People have been asking me how I came to work with LILA Pilipina. All weekend long I have been sharing this story with individuals, so I’ll write about it here. From the start this has been about learning from the courage and the wisdom of our elders. From the start it has been about that search for the lessons our grandmothers give their dalagas as they grow from being rambunctious little girls, to strong intelligent women. From the start the thing that we are between girl and woman – dalaga or tween or teen – has been a source of curiosity to me. It has always been about what the past can teach us about the future.
When my book of short stories, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press) came out in April of 1996, many young women and girls began writing me about their own experiences growing up Filipina in America. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, it turns out. One young woman in particular, was in high school. She had been suicidal – frustrated that no adult, especially her mother could understand the pressures of being born of two conflicting cultures, of desperately wanting to be a part of one or the other or both, depending on the moment. She wanted her mother to read the book to see how she felt. Her mother was resistant.
In the 1990’s, there was a survey that the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta conducted (twice really) and it claimed that in San Diego, the rate of teen suicide was highest among Filipina American teens. Girls. Pinay. Our little sisters. Of course this statistic was disturbing and somehow surreal because our culture loves our daughters and only wants the best for them so it seemed impossible, and yet it was true and I was hearing versions of this truth in the letters I was receiving from my readers.
Then one night, in a theater in Minneapolis, I saw Pearl Ubungen’s performance of Bamboo Women, an interpretative dance of the testimony of Lola Amonita, a surviving Filipina “Comfort Woman” of WW2.
Pearl's dance was my first introduction to “Comfort Women.” It is only right that a friend would gently bring me to the women through body and dance. What struck me as I watched Pearl’s body flow to the old woman’s words was a strength, an energy, a will bigger than the experience – and that grace gave Lola Amonita the strength to survive. Then come to find out, she was not the only one.
I began to explore this issue, first in books and newspapers and in the archives of the Douglas MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. There was not much written. What was there was vague. George L. Hicks had written a book about “Comfort Women” but there were no faces, no names, only numbers, only figures. The concept of “Comfort Women” remained abstract and distant and it did not answer my question.
I wanted to know what was the lesson that these old women, these lolas, had that our young girls, so ready to give up on life, might learn. I searched and found little.
In Washington DC, I discovered the Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues. I traveled to McLean, Virginia and I had tea with Dong Woo Lee-Hahm who showed me photographs of Korean "Comfort Women" and handed me several thin books of testimonies.
I learned how far reaching this war crime was: 200,000 women and girls all over Asia, but she had no information on Filipina “Comfort Women.”
Soon I was lead to Gabriela Network in New York. They did not have first hand information, but they had a contact, LILA Pilipina-Gabriela in Manila. LILA Pilipina was an organization of survivors born of Rosa Maria Henson, the first lola to come forward publicly. They had begun their own campaign and were seeking justice on their own behalf. Here it was.
In 1996, Lola Maria Henson’s autobiography, Comfort Woman: Slave of Destiny, was published. I was so excited because I was making plans to travel to Manila and I was determined to meet her. But it’s interesting to see what happens when one holds a secret, a shame for so long and finally lets it out in the open to breathe and be. For Lola Henson it was as if the moment she spoke the words, committed them to the page and left evidence of her experiences, that was enough and soon after the publication of her life story, she died.
In 1999, I brought five Filipina American dalagas with me to Quezon City to meet the lolas of LILA Pilipina. We met over forty women. We kissed each one. We held their hands. We danced with them. We laughed with them. We were in search of that lesson.
After reading Lola Henson’s book, one of my students called me, still crying. “I can’t believe how hard she fought to live. I treat my body like shit,” she said, “I just give it away. I can’t believe I’ve been so disrespectful.”
I have a friend who says that sometimes she comes to this blog just to see the women's faces. “I just look at their faces, they are so luminous and beautiful. There’s not a sign of bitterness.”
I shot most of these pictures and I smile when my friend says this because I know that when I hold a lens to my eye, they are looking at me with love, and that love is here, on this blog. This atrocity has not gotten the best of them. Their faith in a higher source is so great. Every time I spoke with one of the women about her experiences and I asked her how she was able to survive, she’d answer, “Sa awa ng Dyos.” Through the mercy of God. Through the Grace of God. The surviving “Comfort Women” are a gift from God, their wisdom, their strength, their dignity has seen them through. They are asking to be recognized, to be heard. They have great lessons of love waiting for each of us. All we need to do is look into their eyes and see it.
This is how I came to know the lolas of LILA Pilipina, this is how I have fallen in love with each and everyone of them, this is how I’ve come to promise them to do my best to fight on their behalf. When people say, how can you listen to such stories? How can you handle it? I think of their faces, what Giovanna calls luminous and beautiful. I think of their hearts and everything I have learned from them. That is how I handle it. And of course, Sa awa ng Dyos.