My Facebook feed the other day was full of crying emojis and shares of Alex Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” piece for The Atlantic. This is understandable – Tizon is a gifted (an indeed, award-winning) writer, and the depths from which he wrenched this deeply personal narrative is apparent. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, the shares declared. Moving, touching, and even: inspiring.

I felt none of that. I felt… uncomfortable. Underneath the poetry, something was up.

The first red flag for me was the utter lack of good historical context. Yes, I know there was a bit of it but his first sentence in this regard is informative: “slavery has a long history in the islands”. His next sentences appear designed to support the idea that the fate of the woman he called “Lola” – Eudocia Tomas Polido – was somehow part of a long and pervasive tradition of forced labor beginning with precolonial Filipinos.

While it is true that outright enslavement as chattel could result from raiding for captives and going deep into debt, historical reconstructions would yield a far more nuanced picture. Antonio de Morga, writing at the close of the 16th century, noted the sophisticated rules governing “slave” status. Some of these were with regard to how much a slave an individual was (for example, if one of your parents was a slave but the other wasn’t, you were only a “half-slave”), and therefore how much time you had to devote in the service of someone else (if you were a “half-slave”, you served your “master” for one month, then kept the next month as your own, then returned to your master in the next, and so on). Part-time slaves could also demand compensation for labor that exceeded what was agreed, sort of like overtime pay. Slaves could get married (even to non-slaves) and own their own house. Most importantly, this sort of “debt peonage” was not necessarily a life sentence; one can gain free status and even upward mobility once the debt is paid. The literally dozens of terms that once existed to distinguish different levels or states of being indentured or in debt show that historians William Henry Scott and Renato Constantino, and even the national hero Jose Rizal, were correct in arguing that the blanket term “slavery” (with all its “Western” baggage) could hardly accurately capture this complicated social phenomenon.

If I am to look for the historical beginnings of the sort of slavery to which Tizon’s Lola Eudocia was subjected, I would argue that it is to be found rather in the imposition of feudal relations during the colonial period, when bondage was reckoned not just through relations of debt but through outright assertion of ownership of the land by elites. The conditions for prevalent permanent slavery were set when large land claims were codified in title, pushing those who were too ignorant or powerless to play this game to either accept tenant status, or to move to urban areas. As history and a quick look around should tell us, neither of these options have shown much promise in breaking from the cycle of poverty.

Women and girls were particularly vulnerable under such circumstances, because feudal culture considered them second-class citizens who were subject to the whims of (male) authority figures: think the young girls who had to clean and cook for, and accompany the fraile in prayer, at the kumbento (in contrast, precolonial “slavery” assigned “slave” status and labor obligations regardless of gender).

Take note that Tizon says that these exploitative relationships persisted “even after the US took control of the islands in 1898” (emphasis mine). I would say instead that the US colonial regime actually actively reinforced such exploitative arrangements. Land laws promulgated by the Americans brought no relief and reform but simply consolidated the land ownership of a few rich families. The supposedly democratic legislature set up by the Americans was a landlord-dominated old boys’ club. Peasant revolts were brutally crushed. Aristocratic family values that demanded unquestioning fealty from their vassals were sustained precisely because the same aristocratic families were themselves sustained by the US to be their ruling puppets.

Tizon’s realization of his Lola Eudocia’s slave status then becomes laced with supreme irony. He writes that he had this realization only in contrast to the lifestyle of his American neighbors, and his account shows that he and his family were conscious of this. They were freedom-loving Americans if not for Lola, their slave. They were a poster family for the American dream if not for Lola, their slave. These were framed as points of incompatibility. But the Filipino historical experience (and perhaps the histories of other people of color) will show that they both went hand-in-hand.

The second red flag was the lack of inquiry into why this practice persisted all through these supposedly more enlightened times. This vacuum has been filled in by the spontaneous general consensus of referring to culture in discussing Lola Eudocia’s situation. I suppose Tizon himself had initially set the tone by writing about how, against the backdrop of liberal America, Lola Eudocia certainly seemed like a cultural aberration that his family just happened to bring over to those shores. Growing up American gave him enough distance to dissociate himself from the practice, but it also led him to portray it as belonging to the Other, i.e., the culture his parents left behind in the Philippines. To go back to his historical backgrounder, he describes this as “tradition” – a “persisting” one.

As many Filipino reactions stated, for better or worse, this indeed has been part of our culture and tradition. Such a culturalist (for lack of a better term) approach has been used to explain why Lola Eudocia could not easily detach from her situation, as well as to assert that there are cultural fail-safes that mitigate these asymmetrical relations (such as treating the help like family).

However, such reasonings have unfortunately been pushed to the extreme of ultra-relativism, of shutting down non-Filipino opinions because they can never “understand” us. As an anthropologist I know of the virtues of good cultural contextualization, of being proficient in the concepts that surround, dictate, and are reformulated by, visible behavior. But also as an anthropologist, I know too of the virtues of distance from long-held beliefs and practices, and of seeing things that may not immediately be apparent to those who take them for granted. Otherwise, then we can’t really study other people’s cultures, can we?

But the weaker dimension to this approach has been its tendency towards discursive confinement: cultural problems have cultural solutions, in the same way that Tizon’s personal burden had to be expiated through personal means.
And this is the third red flag that was so difficult to find raised underneath the eloquence and emotions of Tizon’s words. I suppose we’ll never know what his piece hoped to accomplish. But given his talent for writing and his sense of the injustice done to Lola Eudocia, would it be unfair to look for more than painful family memories and a road trip narrative?

Tizon’s descriptions of the Tarlac countryside are beautiful – too beautiful, in fact, that they give the readers no cognitive or emotive space to even realize that many parts of Tarlac remain bastions of feudalism (think Hacienda Luisita), most probably little changed from Lola Eudocia’s youth. His words are graceful, but gives nary a glimpse of the horror of landlessness, of poverty, of the soul-crushing non-choice that people like Lola Eudocia have had to face. He pays tribute to the Filipino’s resilience, but with no sociopolitical mooring, the compliment feels as perfunctory as his selecting the cheap plastic box holding Lola Eudocia’s ashes.

Without the historical deepening into how the conditions for slavery developed and the political consciousness as to how these are maintained, then his piece may have been liberating for him, but it is not liberative for people like Lola Eudocia, neither in the past nor into the future.

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