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caption: Melissa Tizon is the widow of Alex Tizon.
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Melissa Tizon is the widow of Alex Tizon.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

Her family had a slave, and she hopes we'll keep talking about it

On the day that journalist Alex Tizon died, editors at The Atlantic decided to put his story, “My Family’s Slave” on the cover of the magazine. The story went viral, receiving praise and criticism.

Tizon can’t jump into the conversation, but his widow Melissa Tizon says he would have embraced the debate. She spoke with KUOW’s Bill Radke about this enslaved member of her family – a woman named Eudocia Tomas Polido, and nicknamed Lola. Lola cleaned, cooked and raised generations of children, but she was never paid, and leaving wasn’t an option.

Radke: When you learned about how Lola was lied to — she was told she would be paid and she never was — she was whipped with a belt for the behavior of a child she was caring for. How did learning all of that change the way you thought about Lola?

Tizon: I was heartbroken. I learned about those stories when I read the draft of Alex's story. I mean, there is no excuse for it. It's disturbing. And to think that that happened to a woman that I loved and lived with for 12 years... I cried as I read that whole article.

What was the situation like for Lola in your home?

When Alex's brothers and sisters were old enough to understand what was going on and in a position to help Lola, they had grown up, gotten out of high school. They really wanted to help her get out of this situation and get into something better.

They offered her a lot of options over the years and said, “We'll help you get back to the Philippines. We can help you in this way. You can come live with us.” But she never felt like she could do that, because she was so devoted to Alex's mom. So she never felt like she could leave until Alex's mom passed away in 1999.

For many of those years she wasn't a citizen—she was undocumented here. Didn't she feel compelled to stay?

I'm sure that it had something to do with it. I can't speculate on it, but that would have had something to do with it, I'm sure.

What was the arrangement with Lola when she lived with you?

When Alex's mom passed away in 1999, the brothers and sisters presented her with different options of where she could live and what she could do. They offered to have her go back to the Philippines to live with her family, and we would help her get there, or she could have lived with any of the siblings. She chose to live with Alex and me. At the time we were living in Edmonds, Washington, and we welcomed her into our home. We wanted her to live with us. We wanted her to enjoy the rest of her life as much as she could.

At that point, she was in her 70s, and we just wanted to make the best of it for her. I didn't know all the details, but I knew she had a very, very difficult life, and it was time for her to enjoy and to rest and to do what she loved to do.

In our home she was never forced to do anything. In fact, Alex always had to tell her, “Please don't, you don't have to do that.” But we quickly realize there were some things that she just loved doing. She loved cooking for us. She was an amazing cook. The entire family loved—I mean we loved her food.

Alex's brothers and sisters lived nearby in the neighborhood, so we had nieces and nephews coming over all the time, and they loved being around Lola, and she loved being around them. It was just so fun to see, to have that experience all together and see Lola relax and have fun. I think it was a different lifestyle for her than what she had experienced all those years before.

But from another point of view, she was cooking for you, she was doing childcare and cleaning as well. Was she paid?

Yes, we did pay her, and we also didn't force her to do any of that if she wanted to. She just didn't want to sit around the house. We also had our kids in childcare, so it was a mix of helping out.

This is part of where it gets complicated right? You could imagine that someone who has lived Lola's life, that if you want to call it slavery as Alex did, that can warp your sense of what your choices are. It can be a kind of trauma.

Did you and Alex consider, look, whether she wants to or not, we are going to set her up in our own home. It's going to cost us a lot of money, but we're going to sort of “free her” as much as we can. Did you consider that?

I don't think we considered that option specifically.

One option that we explored many times was having her go back to the Philippines to be with her family. We had her try it a few times. We brought her back there and would have her stay a month or two months at a time just to see if she wanted to live there for the rest of her life. And it turned out that she always wanted to come back home to be with us.

She wanted to be with a family. So that was the option that we explored seriously. But she chose not to.

What have you made of the blowback, the angry reaction to your late husband?

The way Lola was treated by Alex's parents is something to be mad about. And it was something that Alex was angry about his whole life and wrestled with and didn't really understand. So I completely understand why people are having that reaction.

Can you understand the reaction that people have, that you're romanticizing how well she did work for Alex's family and for your family? That in a sense, maybe she didn't feel free to have a whole other life?

I don't feel like any of it is romantic. Because her life was so arduous. And despite her situation in life, she rose above it and was still this incredible human being despite all the suffering that she went through. And I think if that's romanticizing, then I don't see what's wrong with that, because it shows us what the human spirit can do.

I had the impression reading the article that Alex wanted to bring the twisted reality of slavery into today, to make it more relatable in a way, because we're talking about Confederate monuments, right? Coming down to New Orleans as a Northerner, it's almost convenient to think of it as something that happened to other people a long time ago. But he brought slavery into our homes in a way.

Why do you think it was important for Alex to portray this as slavery?

I think he wanted to be as honest with himself as he possibly could about the situation. That's why I don't see it as romanticizing, because slavery is the most inflammatory word you could use to describe a situation. But it's also the most accurate word. And you know, after really looking back at the relationship and the way she was treated, that is the most accurate word.

There is this bigger issue of human trafficking and slavery that is so important for us to be talking about as a country. But I also know that bringing Lola's story to the world was important to Alex and his understanding of who she was in his life.

It took him a lifetime to understand what was really happening with Lola and what his relationship with her was. But he had the courage to dive deep and come to that. And that's what I hope people can relate to.

This was a story that he had wanted to tell for the last four to five years and really struggled with it personally and emotionally. And it just took a lot of soul searching to get there.

With Alex passing away recently, The Atlantic gave our family a choice. They said, “We understand if you don't want to move forward with it.” But I thought it was important. His brothers and sisters thought it was important.

It brought about a lot of conversation, a whole range of reaction that's been negative and positive. And I think that's exactly what Alex would have wanted. He would have wanted a discussion around it. He would have embraced it and he would have dived right in to talk with the critics and answer their questions. And I wish he was here to do that, because it's all kind of sort of left unsaid now. But the story is out there and I think it's an important one to have been told. And one that only he could have told.

This interview transcript was edited for clarity.

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