The Fighting Filipinas

Book Review: Women Against Marcos: Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought a Dictator By Mila de Guzman

When I was an activist against the Marcos dictatorship in my twenties, women were my leaders. Mila de Guzman’s new book, Women Against Marcos: Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought a Dictator, documents the lives of eight women, in the Philippines and in the U.S., who put aside concerns for their well-being in order to fight injustice. I am blessed to be friends with three of them, including Mila de Guzman, the two of us having been comrades in the U.S.-based socialist organization, Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP), in the 1980s. Mila’s book highlights the leading role women played in opposing the Philippine dictator during the 1970s-80s.

Of course, there were men in the movement whom I looked up to – like Boy Morales, Ten-Outstanding-Young-Men awardee turned Communist rebel, who was able to bring together a left-liberal alliance against the dictatorship in the early eighties. My activist schoolmates from De La Salle University signed up to be members of his staff in the underground. There was Ka Rexie, whose real identity was Luisito Balgos de la Cruz, executive committee member of the eastern central Luzon regional organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). I served as his aide when I was with the region’s communication and logistics support branch, and followed his lead during my early days in the underground after college. There’s Rene Ciria-Cruz, leader of the KDP, and Bruce Occena, KDP founder and Marxist theoretician. KDP activists hung upon their every word and political wisdom throughout the 1980s.

The women in the book: Ana Maria Nemenzo, Cindy Domingo, Geline Avila, Mila De Guzman, Aurora De Dios, Sister Mary John Mananzan, Mila Aguilar, Aida Santos (Photo by Leni Marin)

The women in the book: Ana Maria Nemenzo, Cindy Domingo, Geline Avila, Mila De Guzman, Aurora De Dios, Sister Mary John Mananzan, Mila Aguilar, Aida Santos (Photo by Leni Marin)

But at the very beginning for me, there was kasamang Maita Gomez. I had just graduated in 1979 with my degree in Industrial Management Engineering, and had begun working for a multinational computer firm, Burroughs Corporation, in Makati, when a close activist friend asked me to serve as a driver in Manila for an underground figure in the movement. That figure turned out to be Maita, the former Miss Philippines-World who mysteriously disappeared from the country’s elite social scene a few years earlier, rumored to have joined the leftist New People’s Army in the countryside. I was starting a corporate career and was leaving my anti-Marcos, student activist days behind me, but in those weeks that I served as her driver in the city, Maita turned me back to the struggle for national democracy. We talked morning until night about the unjust situation in the country, and about dedicating ourselves to fighting tyranny and oppression, in behalf of workers, peasants and other marginalized sectors of society. She took me on my first trip to a guerilla zone in Nueva Ecija province, where the New People’s Army was empowering poor peasants to fight feudal exploitation and military abuses. Maita opened my eyes to a new calling, and before long, I was introduced by her to my new political work collective. I began shuttling back and forth between Metro Manila, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan provinces, carrying out tasks full-time for the movement and the revolution.

And when I later came to the U.S., and continued my activism through the KDP, there was my next leader, Geline Avila, who was high up in the KDP’s senior executive leadership, as well as the National Coordinator of the Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship. Geline’s is one of the stories in Mila’s book. She was a strong leader, able to command the confidence and following of her fellow activists, and skilled and insightful at leading nationwide political campaigns, such as the massive opposition that erupted against Ferdinand Marcos in every U.S. city the dictator landed during his state visit in 1982. In the book, Geline chronicles this successful campaign that she led.

Geline had a strong personal influence on me. We lived together for a time in a housing collective of KDP activists – a rented apartment, in Oakland, California, in which all of us shared expenses and household duties. Geline was principled and consistent in pointing out to me back then the many instances in my political and personal life when I was my exercising my male and class privileges. To this day, I admire her uncompromising integrity to her values.

Now that the dictator’s son, Bongbong Marcos, is brazenly trying to recast his father’s image in a good light, ‘Women Against Marcos’ tells the stories that inspire us to swear, ‘Never again to dictatorship.’

“Women Against Marcos” is a treasure trove of stories of valor, such as those of my leaders, Maita and Geline. The stories have commonalities, such as the stirrings of questioning and discontent that started early in youth, for most even before the declaration of martial law. During her senior year in high school, Geline Avila, as the student council president, organized a protest against the “English-only” rule imposed at her Catholic school run by Irish nuns. Aurora “Oyie” De Dios took an exposure trip to poor peasant areas in her hometown, organized by her university discussion group on problems in Philippine society. Aida Santos got drawn as a student to the demonstrations and teach-ins at the University of the Philippines when nationalist ferment was brewing on the campuses in the late 1960s. Mila Aguilar, as a young journalist with Graphic magazine, covered the student movement and started associating with activists, including with those in the underground. Cindy Domingo insisted on joining her first demonstration in Seattle, Washington, on the second anniversary of the declaration of martial law, despite the objections and concern of his activist brother, Silme. A recent trip to the Philippines had convinced her to do something to oppose martial law in her parents’ homeland.

These women in Mila’s book dedicated themselves fully to their political work, led and inspired by the justness of their cause. Activism was their life. They were hardworking cadres and leaders of organized activist groups, such as the Kabataang Makabayan, Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan and KDP. Oyie stepped up to assume the role of spokesperson for the Movement for a Democratic Philippines, a coalition of national democratic groups, when the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971 caused the arrest of first-line movement leaders. Aida organized within the labor movement and lived with workers, describing herself in those days as a “grim and determined” activist. When martial law was declared, Viol De Guzman, Mila’s sister, left her life as a Filipino immigrant in New York City to return to the Philippines to organize against the dictatorship in the underground. The Philippine consulate office in New York refused to renew Mila de Guzman’s Philippine passport because of the extent of her anti-Marcos organizing activities. Mila Aguilar rose to become a member of the executive committee of the Mindanao regional organization of the CPP, and of the CPP’s Central Committee. She also later led the CPP’s National United Front Commission.

There was inner strength that braved adversity. When martial law was declared in the Philippines, Oyie, Mila Aguilar and Aida did not skip a beat and continued their political work in the underground. They married and raised children while in the underground. Most of the women became known and hunted down by Marcos’ repressive military and police apparatus, and experienced arrest, interrogation and abuse in detention. They showed courage through the ordeal. Sister Mary John Mananzan’s “baptism of fire” came when she and other nuns supported striking workers at the La Tondena and Solid Mills factories, putting themselves in harm’s way while protecting workers from being arrested and beaten by the police who were breaking up the strikes made illegal under martial law. Cindy Domingo carried on to organize the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes in the aftermath of the assassinations in Seattle of her brother, Silme Domingo, and Gene Viernes, both KDP activists, by local gangsters acting upon orders of the dictatorship, which was trying to silence the U.S.-based Filipino-American opposition.

The author Mila De Guzman

The author Mila De Guzman

A number of the women involved themselves in advocating on women’s issues, and in women’s organizations, such as Kalayaan and GABRIELA. Mila Aguilar saw sexism within the CPP, and wrote articles criticizing the official line of the CPP that the women’s liberation issue was secondary to the principal issue of national liberation.

The stories of these women who fought Marcos, and aspired for social justice, remind us of the greatness of a generation of activists who gave all for the people. At a time when there was tyranny, suppression of civil liberties and violation of human rights meant to sow fear and compel submission, there were women who stood up to the dictator. There were women who fought for the poor and the exploited. This book represents the best of what is Filipino and Filipino-American during a time of despotism. Now that the dictator’s son, Bongbong Marcos, is brazenly trying to recast his father’s image in a good light, “Women Against Marcos” tells the stories that inspire us to swear, “Never again to dictatorship.”

Women Against Marcos: Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought A Dictator
Mila de Guzman
Carayan Press, 2016, 198p.*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Edwin Batongbacal

Edwin Batongbacal

Edwin Batongbacal opposed the Marcos dictatorship from his college days in the late seventies until the dictator was overthrown in 1986. He is now a director in the public health sector, and resides in northern California.

Book Excerpt by Mila Aguilar

Mila Aguilar (Photo by Leni Marin)

Mila Aguilar (Photo by Leni Marin)

 In July 1972, two months before the declaration of martial law, I went from being a fragile pregnant woman to an underground activist with a 150,000-peso reward on her head. I believed that at that time it was the highest bounty offered by the Philippine government for a person on its most wanted list.

My husband had been away on a political assignment, visiting me only when he was in Manila. Unexpectedly, he appeared at my parents’ home, his face etched with worry. He told me we had to leave immediately, because the military already knew our whereabouts and was about to arrest us. I had been staying with my parents, who were taking care of me because I was having a difficult pregnancy. Every day, my father walked with me around the residential village where we lived, because pregnant women, he kept reminding me, need exercise.

“Okay, you go,” my father said without hesitation when I told him about our plan to leave. My husband and I went to my sister’s vacant place in another part of the city and hid there. A few days later, I learned from the newspapers that my husband and I were on the list of about 60 people linked to the M.V. Karagatan case.

In a matter of days, I became a member of the underground movement – a new life that lasted another fourteen years. I had been doing support work for this movement since 1971, while still holding regular jobs, but this time, I went completely underground. I was only twenty-three, and this kind of life was not something I had ever imagined when I was growing up, not even when I was becoming more politically active in college and later working as a journalist.

A Precocious Child

By the time I was born in 1949 in Iloilo, a province on Panay Island, my father was already forty-nine and my mother forty-six. I was the youngest of eight children. Two of my three brothers died at an early age, leaving one boy and five girls in the family. My parents had expected me, the last child, to be a boy to make up for the loss of my two brothers.

After the Second World War, and especially on the year of my birth, my father, Jose Vasquez Aguilar, was at the height of his career as superintendent of schools in Iloilo. He founded the Philippine Community School, encouraging elementary level kids to raise vegetables on plots located within the school compound in order to improve conditions in rural areas. My father believed that students needed to learn practical work related to their way of life, so the teachings in the classroom would come alive and not remain abstract concepts. He also launched a language experiment, which established that students learned best when taught in their native language during the first two years of schooling, before English was introduced into the curriculum. (In the early 1900s, under the American colonial regime, English became the medium of instruction in the Philippines.) My father’s talents did not go unnoticed. He was recruited to teach at the College of Education at U.P. in Manila and later became the dean of the department.

In the 1920s, my father became a pensionado when an American missionary sponsored his trip to the U.S. to study. He earned his undergraduate degree from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he later received an honorary Ph.D. in education. He developed a distinct American diction and was an excellent orator with a deep bass voice that would echo all throughout our home.

My mother, Ramona Guanzon Deysolong, was a devout Catholic who prayed the rosary every day. She used to quarrel over religion with my father, who was raised as a Baptist, until he gave her an ultimatum. He told her that he would leave her if she did not stop bringing up their religious differences. She did, and so he compromised his own beliefs and went to hear mass at a Catholic church once or twice a year with my mother and I.

I was a precocious child. Unlike my other siblings who grew up in Iloilo, I started grade school at UP, the bastion of academic freedom and free speech, and became a liberal thinker at an early age. I was only in fourth grade when I started to doubt the existence of God. My teacher told us, “When you look at trees and flowers, you will see God there.” I looked and did not see anyone. In my mind, there was no God but a figment of one's imagination.

Since I was the youngest, I was the only child left when my older siblings started to leave our home. It became too quiet with only the three of us, so I turned to writing and drawing. I was in first grade when I read my first book. I thought, “I believe I can write one myself.” I got a pad of lined paper and wrote a story about rabbits, illustrated with my drawings. My mother proudly showed my first creation, complete with a cover and title pages, to my teacher, who asked me, “So, do you want to be a writer like your father?” I had never known before that my father was a writer, that he had written a novel and essays about education. With a lot of gumption, I told my teacher, “Yes.” That moment sealed my fate.

Growing up with my parents as examples, I started to develop a social conscience. My father was an idealistic man committed to the principles of honesty, justice, and morality. His mission in life was to serve the people. At the same time, he was extremely devoted to his family. When he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service in 1959, he used the prize money to build a home for our family and saved the rest to ensure our future -- my future, mainly, because by that time my siblings already had families of their own. He instilled in us the value of simple living, eschewing the accumulation of material things in favor of a good education.

I was nine when we moved to the house that my father built at UP Teachers’ Village, adjacent to the UP campus. My mother cared for the children of a poor neighbor on our street and brought them clothes. I was in college when I started to accompany her on these visits. I was appalled at the way this family of ten lived crowded together in a small shanty, a far cry from our modest but comfortable home.

A former teacher, my mother trained me well in public speaking. By the time I was in high school, I was winning oratorical contests. The message of my winning piece in high school, which my classmates still remember to this day, was, “After graduation, what are you going to end up being? Are you going to simply sit at office desks, or are you going to do something meaningful for your country?”

Activist in the Making

During my college years, I began to understand the contradictions between the rich and the poor more clearly. I attended teach-ins at the university grandstand, where student leaders explained the many ills of Philippine society, and how U.S. imperialism kept the country a semi-colony by controlling its political, military, and economic institutions.

I joined my first demonstration in 1966, when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson attended a conference in Manila as part of his tour of Pacific and Southeast Asian countries. The previous year, the U.S. government had raised the number of American troops in Vietnam to about 125,000, and the Philippine government sent the first batch of the Philippine Civil Action Group (PHILCAG) to Vietnam. The protest focused on the intensification of the war by the U.S., and the Philippine government’s support for U.S. foreign policy.

We marched more than twelve kilometers, from the UP Diliman campus to the Manila Hotel where President Johnson was staying. The exercise mesmerized me. I remember crossing the Quiapo Bridge with thousands of students, thinking, “Someday, I will organize one of these.” I didn’t see police brutality in action but saw a picture of it later on a campus bulletin board: a UP teacher wearing a miniskirt being hit on the head with a baton by a police officer. That experience influenced the direction of my writing career after college.

Right after obtaining my B.A. in English in 1969, I began teaching at UP and writing for Graphic magazine, a progressive publication. One of the first articles I wrote was an analysis of the book Philippine Society and Revolution by Amado Guerrero, the pseudonym used by Jose Maria Sison, the Chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

This political primer inspired students from different universities and youths from many communities to become activists. I was deeply moved by its cogent summation of everything I had learned from readings, teach-ins, and demonstrations – its nationalist interpretation of Philippine history and its systematic assessment of the problems of the Filipino people. It supported a program for national democracy, national democratic program for a people's revolution, including building a united front of all classes of Philippine society, flanked by its military arm, the New People’s Army, in order to achieve state power.

As the New Year began, Graphic asked me to cover the student beat, a timely assignment. The country was on the cusp of the First Quarter Storm that inspired the student movement and changed the lives of thousands of Filipinos, including my own.

On January 26, 1970, I stood in front of the Philippine Congress, watching thousands of people protest the rule of Marcos, who was delivering his State of the Nation address. He had just won a bitter election marked by extensive cheating and corruption. As Marcos and his wife Imelda were leaving the building, unidentified persons threw a paper maché coffin, representing the death of democracy, towards the couple – igniting a violent confrontation between the police and demonstrators. Police officers started firing at the young protesters.

In the midst of the frightening melee, I just stood there, frozen, observing people running in all directions while bullets were zinging all around me. A UP English professor and fellow writer at Graphic, Pete Daroy, appeared out of the blue and said calmly, “Hey, don’t run, just walk normally. Otherwise they’ll run after you. Let’s go inside the building.” Thanks to his presence of mind, I got out of there unhurt, but others were not so lucky. During the next few days, the students held more demonstrations to protest police brutality, and before the month was over, four students had been reportedly killed, and hundreds injured and jailed.

Although I was practically catatonic while covering this event, I was able to write a trenchant account about the military’s brutal reaction to the demonstrators. My piece may have sounded radical, making readers think that I was a student activist.

I did not belong to either the KM or SDK, both national democratic student organizations, but I did hang out with KM members since I was covering the student movement for Graphic. The SDK had tried to recruit me during my junior year in college, an invitation I neither accepted nor declined. Because I was a member of the media who associated with activists and wrote articles critical of the government, I assumed that I was on the military’s blacklist. In my analytical piece about the role of the military under Marcos, I speculated that he would soon suspend the writ of habeas corpus and eventually declare martial law. I was caught in the quagmire of my own prediction the following year.

Clampdown on Civil Liberties

In August 1971, together with two members of the UP Collegian, I rode in a large Buick from Manila, north to Isabela in Cagayan Valley, to do an article on the armed resistance against the Marcos government. Inspired by a sense of adventure, we were hoping to meet and interview some guerillas from the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the CPP, for both the Graphic and Collegian. Youthful as I was, I conveniently ignored the risks that I was taking. Though I was not yet formally a member of the revolutionary movement, I had already been helping those in the underground. I took on the hazardous task of driving key NPA personalities, so I could learn more about the Communist Party’s national democratic program. The previous year, I married Magtangol Roque, a CPP member; later, I, too, became a member.

As we explored Isabela’s rural landscape, we received the ominous, though not surprising, news that Marcos had suspended the writ of habeas corpus. My companions and I found ourselves in an extremely vulnerable predicament. We knew that the military would have checkpoints all over the country, and wouldn't look kindly on a group of Manila writers traipsing through an area like Isabela, where NPAs were known to operate. Since Marcos had taken away our right to due process, the military could legally arrest and detain us indefinitely without cause. We decided to split up to avoid suspicion. I sent a telegram to my husband at his office in Manila and asked him to fetch me.

As a traveling couple, we raised fewer suspicions and were able to go through the checkpoints more easily. I learned later, however, that a military officer – a former elementary and high school classmate of mine – had spotted me in Isabela and was about to shoot me, but thought twice about it.

The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus signaled the beginning of major changes in my life. Knowing that the military had a dossier on me, I had to give up my jobs as a teacher and writer.

The clampdown on civil liberties led me to believe that the country was on the verge of a radical transition from democracy to fascism. My education as an activist on the three evils of Philippine society – imperialism, bureaucratic capitalism, and feudalism – had given me insight into what Marcos was prepared to do to protect the status quo. Therefore, going deeper underground, despite my pregnancy, was an easy decision.

Life in the Underground

My life in the underground did not begin smoothly. Besides dealing with a difficult pregnancy, I struggled to adjust to my new life. I led a sheltered life growing up, and was clueless about even the simplest household chores.

In October 1972, I gave birth to my son, Magtangol, Jr., in a small maternity clinic under an assumed name, without my husband, who was also in hiding. After a week, I had to bring my baby back to the hospital because he was bleeding internally. He had developed digestive problems because I had forgotten to wash off the strong breast ointment I was using before feeding him. I had no idea what a mother was supposed to do. Luckily, my husband, who was not typical of men in the movement, took care of washing our baby’s diapers and cooking for our collective.

Three months later, my son again ended up in the hospital with bronchopneumonia. Most of the people in our underground house were heavy smokers, and the windows were always closed for security – making the children vulnerable to respiratory problems. Back in those days, there was no awareness about the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. I couldn’t stay in the hospital for security reasons, so I asked my mother to take care of him while he was confined. When my son was released, my mother decided to bring him back to our house in Quezon City.

I cried almost every day upon learning what my mother had done. My baby had been with me for only three months, and I was probably suffering from post-partum blues. My husband tried to comfort me. He said that the only way we could ensure a better future for our son was to build a more equitable society. Keeping him in the underground, he added, might have negative effects on his health and life. It took several months before his arguments made sense to me and I could stop crying.

I got my son back when he was already a year and a half. My husband and I placed him in another underground house, where he soon contracted another lung infection. We were then staying in a small subdivision in the outskirts of Manila. The road in front of the house was unpaved and filled with stone shards. We had to move again when we heard about impending raids by the military. I brought my baby to the house of a cousin who lived nearby. Without my knowledge, my relative informed my mother that we were staying at her house.

Upon seeing her grandson’s fragile condition, my mother told me she was going to take him. We had a heated discussion and ended up in the middle of the street, fortunately a cul-de-sac, shouting at each other: “He’s mine!” “No, he’s mine!” My poor son was crying as he was caught in the middle of our tug-of-war. I finally let my mother have her way because our argument might create a scandal in the community and end up in my arrest. My mother, at age 70, once more became the caretaker of my baby. I had been reunited with him for only a few months, so I was heartbroken when my mother took him away a second time. After that, I would see my son only once every year or two.