Invisible People: Stories of Lives at the Margins is a collection of selected news articles by Alex Tizon, 1994 through 2016. A posthumous book, Invisible People is a labor of love on at least three levels. On a basic level it is a loving tribute by his colleagues and family. A second level is the empathy that Tizon had for the people he wrote about as subjects, not objects. Taken as a set, these individual stories become a whole not just individual persons. On a third level, they become The Beloved Other.
A Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Tizon’s most famous story, “My Family’s Slave,” about a family servant he called “Lola” (grandmother in Filipino) was the cover story of the Atlantic, June 2017. He died March 24 in his sleep at age 57, not knowing it would be published. Final production for the article was achieved with stalwart support of his widow, Melissa, and fellow journalists. Following his memorial service, colleagues and family again channeled their grief into a lasting tribute initially for Alex’s younger relatives to know more about Uncle Alex and subsequently to inspire younger folks in journalism careers.
Under the guidance of colleague Sam Howe Verhovek and Melissa Tizon, Alex’s fellow journalists, including editors and supervisors, enthusiastically chose two dozen favorite articles and wrote introductions based on what endeared Alex to them. “Justice to the life behind the headline” for Lynn Marshall and for Nicole Brodeur, “It takes a certain temperament to convert every experience into suffering.”
For me, Tizon evokes the evolutionary chain of American authors in the 20th and 21st centuries including John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel, Langston Hughes, Ernest Gaines, Ralph Ellison and journalists like Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post and Samuel F. Yette of Newsweek and the Afro-American who wrote about invisible, marginal, even eccentric people. Tizon is also part of the Filipino/Filipino American diaspora authors from Carlos Bulosan to Oscar Penaranda and Mia Alvar. Filipino journalists and authors have long written in English and been stalwart stewards and witnesses of a free press and the written word as exemplified by Maria Ressa, “2018 Times Person of the Year.” Tizon, his forbears, and contemporaries acknowledge and bear witness to the invisible, the lowly, the forgotten, the suffering, the shamed. This collection highlights immigrants, native, loners, villains, eccentrics and oracles.
What distinguishes Tizon’s work is that it is not investigative nor political reporting of people as objects or “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Rather, he focuses on individual persons with his belief that each person has an epic story to tell, according to Melissa Tizon. Each person has a distinctive voice, taste, smell, sound, sight and touch. In his “Crossing America Series’ story, “A World Away in Navajo Nation: Far from the Sept. 11, Fallout,” Tizon describes Rose Yazzie as, “Yazzie is a Navajo. She is small and imperial, like a miniature queen. 58 years old but with the demeanor of an ancient. An ancient who wears Reeboks.” He describes her people, “The Navajos encourage a spare, some would say concise, kind of communication: You say what needs saying and no more. You do not laugh if there is nothing funny. You do not smile for no reason. Most important, you do not ask too many questions.”
As he paints faces of feelings, the historical and factual contexts of the larger picture softly emerge. In “From Seattle’s Cambodian Refugees, Time and Distance Can’t Bury Memories of the Killing Fields,” Tizon describes Patient A, “One day in Cambodia, Khmer Rouge soldiers took her family to a field. They ordered them to dig a hole and line up on the edge. A soldier shot several family members in the head… He stabbed Patient A. She crawled out of the hole. On foot she crossed the border into Thailand. She was raped by Thai soldiers. Eventually she came to America. She now lives in a cramped, government-subsidized apartment in West Seattle.” Tizon goes on to say, “Cambodians represent 4 percent of King County’s Asian population but make up 20 percent of the clientele, the largest client group at the Asian counseling service… The Refugee Act of 1980 originally provided 36 months of financial support to refugees as part of a transitional period. That was cut to 18 months in 1982, to 12 months in 1989, to eight months in 1992.”
Each life story demands reflection, sometimes a smile, other times sorrow, a pregnant pause, or an unanswered question. “Onward Christian Surfers: Spreading the Gospel on Waikiki,” made me stop and revisit my thoughts on surfers and missionaries. Tizon says, “If Jesus were alive today, he would be a surfer. He would mingle with fishermen and beach bums and lay his mat on the sand among the scantily clad. Instead of walking on water, he would ride waves on a carved piece of fiberglass, keeping an eye out for anyone who needed saving.”
Among these brilliant pieces, the one that moved me most in this time of COVID 19, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and my being a lola/grandma, is “The Story of a Drive-by Murder at Ballard High.” Coupled with “My Family’s Slave,” this story” conjures a transformative level of the Beloved Other. Tizon’s younger relatives and the youth of America and the world are increasingly interracial, multicultural, digital, and globally mobile. While youth and children are often invisible, they are as invisible and essential as the air we breathe and the essential workers who care for us and the planet. Taken together, they all are no longer marginal but the majority. They are not new stories or issues but the continuous human condition of self-inflicted or other-inflicted violence/wounds or unconditional love like Lola. They must become the Beloved Other.