As I walk into Lolas’ House, a community center for surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” in Quezon City, each woman grabs my face and kisses me. Each one I talk to worries about me and each one wants to know what is going on with me.
I have been in Manila for two weeks. Each day I’ve taken out my tripod and my video camera and I’ve taped the stories of Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII, lovingly and respectfully called lolas, or grandmothers by people all over the world. My little digital camera click click clicks away at their beautiful faces. I do it so we have a record of their stories, an image of their bright light and the music of their voices. So no one will forget.
What I cannot record, but I wish I could, is what it feels like to know each of them and to love them – and better yet to know what it feels like to be loved by them. This is a blessing that I wish on all of you – to know their characters and their love, to be able to call them Lola and really mean it.
The business at hand is their past and their current struggle for justice, so that history will not repeat itself, but what brings me back to them and what commits me to tell their stories is the love that we share.
Since I’ve returned, so many have debated on the ways I have changed and not changed in five years – some think I’ve lost weight, some say I grown fatter, some think I’m taller, or lighter or darker or younger or older – it is a source of delight for them to consider the changes.
They take my hand and they see one husband written in the lines of my palms – but only if I want him. One lola advises me, “Kahit pangit ang itura niya, pwede na kung mabait siya.” It’s better, in fact, if he’s not handsome, but good to you, loving to you, she tells me.
I know, lolas. You told me that last time. That’s why I sent the other boyfriend away. Guapo pero ang isip niya laging sa sarili niya. Handsome, but only thinking of himself.
This answer satisfies them greatly.
During my last visit on July 14, we have a party. We bring food and they roll out the videoke machine and there’s much laughter and singing and dancing. Before we begin, Richie Extremadura, the Executive Director of LILA Pilipina, reads an email from 121 Coalition leader Annabel Park. There are now 160 co-sponsors for House Res. 121 – 161 including Mike Honda. The Lolas know Mike Honda. They know that passing this bill in the U.S. Congress is one step closer to achieving justice. If House Res. 121 passes, they will have a lot of work ahead of them. We take a moment to be serious, to tape a message to the U.S. Congress, but after that, it’s party party party!
88 year old Lola Ashang boogies. She shakes her hips and waves her arms at me. She knows all the words to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” We dance together and she swings me across the dance floor.
Lola Pilar stands up and says, “I dedicate this song to Evelina Galang.” And she sings an old Tagalog song acapella style, inserting my name into the song. It is a love song, a song of heartbreak at the departure of a beloved one. She breaks into tears and all the lolas are laughing and teasing her but she continues to sing and cry and smile at once. My heart breaks.
Lola Puring holds me as she cries and tells me that even though she’s in great pain, she has come to Lolas’ House because they said I would be leaving for America. “I might die before you return,” she cries. “When will I see you again?”
In the past, I’ve brushed this worry away, but there are only twenty of my forty lolas still breathing. I know it won’t be long until they will all move onto a higher plane.
Lola Dolor tells me that when I'm in America and I feel someone brushing my arm softly, like this, she says, brushing my arm, “Wala na si Dolores.” Dolores is gone.
No, no, I tell her. When I'm in America and I feel someone brushing my arm like this, I say brushing her arm, Dolores is here! This makes her laugh.
There is a moment when we are all dancing and singing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at the top of our lungs and I realize that I must be present right now and remember what this feels like – to dance among these strong women warriors, to laugh with them, to be counseled by them and to understand what it means to be women who have traveled a long and arduous battle for justice.
They have taught me so many things, my lolas. I think most importantly, they have taught me how to take care of myself, to know how to stand up for myself, and to understand that to give without receiving is to suffer. For so many years, the lolas were silent. They gave so much and they held onto the secrets of their past. When they came forward they began to understand the value of respecting the self. Standing up to the Japanese government has been an act of courage and love – not only for themselves but to all of us.
I am so sorry that Prime Minister Abe could not accept my invitation to visit the Lolas at Lolas’ House. He might have grown to know them, to see each face, to hold a hand and examine the lines there, or to look into the eyes to see the past and the faith which has helped them to transcend their pain. To hear their stories is to witness the evidence. To love them is to know the truth.