Slaves in the house
People are talking about “My Family’s Slave,” the Atlantic Monthly cover story by the late Alex Tizon. It is powerfully written, hits the gut, but the reaction differs from reader to reader.
It opens with the author bringing the ashes of Eudocia Tomas Pulido from the United States to her lahar-blighted birthplace in Tarlac: “She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. 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.”
The woman was definitely abused, and many employers in the Philippines are rightfully shocked at the story because kasambahay are paid (but not as much as they should), plus SSS and PhilHealth contributions. The woman in the Tizon story was treated like a slave, while kasambahay are treated like poor relations.
Tizon’s story reminded me of the old house help in my grandmother’s house who had been with the family for two or three generations. I am happy to note, though, that bondage ended in the third generation for those diligent enough to finish high school or college and seek better jobs elsewhere. Some took the shortcut: getting married to leave domestic service. Tizon grew up in America and missed out on one little detail: Eudocia Pulido was known as “Lola,” which might have been her nickname, but “Lola” is more than “grandmother”—it is a term, a relation, of respect, with many shades of meaning in Philippine culture.
The grade-school Araling Panlipunan describes social structure in pre-Spanish Philippine society as a pyramid with the top occupied by the “Maguinoo,” whose names were preceded by honorific titles: Guinoo, Ginoo, Gat, Panginoon, or Poon, which mean “Lord” (the feminine form was “Dayang”). The 19th-century dandy Pedro Paterno claimed ancestry in pre-Spanish nobility and fashioned himself as the “Maguinoo Paterno,” the Prince of Luzon.
In the 9th-century Laguna Copper Plate Inscription is a reference to Dayang (Lady) Angkatan. The Catholic prayer to the Virgin that opens with the angelic salutation “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary” has been translated as early as the 16th century as “Aba Ginoong Maria.”
Textbook history obscures so many nuances, but generally the Maguinoo was a nobleman—the top of the social pyramid. A Datu, Raja, or Lakan, as in Lakandula, was a Maguinoo who controlled a community. When the Spanish arrived in Manila, they met Rajah Matanda (Old Rajah), different from Raja Mora/Mura (the Young Raja aka Soliman). The “vassals” of the Maguinoo were called “Timawa,” who were free (not slaves) or commoners who cultivated their own land and did not need to pay tribute to the Maguinoo but were asked to work his land or fight his battles. The other “vassal” was known as “Maharlica,” a member of a warrior class who provided military service to the Maguinoo. Contrary to popular belief, the Maharlica were not Maguinoo or nobility, but they could buy their freedom and become Timawa.
Lower down are the “Alipin” (Luzon) or “Oripun” (Visayas)—both loosely translated as “slave.” These were not free like the Timawa and Maharlica; their status was dependent on debt, and they had to buy their freedom. There were two kinds of Alipin: the “aliping namamahay” (those who literally lived in the home or land of their master) and the “aliping sagigilid” (literally a slave who lives at the edge or the margins of a house or land). The aliping namamahay were above the aliping sagigilid; some had their own dwellings and lived outside the home, unlike the aliping sagigilid who textbook history makes out to be the lowest in society because it doesn’t want to teach about the “bulisik” or “bulislis,” who were slaves indebted to or owned by slaves. Bulislis literally means seeing the exposed genitals of someone whose skirt is held or lifted up. Things are more complex than textbook history makes them out to be.
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