By Josie Moralidad Ziman
Special to the Manila Mail
ARLINGTON, Va. Alex Tizon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist passed away suddenly of natural causes last March 23 before his final story “My Family’s Slave” was published in June by The Atlantic. The story went viral, sparking a debate in the United States and the Philippines. It tells the story of Filipina Eudocia Tomas Pulido known as “Lola” for the Tizon family. She lived with them, virtually a slave for 56 years. The parents of Alex treated Lola terribly even though she cooked, cleaned and raised the kids without pay.
Alex’s death left many unanswered questions though he and Lola are not around anymore to defend themselves. It was very difficult for Alex’s siblings to speak up. I didn’t expect I’d be able to convince Alex’s brother, Rev. Dr. Al Tizon to give a detailed account of Lola’s story because he declined numerous requests for interviews. I was therefore privileged to be able to talk to him on my radio show ‘Pilipinas sa Amerika’ and for the Manila Mail.
Rev. Al Tizon is presently the Executive Minister of Serve Globally based in Chicago, Illinois who oversees the International Ministries of the ECC and travels extensively to lend guidance and support to its 125 personnel around the world including the Philippines, though they don’t have personnel (missionaries) but they partner with Jesus Covenant Church in Pasig City and with Acts Integrated Ministries in Quezon City.
He, like his older brother Alex, was born in the Philippines. His family immigrated in the US in 1964 when he was two years old. He is the 3rd of five children of Leticia and Francisco Tizon.
“I didn’t return until 1989 at age 27. My wife and I, with our then-two children (we ended up having four) went to the Philippines under the auspices of Seattle-based Christian Organization called Action International Ministries,” Tizon explained.
“From 1989 to 1998, we lived and worked in the Philippines. I was involved in community development in two squatter communities near the large garbage dump area in Quezon City called Payatas. And then four years later we moved to Zambales province where I continued to engage in community development trying to help people rebuild their lives after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, as well as provide pastoral leadership in a young church among the poor in Olongapo City.”
At age six, Rev. Tizon realized that his parent’s treatment of Lola was contrary to Christian values. He remembered feeling bad for Lola, who was getting yelled at for whatever reason and even physical abuse inflicted upon her by his parents.
“The volume seemed disproportionate to the fault, if there was any fault at all. The Christian values I began to discover when I came to faith at the age of 17 only reinforced that sense of injustice and indignity that our Lola endured, he recalled.”
Growing up Rev. Tizon explained that they never used the term ‘slave” to describe Lola’s status, but when his brother used it for the story, he and his siblings did not challenge it. To them Lola was more accurately like an indentured servant but “slave” touched a global nerve that has generated important conversations and discussions
It was at the age of 17 when Rev. Tizon decided to become a Christian minister. It was such a life changing experience, saving him from a life of despair and self -destruction, that he wanted others to experience God Mercy and love too.
“That gratitude translated into a sense of calling from God to share the good news of Christ to others in word and deed,” he said.
For Rev. Tizon, the demands of ministry are high and if managed poorly, the ministry could result in emotional burnout, serious marital problems and even divorce, and resentment among children. Some of these demands include having to be available 24/7 for people, resolving conflicts between parishioners, caring for the sick and the dying, maintaining the righteous image of devotion. Thankfully, his wife Janice Tizon has been his source of encouragement and strength. He considers Janice her partner not only in life, but in ministry.
“Her patience, understanding, and sense of common calling in Christ have enabled me to be the best I can be. Together despite our imperfections and despite the high demands of ministry, we raised four children, who are now pretty amazing adults with families of their own,” says Rev. Tizon.
Growing up Rev. Tizon shares her fondest memory of “Lola.” He has an affectionate collage of memories including her lying beside him as a child rubbing his back when he couldn’t sleep; her amazing cooking, her interrogation of their girlfriends and boyfriends, her affirmation after she sat through one of his sermons; her presence in significant events in his life such as his graduations, her fear of caterpillars and her laugh. “I remember when we went to see the movie Jaws together with Lola when it first came out, how she laughed all the way through it. She had no fear of sharks, but caterpillars a different story.”
Rev. also recalled some of his memorable moments with Alex including their cross-country bus ride from NYC to Spokane, WA to visit their older brother. Alex was 13 and he was 10 at that time. It includes Alex cheering him on at his high school football games; talking endlessly about girls they met at school and one time they dated the sisters, arguing intensely about politics and religion.
“It includes the year that he and his first wife and daughter spent nine months living with us in Manila. During that time, we wrote several stories together, visited family in the province (including Lola’s relatives) and went to church together. He accompanied me a number of times to the squatter community that I served. My memories include going to bookstores with him, drinking good coffee, receiving articles he had written that he’s send me. It includes advice he’d give me on my writing projects. I miss him,” Rev. Tizon revealed.
Rev. Tizon doesn’t believe that any one of them were closer to Lola than the others. He said that Alex was always the master story teller in their family. “No one could have told the story of Lola better than Alex. But again, the story he wrote about Lola was our story. On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate our closeness to Lola an 11! She was our everything – our mother, our father, our confidante, our disciplinarian, our friend. One result to Alex’s story for the siblings was that we ended up have to relieve the grief of losing her in 2011. It was double grief for us: losing our brother and “re-losing” our Lola.”
To live knowing that his parents enslaved a person like Lola haunts Rev. Tizon and his four other siblings who struggled of guilt for decades. Lola was treated poorly and was not free. “It haunts us to be honest. We all have demons, we struggle (metaphorically speaking) to this day as a result of having lived the daily contradiction or tension of the situation. We loved our parents. We loved our Lola.” he said sadly.
Many times, the Tizon siblings tried to intervene and talk to their parents about their treatment of Lola and they could all wish they could have done more. “My brother’s article described the first time he confronted Mom about Lola, and how it ended in a huge argument. Well, each of us has story or two like that. In addition to arguing with our parents, we also urged Lola to leave; we said that we’d help her go back to the Philippines but she refused, saying that Mom needed her and that she promised Mom’s father (our grandfather) that she stay with her.”
He added that his Mom and Lola had a strange relationship, a co-dependent one as his psychologist friends would say. His Mom had the upper hand, but their relationship formed in such a way that they needed each other. “Mom needed Lola to take care of her and Lola needed Mom to fulfill a tragic sense of purpose. I do believe that they loved each other in awful, distorted kind of way.”
For the Tizons, the backlash to their family after the story was published is part of the media sensationalism that is worth discussing. “I did not appreciate the negative backlash that also came with the media attention, but that sort of thing is part of the package of anything worth discussing. However, I admitted that the backlash this time happens to be quite personal. It hurts me but I understand it,” says Rev. Tizon.
From his point of view, he believes critics have reacted to the surface of the story and didn’t bother to dig deeper, take seriously the complexities of any human story, understand the nuances of word usage (e.g., slave) etc. “Like all of us, who are prone to judge others, they seem to have forgotten the teaching of Jesus who said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3)?
Before his death, Alex has been talking about this story as the one he was meant to write. “That says a lot for someone who wrote many stories,” Tizon said.
“We are glad he wrote it. He wrote what we all felt. He wrote our story. And then he died. When The Atlantic asked us if we still wanted to publish it, it felt dishonorable to our brother’s memory to say No. Without hesitation, we said ‘Yes,’ because it was a story worth telling and it honored the memory of Tomas Alex Tizon,” the author of his family’s secret life and the life of their beloved servant, Lola.