Lola Wasn’t Alone

There are few subjects more painful than slavery. The word itself conjures images of the most shameful and ugly parts of humanity and our past, histories most would prefer to distance themselves from. This may in part be why, in just two short days, The Atlantic’s article “My Family’s Slave,” by the journalist Alex Tizon about his family’s enslavement of a woman named Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulido, has caught the attention of and moved thousands of readers. The title itself is shocking in its admission of slavery tucked right into a modern American home.

The story of Pulido is extraordinary in many ways, especially in terms of the length of her enslavement. But what should be more shocking is that her story is not as rare as one would hope. While slavery today doesn’t include the chains and horrors typically associated with it, it is unmistakably slavery, existing in modern America. In an ordinary American community. In a residential neighborhood. Where neighbors met her.

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She was enslaved. She lived among us, hidden in plain sight. And there are many more women like her.

How does this happen in America today? Some of this story’s readers have blamed immigrants, claiming that such a practice is un-American. Some have pointed the finger at Tizon’s Asian family, claiming that Filipino culture is at the root of this case of slavery.

But I can tell you, having worked with domestic workers since the mid-1990s, that extraordinary acts of cruelty are unfortunately not limited to people of any one culture. To the contrary, completely ordinary people can be incredibly cruel when they have a decided power advantage and no checks on their power. There is a known pattern of abuse with foreign diplomats and professionals who import “help” from their home countries, but Americans enslave people too. There is a deep history of these arrangements among families at the U.S.-Mexico border where U.S. citizens regularly exploit the insecure citizenship status of workers by forcing them to clean, cook, and take care of children and elders. And across the country, community organizers have encountered enslaved and exploited domestic workers in city after city.

How can such a thing still happen? The pervasiveness of the problem is in a sense an answer to that question: When there is an extreme power imbalance, people—particularly women—are vulnerable to slavery. In every story I’ve heard from women who have survived these atrocities, there are two commonalities: invisibility and vulnerability.

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There are many other examples of stories like Lola’s, stories sensitive enough that the last names of the women who told them have been withheld here. For example, there was Lilly, who was brought to Texas at the age 15 by a couple of American executives at a technology company. They promised her an American education and a path out of poverty for her family in Jamaica, in…

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