Sunday, May 21, 2017


After Alex Tizon’s article "My Family’s Slave" as regards Eudocia Tomas Pulido 
(The Atlantic, June 2017)


At the resort's all-you-can-eat breakfast
buffet, the expatriate family instructs
their live-in Filipino maid to share
the plate of the toddler who is her ward.
She has to feed him first, of course—while
chasing him every now and then around
the table. After everyone has gone
back for seconds and thirds, the mistress
of the house instructs the maid to go back
for more bread, more pastry, more cake;
then stuffs these into large ziplock bags
she'd brought with her in her purse.


One girl brought with her only one purse
when she came to help out in our home
one summer in the sixties. I don't know if
she was a niece or cousin several times
removed, or just someone from the same
village of my mothers. I don't know
the terms or circumstances under which
she came to live with us and train to serve
or what kind of a salary she was paid.

But she had most of Sunday off, after she
helped put breakfast on the table.
And she had to be back by dusk, in time
to help with dinner preparations.


The household tasks they gave her: sweeping,  
mopping, buffing the old wood floors with half
a coconut shell husk; the laundry heaped in a large
tin basin outside, under the sayote vines.  She had
a cot in the sewing room, a closet where she
could stash her new fund of hand-me-downs
alongside the folding ironing board.  She wasn't
the first, she wasn't the last. Through the years
a few of them came and went, to stay for one,
two months, a season: Ana, Maring, Jean, Delia. 

The one who stayed the shortest was a girl
from Abra. After only two days, she gave
notice. When she left, several shirts
went missing from the clothesline.


One of them we had to teach how to use
the flush toilets. Another nearly broke her tooth
on the a plaster mold of one of Disney’s seven
dwarves, a cake topper on one of my daughters’
birthday cakes. The one who stayed the longest
was Nora, who I could tell favored one over
the other of my mothers though she was careful
not to show it. When my parents and the man
I used to be married to had a fight, we were
kicked out of my parents’ home. But they
asked Nora to live with us so she could help me
with my three children; my youngest, then a baby,
became her baby too. And she was helpmate more
than servant, intuiting what it was that might be
needed in the day to day, offering her opinion,
before we settled on a course of domestic action.
To this day, from Hong Kong, where she now works
as a maid in the household of a couple with a tea
business, she asks about that child and like any mother
yearns for a bit of news, some glimpse on social media
of the child she helped me rear in those days.


My US-born child says one evening
at the dinner table after we talk about the Alex
Tizon article in The Atlantic: I don’t think I could ever
get used to someone waiting on me like that, hand
and foot—helping dress and bathe me, cutting up
my food, fanning the flies away or trying to cool me
in the shade… I tell her it wasn’t ever like that
during those times we used to have live-in maids
or katulonghelpers was our preferred term.
Though I know enough about unspoken hierarchies
of class even within a family, that can change
the tenor of relations from one moment to the next.
My paternal grandmother, for instance—she
who did not really approve of my parents’ marriage
because my mother was a mere farmer’s daughter:
she used to call all our helpers muchacha
meaning girl, but with a definite undertone
of peasant, servant, minion, low-class.


Most of the time though, it is us,
the womenfolk, who tend to the tasks
for keeping home: without cease, a chain
of labors that start from daybreak long
until after the sun goes down; without pay,
without leaves, without regard for whether
or not we have “real jobs” outside the home.
No one will ask and if they do it’s token:
do you need a hand? where does this go?
Or, you’re so good at what you do!
You’ve thought of every detail!
Your people, so industrious, so
devoted. Always, always working.


When I teach Bulosan’s America
is in the Heart, I like to dwell on those
details in scenes showing the interactions
of Carlos’ mother in the market: first, with the
upper class woman who looks but does not buy,
who walks through the stalls in her finery
followed by a girl who holds a parasol to shield
her mistress from the sun. I wonder who this girl is:
whether she is a daughter of the tenant-farmer
whose father and grandfather before him owed
a debt to the senorita’s father who owns the land?
And then, there is the poor old woman
who has no money to pay for even a small
cupful of shrimp paste but is so hungry she begs
Carlos’ mother to let her plunge her cracked hands
into the bowl that she might at least have the dregs
of that harsh and sustaining contact when she rinses
them in water that she will drink—And I ask,
is there no help for it then? Is this all there is?
A history of debts accruing interest from one
generation to the next, bonds that help nourish
and protect but that also have the power to exact
a high price: whereby we’ll look to both neighbors
and kin as vassals have done to their feudal lords.   

Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of the chapbooks Haori (Tea & Tattered Pages Press, 2017), Check & Balance (Moria Press/Locofo Chaps, 2017), and Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press eChapbook selection for Spring 2015); plus the full length works Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015.

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