No, The Atlantic Story About The Modern Slave Was Not Beautiful, It Was Tragic

Photo: The Seattle Times
atlantic slave article

Miss Pulido's life reminds me of a story my grandmother told me as a child in the Philippines.

When I was younger, I lived with my grandmother in a small province in the Philippines. During hot summer months, we were prone to regular power outages. To pass the time, my grandmother would tell me stories about her youth.

And one of the stories that I will always remember was about how after World War II, she met an older American gentleman who took a liking to her. She was in her late teens, and the man and his wife wanted to adopt her, take her to America, and give her a good education.

Mind you, my grandmother was not an orphan; she was one of 9 children of middle-class parents. She was also educated. So, she said "No, thanks", and the man was never heard from again.

The above photo is of myself and my grandmother when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Everything I am today is because of her.

When I was first told about the story "My Family’s Slave", published in The Atlantic, my first thought was of the typical White American taking advantage of some poor minority. But with one look at the author’s last name and the first paragraph I realized, "Oh shit, this guy is Filipino like me."

Long story short, "My Family’s Slave" recounts the story of the author growing up with a woman named Eudocia Tomas Pulido. They called her "Lola" (the Filipino word for "Grandmother").

She cooked, cleaned, and took care of him and his siblings, but was given no compensation. In the author’s own words, she was a slave. A slave in modern times. Kudos to him for acknowledging that.

The Atlantic Times

I’ll admit that when I read the first few paragraphs, I somewhat sympathized with the author. I grew up with someone like Miss Pulido, well, a lot of someones.

For even though we were a middle-class family, we could afford to have a maid in our house. Some may call a person like this a helper or a housekeeper, but no matter the word used, it meant the same. We had someone at home helping with the cooking, cleaning, and watching over the kids. 

I will say that growing up in the Philippines, it’s a norm for many families, even middle-class families to have "helpers" like Miss Pulido.

The author is correct in saying that they were usually from low-income families, the poorest of the poor. It's a centuries-long practice influenced by the Spanish when they colonized the country (colonialism at its finest).

I was brought up by my grandmother — my Lola —with the help of a maid who often also served as my nanny ("yaya" in Filipino). In fact, my Lola currently employs a married couple to help her out around the house (after she had a stroke last year, she also has a stay-at-home nurse in addition).

But, the more I read the story, the more I was appalled by this family’s treatment of Miss Pulido. And I don’t want to call her "Lola" in this article because she had a name and I hope that people would use her name when they talk about her or when they praise the author (or do it the Filipino way; call her Lola Eudocia, because Lola is more a title than a name, someone who is meant to be given your full respect).

Growing up, the author may have thought that this was the norm … but, this was NOT the norm. (Maybe in the 60's and 70's, but the 90's and 2000's? Not so much.)

"She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us," the author writes.

A gift. Like she was an object. A thing to do with as pleased.

She was a property of the family that when the author’s mother married and had a family, she was brought along to wherever they went, including America. When the author’s mother died, instead of letting Miss Pulido go back home to the Philippines, the author continued to keep her. As if she was some kind of heirloom, passed down from one generation to the next.

I can excuse the author as a child because, let’s face it, most children are powerless to stop anything like this, even if they wanted to. But, as an adult?

Was there something he could have done? Yes, there were many opportunities for him to have done so. And I believe that he knew that, too.

There were points in the article when I could feel myself sympathizing, but the fact that he KEPT her with him still nags at me.

Apparently, he did ask himself that same question: "I was no better than my parents. I could have done more to free Lola. To make her life better. Why didn't I?"

Why, indeed? Why did he continue to keep her? He knew that what she went through was wrong.

There were many points in the article where the author wrote about her, praising her bravery, recounting beautiful memories with her. Each time, I could feel myself sympathizing, but then the thought would occur to me that although he treated her better, he was still no better than his parents. I tried to sympathize with the author as much as I could, I tried to understand and put myself in his position.

I thought back to my own Lolas from my life — the nannies and maids who took care of me growing up — and I also can’t help but wonder if my family ever made them feel like they were a slave?

But the fact that there were many Lolas in my life meant that they were allowed to leave. They were always given the choice to leave.

Miss Pulido did not have such a luxury because not only was she in a completely different country, she was held back by the very people she was "employed" with. They had many chances to set her free, but they didn't.

We know that she once begged to return home because of her parents' death, but she wasn't allowed to because she had duties to the family. She was torn between what she wanted and what she believed was her responsibility.

And when it came to the point where she was finally given this freedom, it was too late. 

I do believe that in his own way, the author did love Miss Pulido and there is no doubt that the feelings were mutual. She saw him as a son and he saw her as a mother-figure.

He ended up taking her back home to the Philippines eventually, of course. When asked if she wanted to stay, she chose to return to America with him.

The author may feel like she stayed because she loved him and his family. But, personally, I see that part of why she stayed was because there was nothing left for her in her own home country. Her family was gone. Her old house was gone. Her friends were strangers.

She was taken under false pretenses of a wage to help her family (who wouldn't do anything for their family?) and nothing was left for her to return to.

She stated it herself, "Everything was not the same."

What could she do but return to the place where she spent almost her entire life in, to the people whom she served for her entire life? 

I can’t fathom having any of my yayas dedicating their entire life to me without having one of their own.

To be fair, there is a long historical and cultural context behind why Miss Pulido decided to stay with the author and his family. For Filipinos, it's the concept of "utang na loob" or gratitude (you can read more about it in this Op-Ed from Esquire Philippines).

In a way, Miss Pulido was grateful to the family for employing her, for letting her live with them, even if her treatment was less-than-humane. Take note that she grew up impoverished and was taken in by a rich family. She couldn't complain, even if she wanted to. 

I want to like the author, because, in the end, he did treat her like family, like his actual Lola. But a part of me is also irritated that it took him so long to truly open his eyes, to finally take a stand, and to treat the woman he called grandmother like a human being.

Nobody’s perfect, I guess. But, it brings me some comfort that in the end, he knew that he could have done so much more.

I wanted to like the article. I wanted to see it as a "beautiful story", just like everyone who read it seemed to say. But, for the life of me, I can't see anything beautiful about it. In fact, my feelings are mixed about it. (It was beautifully written, though, I'll admit that much.)

And this only brings to light an issue that many may think no longer exists: invisible slavery. 

Sure, Miss Pulido wasn’t bought. She wasn’t chained or branded. But, she was lured under false pretenses of a better life.

Unlike my Lola who was able to say "no" to that American, Miss Pulido wasn't educated enough to realize what it could mean for her, so she didn't say "no".

The "job" offered to her was her means to provide a better life for her family, something that everyone who came from nothing should know and sympathize with. She was bound by duty and gratitude.

And there is absolutely no doubt that she was brave, strong, loving, and kind, even to the people who treated her like she was nothing.

How many people out there are just like Miss Pulido? Slaves who are invisible because, in the modern world, the thought of slavery seems like a thing of the past.

How many of them stayed because, for them, there was never a choice in the first place?

I am certain that there are many like her who still exist, both in America and in other parts of the world.

Miss Pulido may have been treated like family in the end, but it does not change the fact that she was taken from her home, she was not compensated, she was treated poorly, and she was not given the choice to leave. She became dependent on the author’s family and eventually, the author, himself. Her autonomy was taken from her.  

This story, to me, wasn't beautiful. It was tragic and serves as a warning and a lesson to everyone to keep their eyes open.