Journalist Alex Tizon died on March 24. He was found dead in his Oregon home at the age of 57, of natural causes. In 1997, as a member of a reporting team for The Seattle Times, he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series exposing corruption in the Federal Indian Housing Program. However impressive that accomplishment was, it pales in comparison to what he achieved with his final story, one that he didn’t survive to see published. In it, Tizon, an immigrant from the Philippines, reveals his family’s dark secret: They’d kept a peasant woman as slave for 56 years, the majority of that time period in modern America. According to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, which published the extraordinary confessional, the decision to feature the story on the cover of the magazine’s June issue was made on the very day Tizon died, but before editors were able to alert him of the decision. Goldberg said Tizon’s wife, Melissa, told him Tizon, “was trying to write [the story] for five or six years. He struggled with it.” But recently, he’d experienced a breakthrough and was finally able to finish it.
“In many ways she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father,” Tizon writes about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, or as she was known by his family, “Lola.” Tizon’s story takes excruciating twists and turns that explore the immigrant experience and his discovery, around the age of 11, of his family’s arrangement with Lola in an unflinching manner. Nothing is sugar-coated. Every pockmark of the ugly and, bizarrely, loving narrative is exposed.
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“My parents were good to my siblings and me, and we loved them. But they’d be affectionate to us kids one moment and vile to Lola the next,” Tizon writes. “I was 11 or 12 when I began to see Lola’s situation clearly. By then Arthur [Tizon’s eldest brother], eight years my senior, had been seething for a long time. He was the one who introduced the word slave into my understanding of what Lola was. Before he said it I’d thought of her as just an unfortunate member of the household. I hated when my parents yelled at her, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they — and the whole arrangement — could be immoral.”
Tizon hides from nothing. He reveals all of the lying and obfuscating that he and his family engaged in over the years to safeguard their horrible secret.
“Who’s that little lady you keep in the kitchen?” the curious neighbor from across the street that they’d become friends with once asked. “A relative from back home, Dad said. Very shy,” Tizon recounts. And that barely scratched the surface.
His parents blithely abused Lola, and lied to her about everything from giving her an allowance to allowing her to return home to see her family. Despite the abject mistreatment, Lola practically single-handedly raised Tizon and his siblings. She was nothing short of loving in her care for them. Tizon recalls that as a child he once had been ill for days and was too weak to eat. Lola, bless her heart, chewed his food for him and placed little pieces into his mouth so that he could swallow them.
All told, Lola, a slight woman who stood just 4 feet, 11 inches tall, spent 56 years with Tizon’s family. His story drips with heartbreak and tragedy. It’s a tale with many themes — cruelty, guilt, shame, forgiveness, resolve, courage, redemption. One theme that emerges is the utter strength of women, something Lola seemed to possess in extraordinary quantities — and something that Tizon’s mother, who could be ruthless, possessed in a complicated fashion.
Tizon leaves nothing unanswered. He chronicles his journey back to the Philippines to bury Lola’s ashes. And he traces Lola’s story all the way back to the spring of 1943, when Lola, then just 18 years old, was faced with a difficult choice presented by his grandfather, Lieutenant Tom, as an alternative to a life she desperately wanted to avoid — a choice that set this heart wrenching tale in motion.
Read the full story at The Atlantic.