Interrogating the Master Narrative of “My Family’s Slave”

Eudocia Tomas Pulido (Credit: Alan Berner, Seattle Times)

Alex Tizon’s widely acclaimed article in The Atlantic about his family’s horrific abuse and exploitation of a domestic worker has gone viral. While purportedly about bringing dignity to the life of a downtrodden woman, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, and exposing the injustices meted out to her, the essay is at its core about the author’s own emotional journey and liberal idealism, using the tragic story of a household employee as a backdrop.

Responses to Tizon’s piece have crossed the spectrum from effusive praise to deep disgust. But little has been said about the long history of domestic worker organizing and the implications of the essay for how we understand the occupation. Tizon’s description of Pulido as passive and unable to care for herself, as well as the glaring erasure of her voice, contributes to dominant assumptions about the powerlessness of household workers.

Although Tizon’s aim is to expose and upend this kind of abuse, in reality his framing contributes to the problem. The essay is about his love for both Pulido and his mother and his fruitless attempts to impart on them his own liberal ideals. Tizon yearns to defend and care for Pulido because—in his mind—she cannot do it herself. By infantilizing her, Tizon provides a rationale for why she continued to work for him until her death. Her refusal to return to live in the Philippines excuses the decades of abuse, since it suggests that maybe, in the end, she was better off in the U.S. Tizon is Pulido’s ultimate savior because she is unable to save herself.

This fosters a perception of domestic workers as fundamentally different and encourages those who hire them to erroneously believe that keeping them in their home can be an act of generosity. Stereotypes of content and loyal domestic workers who are invested in the well-being of the families for whom they work—even at the expense of their own lives—have long justified these relations of dependency. This is the stuff of “Mammy” legend.

But the exploited and content domestic worker is only legend, and history bears that out. Long before Tizon’s piece appeared in The Atlantic, Filipino domestic workers (through groups like Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City and the Pilipino Workers Center in Los Angeles) have been organizing to bring to light the deeply troubling conditions in the occupation. Linda Oalican co-founded and now serves as Exeutive Director of Damayan. In 1994, she, like Pulido, was working for an abusive employer in Washington State before she escaped. Oalican has observed how “Filipino women domestic workers who have been put in slavery-like conditions are able to rise up and transform themselves as social justice leaders.”

Tizon’s rendering of a passive and compliant worker disregards the organizing and the mobilizing, the multiple ways that domestic workers resist and create spaces of autonomy, sometimes without their employers’ awareness. We know that under the right circumstances domestic workers quit jobs they hate, find surreptitious ways of defying employers, develop support groups, devote time to their own families whom they love dearly, and form political organizations. There is a long history of organizing that dates back to the 19th century when washerwomen in Atlanta organized for higher rates of pay. Private household workers also organized in the 1910s, the 1930s, and the 1970s, when domestic workers formed a nationwide organization with thousands of members across the country demanding “pay, professionalism and respect.” More recently, domestic workers organized locally beginning in the 1990s to push for higher pay, time off, protection from harassment, and severance pay. In 2007 they formed the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). They are not silent. They are not passive. They protest. They march. They testify.

Palak Shah, National Domestic Workers Alliance, talks to the Department of Labor, 2015. Photo: US Department of Labor/WIkimedia.
Palak Shah, National Domestic Workers Alliance, talks to the Department of Labor, 2015 (Credit: US Department of Labor/Wikimedia)

Barbara Young migrated to New York City from Barbados. She recounted attending her first domestic worker rights meeting: “People were telling the stories about the work that they were doing, not getting vacation, not getting paid for holidays. It was the first time I was hearing stories from workers coming together.” It prompted her to organize other domestic workers and fight for a Bill of Rights for domestic workers in New York State. Today Barbara is a field organizer with NDWA.

Tizon’s use of the word “slave” to label Pulido is designed both to shock the reader and to make apologies for his family. Tizon traces the roots of the slave relationship with Pulido to the Philippines, where, according to him, a culture of dependency existed (and still exists).

Part of the appeal of his story is the conception of American society as more enlightened than other societies. The horror of Pulido’s life is attributed to a “foreign” Philippine culture. Inquisitive and suspicious American neighbors force the family to lie. The dynamic between Tizon, a self-described “typical American kid,” and his immigrant mother reinforces the narrative of American exceptionalism. Tizon is outraged at the behavior of his parents, who fail to understand the error of their ways. Because he grew up in the United States he “came to see the world differently.”

But America is no exception. The U.S. has its own complicated history with domestic service—one premised on bodily ownership where employees are expected to do whatever is asked of them rather than have a discrete set of tasks for which they are responsible; where workers do not have the right to organize and bargain collectively; where they are routinely underpaid, overworked, abused, and denied the opportunity to effectively care for their own children. While Pulido’s case is extreme because she wasn’t paid, such instances are not unheard of in the U.S.

Moreover, the dichotomy obscures the role of the U.S. in creating the conditions that prompted Pulido to accept the bargain of her labor in exchange for food and shelter. It is an ongoing problem. As Oalican explains, “The continuing neo colonization of the Philippines by the US causes widespread unemployment and deep poverty which has been the major push for the poor to grab any kind of work or semblance of work in the Philippines or overseas, to survive.”

“Tell Dem Slavery Done” is a phrase widely circulated among domestic worker activists today. It illustrates both the parallels they draw between bondage and the occupation of domestic work and their demands to end the exploitation. For domestic worker activists, the slave label can be applied to cases where workers are literally captive—with their documents, papers, and wages kept by their employers—to the routine acts that demonstrate employer power and control in a context where workers have few other occupational opportunities. The slavery trope has resurfaced across time and space. It was used by African American journalists Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke in the 1930s to describe the experiences of black domestic workers who waited on street corners to be hired by the day as well as by activists in the 1970s such as Geraldine Roberts, who equated her treatment on the job with “slavery time.”

A WPA program in the 1930s trained African-American women to work as maids and household servants
(Credit:WPA Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

The arc of Tizon’s article is his emotional journey—from ignorance to awareness to resistance to reconciliation. The culmination of the essay—when Tizon finally returns the remains of “the slave” to her distraught relatives and rightful burial ground in the Philippines—is not about Pulido or her family, but Tizon’s atonement for decades of mistreatment.

He understands his defense of Pulido and desire to return her remains to her family as driven by enlightened ideals, but also love. Idealism and love, however, substitute for attention to the power imbalance in the relationship, an imbalance recreated in his essay. We don’t get to know Pulido. We don’t learn what she thinks or feels. Her voice is painfully absent in his essay about her life. We get shreds of evidence that she hoped to return to her family, that she wanted to get paid, that she felt compelled to work. So, although she performed an untold number of acts of love—which Tizon interprets as real love—she may not have loved the family. Performance is not uncommon for domestic workers.

Employers have often misunderstood this performance and believe that their servants were “one of the family,” presuming a relationship based on love, care, and affection. When workers are able to speak without constraint, however, they frequently reject this language. As African American domestic worker Carolyn Reed, the head of the Household Technicians of America, said in the early 1970s, “I don’t need a family. I only want a job.” The trope of “one of the family” has historically been used to obfuscate the exploitation, abuse, and inequality embedded in the relationship.

If listening to domestic workers tells us anything, it is that employer voices cannot stand in for the hopes and dreams of the people over whom they wield power. Pulido shared little about her life with Tizon. Even after she is “freed,” she doesn’t confide in him or trust him. She responds curtly to his questions about her life. Perhaps she believed that the queries were for the purposes of writing an essay, where she would once again be exploited.

Despite the obstacles, domestic workers have spoken out repeatedly. Their voices illustrate that there are multiple narratives about the occupation of domestic work.

In the end, we come to see Pulido through Tizon’s eyes: as a helpless figure who had no aspirations of her own, who after her death is brought back to her family in a box. I imagine that if we heard her voice, it would be a very different story.

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Premilla Nadasen

Premilla Nadasen is a professor of history at Barnard College and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge, 2004). A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. Her most recent book is entitled Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women who Built a Movement (Beacon Press, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @premillanadasen.

Comments on “Interrogating the Master Narrative of “My Family’s Slave”

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    Thank you for this critique of The Atlantic essay, which is getting too much of a free pass elsewhere, despite its focus on the author’s tale of enlightenment, while so very little about than the life and beliefs of Eudocia Tomas Pulido, the domestic worker exploited by the author’s family for many years. The distinction between love and performances that create the perception of the love required by the employer is quite well articulated by Professor Nadasen, here.

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      Thank you for your comments. The power dynamic in the relationship requires that we think critically about “acts of love.”

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    I disagree. Tizon represents Pulido as very able to care for herself, as well as caring capably for a large family who she herself characterized as being like her own children. I came away with a picture of a very strong woman. After his mother died, Tizon tried several times to teach Pulido to drive so she could go wherever she wanted whenever she wanted. When she finally visited her home he asked her if she wanted to return to the U.S. It was her choice, not his, to return. She had complete agency once Tizon’s mother passed, and she made her own choices. Even her original choice to enter into service to Tizon’s mother (though manipulated by lies) was still her own choice. As was her choice to go with them to America in the first place. Any dependency she exhibited, he clearly tells, was a legacy of her years of exploitation at the hands of Tizon’s mother. This story is about an individual, not a whole category of people. It doesn’t denigrate anyone in the same situation and I think it was a valuable story for him to tell.

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    Another example of Tizon’s missed opportunity to invoke a larger political awareness is his consistent use of what seems to be Ms. Pulido’s slave name, Lola. “Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido. We called her Lola.” It seems that he cannot separate his emotional attachment from the political reality of exploitation. I appreciate that you, Professor Nadasen, did not make that same mistake.

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      Lola is not a slave name. In Tagalog, it means grandmother. The Philippines employs a culture of respect where you cannot call older people just by their name. You must attach a title when calling them. For example, Mister or Miss, or even Ate (older sister), Kuya (older brother), etc. These are not slave names but titles of respect.

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