Why The Seattle Times’ “apology” to Lola Pulido missed the mark

Lola’s Story deserves more than to be put through the lens of American whitewashing

I don’t think anyone wasn’t heartbroken by Alex Tizon’s posthumously-published piece about his family’s enslaved helper, Eudocia ‘Lola’ Tomas Pulido.

Screencap via theatlantic.com

But if you were to believe The Seattle Times, there was no one more devastated than Susan Kelleher. Kelleher was assigned to write Lola’s obituary in 2011. With this level of supposed devastation upon the recent revelations about Lola’s life, Kelleher wrote a judgemental and accusatory piece covering her and The Seattle Times for what amounted to lies about the true nature of Lola’s place in the Tizon family.

The June 2017 cover of The Atlantic

While I can’t condone Alex Tizon’s deception nor the actions of his family, I can certainly find it in my heart to empathize with him — especially for his choice to not disclose the real circumstances for Lola’s obituary — and I can avoid reducing this tragedy to binary figures. I am able to see the situation as complex and incomprehensible; impossible to boil down to simple analogies. And I can see right through this opportunistic “apology” from Ms. Kelleher and The Seattle Times.

What Kelleher is doing here does not make proper amends for writing an obituary that was untrue; what she really does here is make this about her. What she does is wash her hands of any self-imposed guilt. She earns the sympathy of thousands of other white Americans who two-dimensionally tsk tsk at the horrid truths Mr. Tizon so humbly admitted. She earns clicks to The Seattle Times website — unfortunately, that I’m contributing to as well — perhaps even knowing that standing on her pedestal, with her white privilege and clear ignorance of the Filipino culture, that she has no place to judge simply because she was inadvertently complicit in the omission of the truth.

Worst of all? Susan Kelleher props herself up as some kind of hero in this story. As if she deserves a pat on the back.

Despite claims to the contrary, Ms. Kelleher does indeed denigrate Mr. Tizon

It is not my intention to denigrate him, only to apologize for being complicit in further injuring Ms. Pulido by providing cover for what was ultimately a life denied.

What matters about Alex Tizon’s attempts to salvage the tragic situation — and for that matter, his attempts to cope with it — is what good he was able to do for Lola. In the context of Lola’s Story and her 86 years on earth, his words to Ms. Kelleher were largely inconsequential. By overshadowing Mr. Tizon’s redemptive actions with her indignation at being deceived, does Kelleher realize that she is being dismissive of what good he did for Lola? Which of these good things could possibly deserve to be worth less than the lies he told you, Ms. Kelleher?

Alex Tizon via hercampus.com

As my Philippine-born mother (who will soon celebrate 30 years of American citizenship) and I discussed this piece, we agreed quite a lot on one particular point: that Alex Tizon had few choices, and that it appears he did the best he could. That he loved Lola like a mother, and that he honored her the way any dignified Filipino man possibly could in the circumstances that had been created. He did this in seeking her citizenship (which he quickly glossed over, and is no small feat — just ask anyone in my family). He did this in choosing to direct her obituary in a way that honored her spirit, her beauty as a human being, all from the perspective of someone who shared mutual love and admiration with the deceased. How could he ever have made full amends for these sins? Nothing, not all the money in the world, could serve as full reparations for what his family did to her. And he knew that.

The purpose of an obituary is to honor a person’s life

Obituaries depend on the fundamental honesty of the people who survive to tell the story. Tizon lied to me, and through me, to our readers, depriving Ms. Pulido of the truth of her life, and the rest of us an important piece of our history. And for that I am truly sorry.

Here, Ms. Kelleher seems to think that her obituary was the defining moment of telling the truths of Lola’s life. Yes, this woman decided that speaking with Mr. Tizon and his sister for no more than a few hours would enable her to tell the truth of Lola’s life.

Would Lola want the details of her life in servitude aired out like dirty laundry in a piece that is supposed to honor her? My Filipino sensibilities make me think that the answer would be “no.” It’s not like she would have seen the Tizons face consequences for their actions. Why focus on her servitude, instead of what beautiful things could be told of her character? It only reinforces her enslavement to declare it in her obituary.

Ms. Kelleher did not stop there. She seems to indicate that Lola’s life was an important piece of “our” history — that is, she included herself in this statement.

As if she understands. As if she has the understanding to speak for Lola.

Kelleher’s judgemental words reveal complete ignorance for Filipino culture

You, Ms. Kelleher, are not Filipino. You are not Filipino-American. Your assignment to write an obituary based on accounts from others puts you in no place to condemn over the truths of millions of people whose lives you don’t understand; you didn’t care about it then, so why do you care about it now? We are talking about people whose histories are so scantily described here in America yet are so heavily burdened by the very actions of this country since the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. You don’t understand how American influence is weaved into the fabric of Filipino culture and you don’t know anything about the depth of U.S. influence on the Philippines. You don’t understand the plight of a Filipino family that comes to the United States to be afforded opportunity, yet learns that the fight only becomes more difficult.

By basing your judgement of Mr. Tizon’s deception through the lens of your life as a white American woman, you’ve done a great disservice to the readers of The Seattle Times. You describe truth as being fundamental to honoring a person’s life; well, your truth is that you don’t know what Alex Tizon grappled with his entire life. Worse, you didn’t even pretend to care. You took no effort to acknowledge that his lifelong silence is largely cemented in the trappings of Filipino guilt, hierarchical order, and filial responsibility.

Lola was indeed a victim, but she was as much a victim of a culture and religion that raised her to be subservient and compliant and uncomplaining as she was one of human hand. –Mike Ricca, Esquire Philippines

It’s not that Filipinos support slavery. It’s not that we don’t wish Lola Eudocia had been free to live an unburdened life, nor do we think we can justify how Lola was brought to America. It’s that the story of Filipino servitude runs deep in our culture, both willing and unwilling. It’s that it’s a different kind of complex and a different degree of difficulty to characterize than the American understanding of slavery. And it’s that Filipinos have been in servitude of Americans from 1899 and in many ways still are; Ms. Kelleher, living in Seattle, you have undoubtedly eaten at an establishment where Filipinos have cleaned up after your meal. Potentially by a Filipino immigrant who has a J.D. or M.D. back in the homeland. You, as a white American woman, are far less likely to be deemed “the help” at first sight (as I and others of Filipino heritage are often regarded). You, as a white American woman, do not know the complexities of being a Filipino in America. And you could, at the very least, acknowledge that.

My mother, Elvie, and me, on the day she became an American citizen in 1987

While there’s so much more to unpack — and my mother and I spent some time doing so this evening — I wouldn’t know what else to explain. My mother even requested my discretion about her childhood nanny, a woman who became a teacher and was regarded as family. As Rin Chupeco described, our culture doesn’t permit such sharing.

Not only did Kelleher wag her finger from a pedestal, she did so to a dead man

The grief that befalls the Tizon family is significant. His death at a young age is also a tragedy; few men deserve their worldly sins, no matter how severe, to define them in death. He carried the burden of the decisions made by his parents, and any Filipino knows that the ways of your parents define the ways of your life — for better or for worse. There is no freedom from filial obligation; there is lifelong commitment and an expectation of prolonged reverence for your elders in the Filipino culture, and Alex Tizon is no exception.

That very reverence for a cherished family structure is what aided in freeing Lola Eudocia the best he could. What would you have done, Ms. Kelleher? Would you have put Lola in a nursing home, like so many other Americans would have done? Would you have sent her back to the Philippines, because it might fit your narrative of what freedom means to an unwilling immigrant to this country?

And… what editor missed the poorly-chosen word “whitewashed”?

In retrospect, the obituary reads as a whitewash for a fundamental truth known only to Tizon and his family: Ms. Pulido was a slave.

Ms. Kelleher, do you know what “reads as a whitewash” about the words you’ve written in the same exact piece? That you, Ms. Kelleher, seem to take it upon yourself to be a victim in this story. That you, Ms. Kelleher, express such deep indignancy at you being deceived. That you, Ms. Kelleher, are insulted over what amounts to falsity in your writing. And more than anything else, it reads as a whitewash that your apology somehow matters here.

One can’t understand what someone else is going through. It’s a fundamental element to postcolonial studies: there is no “I understand.” There is no possible way to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, especially someone of another culture or gender, no matter how clichéd it sounds. What I see here is a complete disregard for Alex Tizon’s lens on the world and the lens of Filipino-Americans who are more able to understand his journey. Had you, Ms. Kelleher, understood this, and declined to write such a self-serving and self-victimizing “exposé” on the matter, we too could have come to grips with the lens of yours that we can’t see through ourselves. Yet you chose to write something so lofty, so unjustly indignant, that you could not help but push the button on something that so blatantly whitewashed a painful tragedy for your personal gain.

Furthermore, seeing as Ms. Kelleher received multiple tweets that accused her of being complicit in “covering up slavery,” it seems that this article is more of a knee-jerk reaction to cover herself above all else — and not an apology.

Just one of a handful of tweets sent to Susan Kelleher about her 2011 obituary for Lola Pulido

What The Seattle Times should’ve published

The Seattle Times and Susan Kelleher should have published something along the lines of this:

We have read the newly-published June cover story in The Atlantic, “My Family’s Slave,” and we are shocked to learn of the secrets that author Mr. Alex Tizon kept over the course of his lifetime. We marked the passing of Mr. Tizon, a former writer at the Times, in March.
When staff writer Susan Kelleher wrote the obituary for Ms. Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido, we were not aware that Lola’s life with the family constituted unpaid servitude — in Mr. Tizon’s words, slavery.
We understand that there may have been reasons he did not share this with us. We do not condone this deception, but we cannot reserve judgement and the reasoning behind Mr. Tizon’s deception has followed him to the grave.
We have noted the inconsistencies between what he told us for Ms. Pulido’s obituary and the piece published in The Atlantic.

See, would that have been so difficult?

Lola’s Story offers more than a clear conscience

I’m inclined to believe that Alex Tizon did not just detail Lola’s Story to clear his conscience. He didn’t seem do it to generate clicks on The Atlantic's website. He did not seem to write the story to pat himself on the back.

For all we know, and from what I can ascertain from the body of work Mr. Tizon compiled over his years as a journalist, he must have known that the conversation would open the doors for more than just a careful analysis of right and wrong. He had to have known that it would spark discussion about the dimensions of domestic abuse that are not often discussed; among many other lessons, Lola’s Story reminded us that domestic abuse is not strictly between partners or parents and children. That it isn’t necessarily between blood relatives. That it could live under our noses, and that it could be so complex, fragile, and entrench everything around it.

And on the same note, Mr. Tizon taught us that love and admiration can live in dark, desperate places, and can be felt for a stranger — as I’m sure so many strangers reading his piece felt a wave of love in their hearts for Lola.

Superstitious Filipinos might take it as a sign from above — that perhaps he fulfilled his worldly goals. But Alex Tizon deserved more than to be shamed for a deeply personal story he so carefully articulated to the world, especially when he cannot answer for it. There are people who would’ve gone to their graves with this story; Mr. Tizon was not one of them, and I respect him for that.

After all, Alex Tizon was the most qualified to memorialize Lola. Not Susan Kelleher.

Lola made it to 86. I can still see her on the gurney. I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived. She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family. –Alex Tizon

On a more personal note, I earned my B.S. in Journalism (Media Studies) at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2009. Journalists like Alex Tizon, my Tito Romy, Elaine Quijano, and so many other Filipino faces are a big part of why I took a journalism degree. Not only did they pave the way for young Filipinos in journalism, they have brought honor to a field that is struggling to succeed and I am immensely proud of their work.

Additional reading I found valuable:
Lola Pulido’s Life Story As Told by Alex Tizon in The Atlantic June Cover Story is Complicated — A Brief Insider’s Perspective
Don’t Pretend to Understand Lola Pulido’s Situation
“My Family’s Slave” is a story familiar to a lot of Filipino families
Processing Through Alex Tizon’s Story About “Lola” Eudocia Tomas Pulido