Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon spent the last few months of his life writing an incredible story for The Atlantic detailing the difficult life of Lola Pulido — a domestic servant who immigrated from the Philippines with Tizon’s family in 1964.
The author’s shocking account describes her inhuman, abusive treatment while serving his parents in America.
“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 wrote. “I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized she was my family’s slave.”
The author passed away suddenly at the age of 57 from natural causes before The Atlantic published the emotional story — but his family gave the publication permission to run it posthumously.
“When Alex first gave me the draft, I read it and cried and cried and cried, I was so angry,” Tizon’s youngest sister, Maria Silbernagel, tells PEOPLE. “There were things I wasn’t aware of, like Lola taking my mom’s punishment, that angered me to the core.”
Tizon’s other sister, Ling Tizon Quillen, tells PEOPLE: “I was enraged with my parents all over again. It brought back so many memories reading the story, like Alex wrote, it didn’t make sense to us kids how our mother could treat us with so much love and affection, then treat Lola the way she did, it was cognitive dissonance.
“And when we got older and understood that her treatment was not right, we were heartbroken because the more we challenged our parents to be better, the more difficult it got for Lola.”
Lola lived with and served the family — including Tizon, his two sisters and two brothers, Art and Albert Tizon — for decades in Salem, Oregon, until she died in 2011. (When Tizon inherited her from his parents in 2001, he insisted on paying her $200 a week and offered to take her back to the country she left.)
Tizon wrote: “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.”
Tizon Quillen, 53, says she was “shocked” by her brother’s choice of the word “slave.”
“That word was hard to read, it was the first time I had ever even seen that word associated with Lola and I probably would have termed it differently,” she says. “Then I delved deeper into why he chose that word and realized it represents her early life with my family with my grandpa and mom and dad. But when we came into the picture, Lola nurtured us and took care of us, and so I’d always just said she was my second mother.”
Silbernagel, 51, admits she was equally astonished by the word, but “completely understand[s]” why it was necessary to include in the story.
“I don’t like to see Lola depicted as a slave, but I know early on when she lived with my [family], that’s what she was basically to them, but all I can remember is that she was my mother,” she says. “I understand why Alex chose that word because, sadly, it’s how she came into our lives.”
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In the story, Tizon admits feeling ashamed of his family’s treatment of Lola.
He wrote: “Admitting the truth would have meant exposing us all. We spent our first decade in the country learning the ways of the new land and trying to fit in. Having a slave did not fit. Having a slave gave me grave doubts about what kind of people we were, what kind of place we came from. Whether we deserved to be accepted. I was ashamed of it all, including my complicity.”
And his sisters say the guilt was something they all struggled with — for decades.
“We have carried this sense of guilt and shame for so long, because when we were younger we observed the [abuse], but were helpless to change the situation except to fight with our parents,” says Tizon Quillen. “We loved Lola so immensely and regarded her as a mother, so to see her berated, there was guilt and shame of our family history — and we’re learning about it even more with Alex’s story.”
Silbernagel says many of the conversations she had with her mother growing up circled around setting Lola free and lessening the abuse.
“I held a bitterness and anger towards her,” she says. “We fought most of my life about Lola, I was a young teen and I’d discuss with my siblings about the emotional and physical abuse.
“We felt powerless to help her.”
After their mother died in 1999, Lola continued serving her — visiting her grave and scolding the children if they didn’t bring flowers to her tombstone.
“It was a strange relationship between my mother and Lola,” says Tizon Quillen. “She was devoted to my mother until she died. Lola would tell us, ‘Stop trying to make me leave your mother!’ when we wanted to get her a better life or offered to take her back to the Philippines. We were frustrated because we hated seeing her abused, but in her psyche she couldn’t leave, because she was so dedicated.”
Adds Silbernagel, “Most of my teenage and adult life, I was very bitter at both of my parents, especially my mother, for the things I had seen and heard they did [to Lola]. Any time we ever tried to do anything for Lola, my mother fought us. When we tried to get her a job or ease her discomfort or help her with household chores, we were always given a guilt trip by my mother who told us to stop and she would scold Lola— it was emotional abuse.”
Since The Atlantic story was first published, the Tizon family has received mixed reactions from readers.
“One woman said something to the effect of, ‘The kids had no guts, they couldn’t turn their mother in,’ ” says Silbernagel. “While we saw Lola’s devotion as crazy and we thought it was a strange relationship, we knew Lola was devoted to our mom. If we told Lola we were calling the police, she would have been angry with us, but she didn’t want to leave my mom.”
She adds, “Back then it was a lot different — people didn’t call authorities on their parents, it was a different time.”
Tizon’s wife, Melissa Tizon, recently told PEOPLE that the family has received backlash online for “romanticizing” slavery.
“People say we romanticize the slave and slave owner relationship,” she explains. “But the best way I could describe Lola’s relationship with the family is like the dynamic of the family in that movie The Help.”
And she says her late husband wouldn’t “shy” away from the criticism either.
“He would say, ‘Yes, you are right. What happened to her was really horrific and that’s what I tried to explain in my piece.’ He always believed everyone had an epic story and Lola factored so much into his life that he felt compelled to write it and possibly to raise awareness for others in a similar situation,” she adds.
“He was never afraid to confront the things he was ashamed about or the demons. He would just dive right in and tackle it and he would want people to not be afraid to be honest with themselves, too.”
Both Tizon Quillen and Silbernagel are “grateful” their brother was able to tell Lola’s story before he passed away.
“We knew it would not make us look good or our parents look good, but that didn’t matter to us,” says Silbernagel. “We wanted people to know who Lola is. She is our angel and we love her so much and we wanted her story told.”
Adds Tizon Quillen, “What we couldn’t right in our early years, at least now we can honor her. It doesn’t make up for anything she endured, but honoring her in this way is the best way. Lola’s story is finally told.
“She was an angel on earth. All of us harbor various forms of degrees of guilt and shame, but only Alex could have shared Lola’s story as brutally honest as he did and we’re grateful.”