Its taken me a while to figure out what I wanted to write about Alex Tizon’s story about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, better known to Tizon’s family as Lola. Reading Tizon’s account of Lola’s life brought up different emotions for me. One of which was to question how the life of Lola was being written about; authored by another and in confirmation of the decades long story about Filipina domestics as victims. As a scholar writing about the lives of domestic workers and their families, I often struggle with the ways in which I write about their lives and how people may read the lives of the Filipino women (who I admire) as confirmation of the normative tropes about Filipina migrant domestics–as victims or powerless. I’m also often in conversation with other Pinay and Pinxy activist, scholars and poets and writers who are also trying to navigate that dynamic (see Barbara Jane Reyes’ blog post about Critical Pinayisms and a discussion we had about this very issue). Reading Tizon’s writing jettisoned me into the eyes and thoughts of people who couldn’t understand the nuance in domestic servitude in the Philippines, as a vestige of Spanish colonialism and then US imperialism. I felt uncomfortable that we were left bare for people to judge.
The rational side of me had similar reactions as other writers and thinkers about a number of issues in the story that Tizon penned: the problematic conflating the enslavement of Africans to the relationship of indentured servitude in the Philippine context and also, kinda rolling my eyes at the defensiveness of Filipinos (including my own knee jerk reaction of shame or “hiya”) about our “carried over” treatment of Filipino servants. Additionally, I agree with grassroots organizations like GABRIELA USA that criticize the feudal patriarchal Philippine society that relegate women to domesticity which only leave migration as the viable social and economic path. It was also systems of imperialism and capitalism that enslaved Lola.
But I’ll leave those discussions be. They’ve already been rehearsed.
Tonight, I want to acknowledge the breathing, human side of Lola. Her dreams. Her desire. Her fears. There are always many sides to one story right? I wonder if Lola would’ve written her story (just like Barbara Jane wonders in her processing of Tizon’s story), would it have been so melancholy. Would she have been the victor? Would her complexities have shown? I wonder what teleserye she liked. And what was her guilty pleasures? What made her laugh? Was she funny? Did she have a mean streak?
In my work (both political and academic) with Filipina migrants who work as domestic workers (for Filipino families and non-Filipino families), I have learned that their work as nannies, housekeepers and caregivers is an important part of them. Their answer to the question, “what is the hardest and the best thing about your work?” was often tied to their role in the families they worked for. The hardest thing was being a nanny. The best thing was being a nanny.
But it was one part. They also found joys and fulfillment in other things. They loved singing karaoke. They traveled to Cherry Blossom festivals. They watched teleseryes and chatted with other Filipinas as they waited for their charges to be dismissed from class. They took pride in their fish lumpia–a regional delicacy. They loved to send money back for fiesta in the Philippines. They cried together when loneliness overtook them. They found halo-halo and ate it in the middle of snowstorms, reassuring one another that below zero degree weather was better than Manila heat.
The hardest part about reading Lola’s story was that we weren’t allowed to see the community of Filipinas that may have been in her life. Even if they weren’t close, there were Filipinas who were doing the same work she was. She ran into them at the store or at the playground. I’m sure of it.
Filipinas, who are mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmothers and sisters, working as domestic workers are always breathing and living for one another. They are often building their communities and fictive kin abroad to not just survive, but thrive. Their jobs do not define their lives, although it is constraining. They are individually and collectively multi-dimensional and colorful and at times, victims and other times, victors.
Yes, Filipinas working as domestic workers live under horrifying conditions (see Mary Jane Veloso’s continuing struggle on death row in Indonesia). But they are also creative in the types of resilience they conjure. Below are just some examples of Filipinas on the forefront of rallies to demand justice for their fellow Filipina migrant or Filipinas at the center of cultural productions and political organizing to build up their own leadership in their own organizations.
So as much as I lament the seeming slow suffocation and death of Lola as presented by Tizon. I want to always acknowledge her breath. And acknowledge that others like her are also always breathing to get through a day, a year and a lifetime away from their families and in service to other families.