On “My Family’s Slave,” the Tizons, and Katulong culture.

After vigorously reading the late Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” and the subsequent backlash to the story, I have come to one conclusion: the Philippine system of the katulong, and the way it has manifested and normalized in Filipino culture today, is inherently problematic. Yes, “Lola’s” story is an extreme case, but I don’t think a situation like that would have sprouted had there not been seeds planted firmly in the ground in the first place. Seeds in our very own culture that we have yet to confront.

When Filipinos translate katulong to our non-Filipino friends, we often say it is the “maid” or the “nanny.” But deep down, I think every Filipino can say that the “katulong” is much more than your average maid or nanny. The sacrifices that is demanded and expected from the katulong is something we have been taught from the beginning — by media, by “Maalaala Mo Kaya” by our elders, by friends, by family. The katulong is supposed to serve the family, and there is no going around that. If you can say you have a katulong — you can be the kindest master ever — but a master is still a master and a master will have subordinates.

I wonder when in our history did the Katulong, as we know it today, come from. Is it the same place that gave us our values of “hospitality” and “kindness” that, looking back, has done nothing more than forced us into complacency and respectability? Complacency and respectability sounds really good to a colonizer — it is how they control. I think about the consequences this way of thinking has had on our country. I think about the millions of Filipinos that work as domestic helpers abroad, but also the staggering 2 million that work in the Philippines. Filipinos who serve other Filipinos. How did we get here?

Make no mistake, Lola was the victim in all of this. Of direct abuse from the Tizons, but also the longstanding tradition of colonialism, patriarchy, and nationalism to collude and put Filipino women in danger. Lola’s story is gender, class, ethnicity, immigration, shame, and yes, slavery. Her story is a reflection of our country’s mass internalization of servitude. And the only thing I want for our community is mass healing.

“My Family’s Slave” did none of that for me. Tizon laid the groundwork for it — setting up the picturesque Filipino background, the sentiment of the ashes, the discussion on the country’s history — but in true journalist fashion, he steered the rest of the article in another direction. I didn’t understand why he brought his own family and immigration struggles to the picture, conflating it with Lola’s abuse. Did he think all oppression was equal oppression? (IT’S NOT!) I also didn’t understand why there was no serious effort to get the opinions of Lola’s family in the article. In that Seattle home, lived the Tizons and Lola. But there were two different power dynamics, and naturally, there were two different stories. For a cover story for a major publication such as The Atlantic, the only right thing to do was to center the story of the survivor.

My family had a katulong until I was eight years old. After working for us, she was able to take the money she made and marry and raise a beautiful set of twins. We have an amazing relationship to this day. And while we didn’t make her work for us, I know now that if there were more opportunities for Filipino women in her situation, she probably would have chosen a different path for herself. Here’s the thing: nobody chooses to be a katulong; that alone says something about the job. Lola became a katulong because it was either that or be married to a pig farmer twice her age. I hardly call that a choice. When Alex Tizon said she let Lola be Lola because she did not know how to be anything else, I just couldn’t buy it. She continued to tend to Alex’s family because it was better than the alternative presented to her.

I think that was the truth Alex himself was afraid of reaching. It was he who didn’t know what else to be other than be a master. I refuse to allow any more dialogue that depicts Lola as this passive woman. Lola was doing the very best thing she can do given her situation. The Tizons were the weaker ones. They’ve always needed Lola more than she needed them. Alex said it himself — “I was ashamed of it all…..but losing her would have been devastating.”

The other day, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of the Philippines being a nation of Lolas. That’s fair, but I want our community to get to the point where we can acknowledge the Alex Tizons within us as well. In the ways that we can be complicit, the ways we can pass down trauma. In the ways we refuse to accept accountability. And then maybe we can truly heal.