The Box That Bears Her Ashes

“Unpack” is a word used a lot over the past few days to describe reactions to “My Family’s Slave;” it is a verb that captures the Filipino-ness of it all. How we unpack balikbayan boxes, how we unpack things when we move homes, how we unpack things when we settle into a place like America. And like many things in boxes, unpacking is a thing that must be done delicately and carefully.

Some things can get lost, forgotten, or destroyed in the act of unpacking a box.

And for all this talk of Westjacking the narrative and the nuances of Filipino culture, something I haven’t really done in the wake of the Alex Tizon maelstrom was to train the spotlight on the story itself. For all its brilliance, for all its technical mastery, it’s still one of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever read.

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Interestingly enough, the story begins with a box: it was “a black plastic box about the size of a toaster.” It may be as generic as every plastic box in every Filipino home both here and abroad. Yet it was a box lost in the outrage: the way Lola Eudocia slept in a pile of laundry, the way she was kept away from the eyes of others, the way she was treated for decades.

Lots of pieces have been written about how Lola Eudocia was abused: angry pieces, explanatory ones, some that even excuse and apologize for it. Or reframe the discussion altogether (and I admit: I’m guilty of that).

Reactions that excuse or apologize are particularly gripping: in 2006, when the Calimlim couple was ordered deported for abusing Erma Martinez for nearly 2 decades, over a hundred Filipino-Americans supported calls for leniency because “Filipino culture accepted this sort of servitude.” And this isn’t just an American thing. Four years ago, Bonita Baran made headlines—and became a central figure in the Kasambahay Law—when her case was heard. The story even runs deep into fiction: Maalaala Mo Kaya, Amor Powers, Ilo-Ilo, Atsay, the extras and unseen players in something as innocuous as, say, Joaquin’s “The Summer Solstice” or Benitez’s “Dead Stars.” It was either Tizon had the talent to cut through a part of Filipinos at a very precise angle, or that “My Family’s Slave” was the last straw.

How much of our lives, in fact, are framed by these narratives of yayas and katulongs and all-arounds?

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I guess the reason why stories like these exist is to remind us of an old and boring and hackneyed cliché: “humans are complicated.” And they are: we devote a significant part of our lives tending to the skeletons in our closet. Some of us choose to carry those things to the grave, some of us get caught with them, and still some of us wait for the right time and the right place to throw them out in the open. Tizon chose the last one.

Our outrage and our blind spots somehow encourage us to create unquestioned assumptions about Lola’s story, like lumping everything into a singular and overarching American emancipation narrative, or saying that “Lola” is the diminutive of “dolor,” with the end of reparations. Complicated beings that we are, it’s a natural reaction. But when sustained, we’re kind of lost in the semantics. The questions don’t burn deep enough. There’s no time to introspect, to reflect, to listen.

We lose out on a lot of things because we’d rather shout each other down. Listening and learning from each other’s voices and stories can help us rend bigger and more powerful dragons.

Lola’s story was inextricably tied to an extremely complicated narrative that somehow defines our people. Out of the four million Filipinos living in the United States; Lola may just be one of the many who live in the margin of error. This does not count the many other kinds of indentured servants and kasambahay and katulong in the Philippines, or those poorer relations taken in to maintain the upkeep of many Filipino homes. Or how “honest and decent” work for some is a “bastion of oppression” for another.

Unpacking all of these things require careful thought, and perhaps even more careful words. In all of these passionate discussions, after all, we are speaking on their behalf.

It’s to somehow see the portrait of the Filipino in a different light: one with a helper in the background. It’s iffy to think about that when you’re indignant about “Filipina” being synonymous with “domestic helper” in some dictionaries. Or when school teaches you about things like polo and encomiendas.

I mentioned before that katulong is probably the last holdout we have to times when we were decidedly less modern and cosmopolitan. And here we are, in more modern and more cosmopolitan times, and yet the katulong is still here. A significant part of modern, cosmopolitan life in the Philippines is made possible by having kasambahay around. It’s an uncomfortable thought for some, but it’s not without a kernel of truth. We are able to maintain some degree of comfort and aspire to a more modern way of life because housework is passed on to someone else. In Tizon’s case, some semblance of family life and order is maintained despite straitened circumstances because of Lola Eudocia. And it doesn’t take the most observant eyes in the world to see the effects of that take place in a family restaurant on a Sunday.

This isn’t to apologize for the evil parts of katulong culture, or to guilt-trip anyone into thinking about not hiring househelp anymore, but to underscore how much of our daily lives have revolved around some degree of servitude. When Shakira Sison says that “we are all Tizons,” she’s right; as a culture, we have somehow successfully created a system to create and perpetuate the industry of domestic help. As a friend puts it, we’ve become so good at it that other countries are copying our example. It’s become so ingrained that the “DH” label has either become a badge of honor, or seen as a temporary hurdle to bigger things and aspirations. And often, it doesn’t end up that way; like Lola Eudocia, Erma, Bonita, and people like Flor Contemplacion, what is ingrained is so far from what they have experienced.

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Stories, like so many things, are processes. Unpacking a sort of collective guilt is a process, just as the Kasambahay Law was. What more for the great changes needed to stop the practice (if indeed that is the end)?

In delicately, carefully, and deliberately unpacking the story—much like the unpacking that took place with burying Lola Eudocia’s ashes—we are exposed to so many layers that would not have otherwise been seen if we just dumped everything to the floor in the name of one narrative. We undergo a slow maturing of sorts: the nuances and the hypocrisies, the double standards and the idiosyncrasies, the tears that give way to anger, the solution-seeking that leads to pointing out structural problems, the motherhood statements of care and compassion that eventually—hopefully—would lead to more concrete steps. There’s the waiting for true modernity to come by. There’s the collective class guilt that eventually branches out to the many other stories that tie in to the story: the homeless poor, the lack of opportunity in rural communities, the status of women in society, the immigrant experience.

Or how the narrative of the “model immigrant,” contrasted against Lola’s story, makes the story more blunt: is it for us to step on someone? Or how the narrative of the “oppressed Filipino,” contrasted against Lola’s story, makes the picture less comfortable: what kinds of oppression are we capable of? Or that searing question: now that everyone has had their fair share of commentary on the issue, what is to be done, exactly? We all see solutions, but a lot of them are disagreeable perhaps to our ideological beliefs. We can professionalize househelp, but how can we prevent the black market of trafficked maids that it may cause? Maybe we can do without househelp, but what changes in our view and experience of “modernity” do we have to accept and start adjusting to? What kind of governance is needed to make development as far-reaching as possible?

It’s that complex: it’s like unpacking ourselves, in the process.

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Reading further, we’re confronted with Tizon’s regrets: “I tapped the cheap plastic box and regretted not buying a real urn, made of porcelain or rosewood. What would Lola’s people think?” Why didn’t he? The memorial plot itself would cost a thousand times over the toaster-sized plastic box that carried Lola Eudocia’s ashes across the Pacific Ocean. What would Lola’s people think, that their kin is in this box transported like any other thing you could carry on a box? I guess we can imagine that it was that box was lowered into the grave, but we wouldn’t know. Again, the an old and tired cliché: “humans are complicated.” But how complicated should humans be to even think of bearing human ashes in things other than an urn?

Still, for all that love—post-haste, perhaps scattered through the story, in moments loudly expressed or quietly endured—why a box? Surely there are stories untouched by Tizon in his essay, but that’s the one lingering thing to me, as a reader. Why the box? Was Lola not good enough for an urn, and that it’s that regret that cuts across the stories woven in his essay?

That’s quite a bit of weight to bear.

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