This should not surprise me, researching a woman from the 18th Century and discovering a strong parallel to a woman fighting the same battle today. The more I looked into this story, the more painful it became. But in the end, I found hope.
This is one of my longer feature articles and I ask your patience as I wend my way through the story to reach "pag-ibig at pag-asa," Filipino for love and hope.
Gabriela Silang, a young Filipina who lived in the northwestern seaboard of Luzon in the mid-1700s is most commonly portrayed wielding a bolo knife.
There's little doubt Gabriela Salang was a fearless revolutionary against Spanish colonial rule, and her spirit continues to run in the blood of women today, who carry on the struggle for self-determination in the face of centuries of imperialism in the Philippines.
That includes playwright and peasant organizer Amanda Echanis, arrested 13-months ago and imprisoned with her newborn baby, two of more than 600 political prisoners under the Rodrigo Duterte regime.
Ferdinand Magellan, you may have learned in school led the first crew to circumnavigate the globe in 1522. What may not have stuck in your mind, is that he failed to actually make it around the earth with his shipmates, because he was killed by indigenous people in what we now call the Philippines.
Our heroine Gabriela Silang was the first woman who raised an army against the Spanish, and she led the longest-lasting revolt in 1763. Like a later Filipina leader, Corazon Aquino, she picked up the fight for freedom after her husband was killed for his resistance.
Indigenous people resisted Spanish colonization for the next three centuries, rising in at least 300 significant armed revolts. Not only did they fight to reclaim their land, but to overthrow the invaders who forced them into virtual slavery building their churches and government buildings, and the universally unbearable yoke of excessive taxes.
Gabriela Silang was honored on a Philippine postage stamp in 1974, interestingly enough, under the administration of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It's a rare depiction of her without her bolo knife. Read on for the story of her knife-wielding days!
Gabriela was initially forced into marriage with a much older, wealthy businessman, but after his death three years later, she married a young rebel, Diego Salang.
When British forces occupied Manila in retaliation for the Spanish-French alliance in the Seven Year's War in 1762, Diego seized the opportunity. Martialing fellow revolutionaries in the Ilocano region on the northwestern coast of Luzon. His forces took control of the City of Vigan, planning to create an independent Ilocano nation.
The revolution was cut short when British-promised military aid failed to show, and a friend turned traitor assassinated Deigo Salang in his home. Gabriela fled for her life, setting up camp in the Abra Mountains to pull the resistance together.
After four months of guerilla attacks, she led her army on mission to recapture Vigan.
General Gabriela Salang's insurgent army assaulted a much larger Spanish force at Vigan. They were defeated and captured.
The Spanish executed as many as one hundred rebels, in public hangings along the coast as a warning to Ilocanos. Lastly, in September 1763, Gabriela was hanged in the public square in Vigan.
Numerous memorials in the Philippines portray her on a galloping horse brandishing a machete type blade used for centuries to cut through the tropical jungle.
Her brave legacy is also celebrated in performance art. One such event put on by
4Ever40 Sisterhood raised money to aid people in remote areas of the Philippines to become self-sufficient.
The people of the Philippines eventually defeated Spanish colonialism in 1898, only to begin a new anti-colonial struggle against the United States.
This month an international human rights monitor denounced the Rodrigo Duterte Administration's harassment of journalists and extrajudicial killings of activists, including labor and peasant organizers and environmentalists.
Today, 652 political prisoners are in custody in the Philippines, according to Pilgrims for Peace. More than 400 were arrested under the Duterte administration. Human Rights Watch stated, “The past six years of the Duterte administration have been an unmitigated disaster for human rights."
Two of those prisoners are Amanda Echanis and her 13-month-old boy. Authorities arrested the playwright and peasant organizer December 2, 2020, shortly after she'd given birth. They allege she possessed a M16 assault rifle, two hand grenades and assorted ammunition.
Amanda denies the charges and her lawyer says the arrest was illegal and baseless.
Many of the hundreds of political prisoners in custody face similar charges, which they also deny.
What sets Amanda apart, aside from her toddler being in prisoner with her, is that she herself was incarcerated as a two-year-old when her mother was arrested in 1990.
The family was happy and grateful they got to speak with each other over video for a short time on Christmas Eve. But the future of mother and baby remains precarious.
Amanda often thinks about Nelson Mandela’s words: "May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears."
"You have to be strong," she told Lian Buan, reporting for Rappler. "That strength comes from understanding what it is you’re fighting for. It will always come back to the question of for what and for whom. If you know how to answer that, sacrifice is just a part of it."
Amanda's parents Randall and Erlinda Echanis took her to jail with them in 1990, when they were arrested because of their work as peasant organizers in rural areas. They faced similar trumped-up charges. Linda and her mother were freed after six months.
Things have gone much worse for her father Randal Echanis. The life-long activist was detained and tortured three times, by three different regimes in the past five decades. August 10, 2020, three months before Amanda was arrested, he was tortured and murdered in Quezon City.
She named her baby Randall Emmaunel, Randall after her father, and Emmanuel after her uncle, poet and playwright Emmanuel Lacaba, who was martyred during Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law in 1976.
Linda and Amada say they begin this new year, "puno ng pag-ibig at pag-asa" which is Filipino for full of love and hope. If they can do it, I can, too.
Thanks to these sources:
"The past is never dead. It's not even past" William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun
I'm fascinated to discover little-known history, stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
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