts of slavery that can bring one behind bars. For sure, there are degrees and gradients to the demand for family fealty in the Asian setting and in the case of Lola, it is clear that there were excesses imposed upon her. But the Filipino cultural worldview apparently has not caught up with the times and remain trapped in the feudal era when extreme practices of fealty are still considered best examples of family loyalty and honor.

There is a danger that the unprecedented revelations of Alex can end up as another vortex in social media, a black hole that render all positions irrelevant because they are made to crucify the messenger instead of deliberating on the substance of its message. Slavery at the present come in many forms and what Alex revealed is the persistence of a kind of feudal mindset within the political economy of the Filipino family. Let us note that we would not have the privilege of this conversation were it not for the confessions of Alex.

Much of the intellectual discomfort afflicting the whole economy of opinion-making from Filipino academe, journalists, and the dare I say, bloggers, in the wake of the controversial article is really how the cognoscenti, like Alex and her mother, actually survives and thrives through the unrecognized labor of individuals like Lola. And that goes as well for other professions whose experts are supported by a team of people, running on sheer loyalty to the patron, to make their private successes happen.

For a brief moment, this social scar is revealed in all its painful glory in Alex’s work. The scabs will cover it up again and everything will be back as they were pretty soon. In a feudal and patriarchal society such as ours, how many stories like Lola’s will remain untold?