Notes & Essays

Don't Pretend to Understand Lola Pulido's Situation

There's a cultural context to Lola's enslavement that non-Filipinos can never understand.
IMAGE Screencap from The Atlantic/Photos Courtesy of Alex Tizon and His Family

Editor's Note: Mike Ricca wrote this as a reaction to writer Josh Shahryar's tweets on Alex Tizon's viral "My Family's Slave" piece on The Atlantic.

The two tweets from [Josh] Shahryar's longer response perfectly encapsulate why I feel non-Filipinos need to slow their roll before casting judgment on a situation they don't actually understand. They're taking something they have no cultural comprehension of and trying to turn it into something else. Shahryar spends time equating Lola's story with America's history of slavery when the two are nothing alike. Even the terms he uses—"enslavement" and "slave-owner"—are more to do with the latter than the former.

Lola was never cuffed to a radiator; she was never whipped for being derelict in her "duties"; she was never stolen from her home by force.

Her chains stemmed from a deep cultural obligation ingrained in her by a society and religion that promote compliance and subservience. There's also a deep, unwritten caste system that infects the psyche of every Filipino: her beatings were the emotional manipulation of a mistress who yelled at her and no doubt accused her of having no "utang ng loob" or "hiya" (concepts someone who's not Filipino will have difficulty understanding); her theft was voluntary—precipitated by a culture and circumstance that convinced her from an early age that her only way to escape from poverty was through service to another.

Her theft was voluntaryprecipitated by a culture and circumstance that convinced her from an early age that her only way to escape from poverty was through service to another.

The same cultural obligation made it impossible for her to even consider leaving the family and the children she had raised from infancy—children that felt more like her own kin than that of Tizon's actual mother. It's not that she was subjected to some kind of traumatic conditioning that forced her to serve lest she face further abuse; she was raised in a society that convinced her it was her lot in life to serve and to do otherwise was unthinkable. That's why, even years after Tizon's mother died, Lola still could not bring herself to relax and enjoy. To do so felt so perverse, so direct an affront to all she'd been raised on, that it was to her as much a blasphemy as spitting on a crucifix.

Shahryar has no understanding of these things because he is not Filipino and that's why it's problematic for him to take a look at a situation with only an article as a frame of reference. It's even more problematic for him to draw large enough conclusions that he feels empowered to cast judgment on all involved. He accuses Tizon of not "freeing" Lola when the truth is she could have freed herself at any time. Nothing was stopping her from calling INS and reporting the parents and getting a free one-way deportation ticket back home to her family. Nothing, that is, except for the societal and cultural shackles that made such an act nigh-impossible to even dream of. And if she did, I have no doubt she was wracked with guilt for even entertaining the thought.

To be abundantly clear, none of this absolves Tizon's mother. While I'm sure there's so much more to her story and motivations than just what we've been told, in the end she did a horrible thing and there's no excusing it. Likewise, none of this is meant to paint Tizon or his siblings in a positive light. Though we may have different opinions on just how complicit they were in Lola's situation, we can all agree they are still culpable to a degree.

I say all of this simply to point out that there is so much more to this tragic, terrible, fucked-up story than a single article could ever hope to show. 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.

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.

To try and force this "round peg" of an issue in the "square hole" that you understand, to presume to know exactly who to blame for what (and how much) without actually understanding Filipino culture to the point where you feel you have the right to cast absolute judgment on those involved—it's social arrogance. To see it come from a person of color, one who has most likely told others not to cast judgment without having walked a mile in his own shoes, makes it hypocritical arrogance at that.

Lola's story is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and infuriating, and it is entirely in anyone's right to be sad or angry or outraged; but don't presume to know what people should or shouldn't have done, condemning them for not behaving in the way you're convinced they should've behaved when you don't actually understand all of the factors and forces that brought her story about.

Read Mike Ricca's complete post here. Minor edits have been made by editors.

The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse.

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About The Author
Mike Ricca
Mike is a picture-taker, horizon-chaser, opinion-volunteerer, and all-around rabble-rouser. Hs is also incredibly fond of hyphens.
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