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Human Interest

The Boy Who Was Raised by His Family’s Secret Slave: Writer Pens Poignant Story Before His Death

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Before he died, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon penned an incredible story for The Atlantic detailing his family’s secret slave in America.

In the deeply personal essay, Tizon describes Lola, a domestic servant who had served Tizon’s family for a generation. His family brought her to the U.S. when they immigrated from the Philippines in 1964.

“She lived with my family for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings, and cooked and cleaned from dawn to dark — always without pay,” Tizon writes in an upcoming cover story in The Atlantic. “I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized she was my family’s slave.”

He continues: “No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.”

Alex Tizon
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After the death of Tizon’s mother, Lola moved in with the writer and his wife. He paid her $200 a week, most of which she sent home to family members. And on her 83rd birthday, Tizon paid for her to return to the Philippines — but everything was different.

Tizon writes: “The old farms were gone. Her house was gone. Her parents and most of her siblings were gone. Childhood friends, the ones still alive, were like strangers. It was nice to see them, but … everything was not the same. She’d still like to spend her last years here, she said, but she wasn’t ready yet. ‘You’re ready to go back to your garden,’ I said. ‘Yes. Let’s go home.’ ”

Lola lived with Tizon for 12 years until she died.

“I can still see her on the gurney,” writes Tizon. “I remember looking at the medics standing above this brown woman no bigger than a child and thinking that they had no idea of the life she had lived. She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.”

The Atlantic

Tizon and his siblings struggled for years with the dark secret, before he was finally able to put Lola’s experience into his own words.

But the author died unexpectedly of natural causes at the age of 57 on March 23. At the time he did not know The Atlantic would put his story on their cover.

“This was his ultimate story,” his wife, Melissa Tizon, told The Atlantic. “He was trying to write it for five or six years. He struggled with it. But when he started writing it for The Atlantic, he stopped struggling. He wrote it with such ease.”

In an interview with NPR, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg says the Tizon family was “overwhelmed by some combination of love, guilt — a very, very complicated emotional package here.”

“This is all back in the Philippines. Lola came with them to America, stayed with them as in essence the family slave and then Alex essentially — and I use this word advisedly — but Alex inherited her from his dying mother,” Goldberg told NPR. “She wasn’t a captive, per se — she wasn’t in chains, she wasn’t locked away. She could have [left], but she couldn’t have, and that’s sort of the point of the story. From a very early age, she worked for this family without pay, she lived with this family. When the family moved to America, it was only natural that she would go with them — but she was a slave until the day she died.”