May 20, 2017: Postscript here.
Alex Tizon’s heartbreaking personal essay on his complicated relationship with his family’s katulong, Lola Eudocia Pulido, is making waves for all the right reasons. It is a brilliant piece of journalism. It is a wonderful breath of fresh air from the repetitive aspects of the 24-hour news cycle. It is a brilliant piece that serves us up the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Filipino experience in succinct, crisp slices of life all too familiar to anyone who grew up with a yaya. And that’s not just her: that story brings to light the plight of 40,000 Filipinos in forced labor abroad.
The buzz, of course, inevitably gives way to noise.
The nuances of the katulong should not be difficult to understand for Filipinos. It is, after all, the last holdout to the old ways. As a matter of critique, though, “katulong” does not lend too well to the word “slave.” The nuances of “katulong” are so varied. The word itself, translated, means “to help.” It can also be “kasambahay”—badly put, someone who lives in your house. To my mind, Lola Eudocia’s worst experiences put her squarely in the category of “alilang kanin:” roughly translated, a servant paid in cooked rice. Heck, even marketing-speak now goes for “household managers,” and the occasional notes on how to “market” to them.
Sometimes they are poorer relations taken in by wealthier kin, with the promise of giving them “a taste of the city” in return for the upkeep of the home. Sometimes they are young women often sent out by circumstances—often by poverty—to seek their fortune in the cities, and end up being all-around servants for a family of means. Mr. Tizon took pains to describe that situation in the first few paragraphs of his essay, perhaps (and rightfully so) drowned out by the poignant and painful memories of Lola Eudocia, with the guilt seeping in on almost every paragraph.
Yet many people—many of whom aren’t Filipino—take special and pointed offense to the story, perhaps because it evokes some of the circumstances that they themselves experienced. These include Blacks who experienced slavery, Whites who contrast their experiences with that of Lola Eudocia, and so on. The common denominator—and it doesn’t take much in the way of a Twitter search to find that out—is that these are elements of discourse put forward by people who don’t have a faint idea of how complicated the katulong relationship is.
The common thread: why somehow push aside the voices of these helpful, benevolent, well-meaning people at all?