My Family's Slave

Here's a devastating piece from Alex Tizon of the Atlantic, about a slave his family kept in secret throughout his childhood. Tizon, who was a Pulitzer Prize reporter for the Seattle Times, passed away recently at the age of 57. He struggled for years to write this piece, and finished it only shortly before his death. 

The story of Lola is deeply intertwined with Tizon's account of growing up as a son of immigrants in the US. His parents had inherited Lola, who grew up a poor farmer in the fields of the Philippines and was 18 years old when she unknowingly entered endured servitude for Tizon's mother, spending the rest of her life as the family's caretaker. Tizon recounts what life was like for Lola, who earned the scorn of his grandparents and parents alike:

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie—something to do with a boy she wasn’t supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to “stand at the table.” Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound.

The mental gymnastics Tizon's parents went through to justify keeping her around for decades as a slave is a source of great sorrow in the authors life. His parents scrapped and struggled to make a life for themselves in America, and used those hardships as justification of keeping Lola as a servant. His father leaves the family when Tizon is 15, leaving the mother by herself to provide for him and his siblings, working long hours and relying on Lola to take care of the family. Not only is Lola in America against her will, but she is also responsible for bringing up children who are not her own. Tizon's mother came to have a close relationship with Lola, but even on her death bed could not face-up to what their relationship was:

The priest asked Mom whether there was anything she wanted to forgive or be forgiven for. She scanned the room with heavy-lidded eyes, said nothing. Then, without looking at Lola, she reached over and placed an open hand on her head. She didn’t say a word.

The piece has intertwining storylines: one of Lola's experiences as a slave in America, and another of Tizon taking Lola's ashes back to her home in the Philippines. After his mom's death Tizon took Lola in and treated her as well as he could in her golden years. He even arranged a trip for her to go back to see her home for her 83rd birthday. It would be the first time Lola had been back to her native country since she was a child. It's clear that Tizon loved Lola like a mother and agonized over the life she had to live.

Tizon's story is a reminder of the injustices that we live with everyday. It's both an eloquent eulogy to an extraordinary woman, and a heartbreaking tale of the worst in human nature. A reminder that we are capable of normalizing terrible things, and how those actions have psychic cost that last for generations. It's our ability to empathize with the lives others that keep us away from our worst selves, which makes tales Lola's so incredibly vital to our humanity.