A couple of days back, we sat as a family at the dinner table passing rotis and subzi and talking about our day when Pattu decided to show us her newfound trick of drinking water from a tumbler without touching it to her lips. We were suitably awed and I quipped “you have earned your last name.”
Even as I did, I felt uncomfortable. The kind of unease that comes from referencing problematic heritage. The fact that I take pride on and yet feel responsible for a subtle condescension for those who cannot drink that way. The moment passed only to insinuate itself into my head later at night as I sat at the computer browsing Twitter.
A week earlier, I read Alex Tizon’s recent viral piece on modern-day slavery. Her name was Eudocia Tomas Pulido called Lola by her family. I remember reading that piece and marveling at how well the essay was written even as I wanted to stop reading because of how it made me feel. I paused, read, reread and let it sit with me. The essay brought many feelings to the fore. Sadness, affection, horror, anger, empathy and a sense of resignation. It also felt uncomfortably familiar.
Pulido’s story is one of being sold, possessed and eventually set free though some might question the choice of the word free. She lived to primarily serve the family she was with. She toiled without question, was treated as subhuman and eventually it took the author until he was past his prime to realize and try to undo what his family had subjected the woman to. We hear of the story only through the author’s voice and are left wondering what it would have been like to hear Pulido tell her story.
Even as the piece went viral, the strident note from the western audience was one of horror, singularly missing the cultural connection and an inability to look at what perpetuates this kind of abuse. My first thought when I finished reading the story was that had this happened now, she would have been Sangeetha Richard. A difference in upbringing, exposure to the English language and knowledge of the options available to her would have made a difference.
I try to imagine Ms. Pulido chafing under captivity of sorts scared of running away, probably given to understand that escape meant a greater kind of torture. I imagine her viewing law enforcement and police with deep distrust. A legacy from growing up where she did. As an immigrant my first thought is about what kind of visa issues she would have had that would have limited her options. Most of all I imagine her growing up all her life with a family that is not quite hers yet there is no other family out there she can conceivably want to be with.
As for the author, I wish he had come to terms with what he was seeing earlier. I wish he had made reparations that were better than what he did. Most of all I wish he and his Lola rest in peace.
It takes great courage to put your story out in the world for everyone to read, to dissect and pass judgement on. I can only imagine this was his way of recognizing Lola for who she was and what she represented to him and perhaps as a beacon for other Lola’s out there thinking of escape. It also is a chance to bring those conversations on race and privilege out in the open. To create an understanding of the systems that perpetuate inequality and perhaps do something about it.
I’d love to hear from you if you read the piece. What reactions did it provoke and why? Did the story remind you of slavery, apartheid, caste system or any form of systemic abuse? Did it make you think about race in the larger context?