First of 2 parts
RARELY do we get to read an article that not only makes us cry but also makes us think and reflect on
something close to home.
“My Family’s Slave” by Fil-Am journalist Alex Tizon must be the most popular article published on the American magazine The Atlantic in recent history. Hours after it was uploaded on Tuesday night, Tizon’s final piece became viral and sparked a debate.
It was a gripping story about Eudocia Tomas Pulido from Camiling, Tarlac, who served three generations of the Tizon family since she was 18 when she was given to his then 12-year-old mother as a gift by his grandfather, Lt. Tomas Asuncion.
She was Lola to the Tizon family. She died in November 2011 at the age of 86. It took Alex years to write the story about her. And everybody who knew Alex were shocked when he died in his sleep at age 57 in March, the day the editors of The Atlantic decided to make the story its cover for the June issue.
Days after it was published, people are still talking about it. It has elicited extreme reactions, from condemnation to praise for Alex for how his family treated Lola as a slave doing all household chores without pay for most of the time she spent with them.
It was Alex’s description of Lola as a slave that triggered mixed emotions of condemnation particularly for the way his monster mom treated Lola and praises for the author for his honesty and the courage to reveal a family’s dark secret, of keeping Lola as a slave for 56 years.
The story is close to home not only because both Lola and Alex were Filipinos but also because we know of many stories about poor girls from the province serving as “utusan” in the household of their relatives who are better off. Some of them get but a pittance in pay while others were happy to just have a home to live in and food to survive.
I seriously doubt if Lola’s story, written in simple yet riveting prose by Alex, was intended to win an award after his 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a five-part series about fraud and mismanagement in the US Federal Indian Housing Program published in the Seattle Times.
I take it as a tribute to Lola and recognition of the extreme sacrifices she had to take care of a family that eventually loved her in return and treated her as an important part of the household.
It is sad that Alex is no longer around to answer many questions and fill in the gaps in the story, and to explain why it took him so long to rescue Lola from the hands of his monster mom.
When Alex came to the Philippines under the Knight International Journalism Fellowship under the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in 2009, he spent some time with us at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). We knew then that he was working on stories about his roots, including what later came out in book form as Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.
It is not easy to retell the story of Lola as beautifully and heartbreakingly as Alex wrote it. So I will not do that. If you have not read it, Google it and get ready to cry.
Let me just share with you the tribute of my former colleagues at the PCIJ for Alex when they learned the shocking news about his passing on March 23, 2017, so you could have a glimpse of Alex as a Filipino and a friend.
Rowena Caranza Paraan: I worked with Alex Tizon when I was still PCIJ research director. We went to Masbate and Zamboanga del Norte and spoke with community leaders. We met even on weekends at a coffee shop in Eastwood to discuss our project. We had a million photos together but I can’t remember at the moment where I saved them. The images are vivid though: Alex sitting on a stool in the roadside of Masbate, talking to fishermen’s wives; Alex, with his American accent, speaking in Filipino to development workers in Zamboanga; Alex sitting in the back seat of a converted army jeep (sort of) that had no aircon and very cramped, but uttered not a word of complaint. That was our service vehicle throughout the Masbate trip.
You would never know that he was a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist because he was always humble. He consulted and listened. When he was here last year (2016), he even apologized for being a “pesk” after he left because he needed some info from me which I think I was not able to give because I had resigned from PCIJ by then and was in the thick of the Ampatuan massacre campaign.
So we apologized to each other. He said he was amazed at how things had changed. Me at ABS-CBN, Ed Lingao at TV5 and Jaemark Tordecilla at GMA7. Alex though was still the same: self-effacing, dedicated, and proud of his Filipino roots. I remember him being sad after some of our interviews and I knew he was wishing he could do more. I always prided myself in being grounded, in knowing the real situation on the ground. But during those trips with Alex, I realized I had been taking some things for granted. That I, too, had gotten used to seeing/hearing some things that I may have become desensitized.
Alex’s reactions to our trips jolted me out of that state. When the massacre happened and I decided to resign from PCIJ to work full-time again in the NUJP justice campaign for murdered colleagues, Alex said he would have done the same. I wanted to hug him then because he was giving me the support I badly needed. I wish now I did. My encounter with Alex was relatively short but long on lessons. Surprisingly, not in journalism but in being a Filipino and a friend.
(To be continued tomorrow)