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Lola Amonita Balajadia and the Counselors of Light

Counselors of Light

For me, this has been the greatest lesson:  Learning to ask for help and seeing that as strength, not weakness.  Asking for help and then offering gratitude.  We do not work alone.

I discovered the plight of the Filipina "comfort women" of World War II through the groundbreaking work of dancer, activist and choreographer, Pearl Ubungen.  And the women were introduced to me by the organizers of Gabriela Network - first in New York and then in Quezon City.  The women of Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina (LILA Pilipina), the Lolas, survivors of the Japanese Imperial Army's WWII rape camps, are the highest form of our Babaylan practice. And this is what I wanted to share at our first Babaylan Conference.  The Lolas are fighting for justice not for themselves, but for all of us: for our daughters and our grandchildren, for our global healing. They were brought to my attention through the work of other healers and activists and they have stayed with me and they have become my life's work for over a dozen years.  I am realizing that it is no accident, this path, this calling. That our women call to one another in support of each other and it is our responsibility, I think, to listen and to respond.  I have grown to understand that none of us work alone.  We are a community of women and if we are wise we work together—we give what we can and more importantly, we ask for help from each other when we need it.  For me, this has been the greatest lesson:  Learning to ask for help and seeing that as strength, not weakness.  Asking for help and then offering gratitude.  We do not work alone.   I enclose here, the opening to my book in progress:  Lolas' House: Women Living with War to share with you the message I received from Lola Amonita Balajadia.

From Lolas’ House: Women Living with War

The Walker Art Center
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Saturday, August 10, 1996

I am sitting high up in the center balcony looking down at the black stage.  A spotlight shoots out from above and strikes a woman like a gunshot. Her small brown body convulses.  The voice of an elderly Filipina woman echoes throughout the theater and the Pinay below, with her long hair caught in the wind of some kind of hurricane gale, moves to the cadence of this old lola’s voice.  She is walking and then running and the light chases her and the old woman’s voice races and falters and all the while the Pinay’s body reacts to the voice, to that music, a narrative spoken in Tagalog to an audience in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There is another woman, with hair cropped close to the head, darting about like a shadow, caught in that same fray, dancing to the voice and the body and the light. 

In that moment in 1997, my own understanding of Tagalog is a smattering of endearments and imperatives tossed at me by my mother or my father or a non-blood related auntie and so it’s a little unclear to me why I am so moved by the voice, the bodies and the lack of musical sound track—just a drum somewhere in the distance, just the sound of that light hitting the stage, attacking the women, the limber bodies coming undone in that light, joint by joint—first the fingers and toes, the hands, the feet, the arms, the legs, the rolling head of hair, that slight neck, the hips and undulating torso and somewhere in there is the lost heart beating faster than it ever has.

I am in tears.  I am in shock.  I have somehow left that theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the dead of that night and I have traveled to someplace I have never been.  I have been rocketed out of my comfort zone and I cannot sit still.  This is how I begin my search.  This is how I discover my Lolas.

That night, Lola Amonita Balajadia, a surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII washed her testimony on the walls of the auditorium and Pearl Ubungen honored Lola Amonita’s story with her own body, offered herself like a sacrifice, placed each limb and tendon, each muscle on a high altar as if she herself were Lola Amonita, taken by the Japanese Imperial Army, thrown into rape camp and made to serve the multitude of soldiers. 

Now I know, though it was Pearl Ubungen and her company dancing on the stage, it was Lola Amonita calling me.  Though my understanding of the language was weak, I understood with my heart.  To hear these stories, you must listen with your heart.  To understand the journey, you do not need to be Filipino or a woman.  You do not need a translator, that’s what I have learned.  Listen with your eyes and you can see the women’s stories as they speak them, cast on the lines of their faces in the movement of their bodies, in the light they send out each time they give their testimony of survival.  Listen with the hands, as they drag your fingers across their scars—cigarette burns, barbed wire cuts, bayonet slashes.  Your skin will feel the history there.  Close your eyes and feel the vibrations of the women’s voices running along the banks of a river, or curled up small like a hanky in your pocket and the understanding will seep into your bones.

I will always be most grateful to Pearl Ubungen and her story of The Bamboo Women for calling out to me, for bringing me with them on this journey where I have discovered forty grandmothers, women who have sacrificed so much so that I might learn.  I will never forget hearing Lola Amonita’s voice dancing on that night, moving like a storm to the upper middle balcony.

Something between the generations had been lost, a communication, a fluidity, a knowing of the self, and I wondered what that was for each of them.

I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what I had witnessed, only that I had to find out more, only that something about that experience seemed connected to my first book of stories, Her Wild American Self, a collection of stories that focused on the coming of age of American women of Filipina descent.   Shortly before seeing Pearl’s piece on The Bamboo Women, I had received a twenty-page letter from an eighteen-year-old girl in California.  She wanted to tell me how much the stories meant to her, how she had been suicidal when the book came to her as a gift, and how the stories were the first stories that she had ever read that spoke to her experience.  She said she carried the book around like a Bible and had marked passages off with a yellow highlighter.  She said she was trying to get her mother to read the stories too so she might better understand who her daughter is, how she is different than the Filipina girls “back home,” after all, she was a first generation American born Pinay, she was an American.  And then the young woman proceeded to critique each and every story in the book and what followed the critique was a set of her poems, poetry, that helped her come out of her darkest place.

The two kinds of experiences were so different than my own.  And yet somehow, I was not only touched by the voices, but I felt they were meant to speak to one another.  Something between the generations had been lost, a communication, a fluidity, a knowing of the self, and I wondered what that was for each of them.  And so I began a project I called the Dalaga Project, a screenplay I would research and write about the relationship between a surviving “Comfort Women” of WWII—a lola—and a homegirl Pinay from Chicago—her granddaughter or apo.

I had no idea that I would be tapping into my own issues of mothers and daughters and grandmothers.  I had no idea, that the real question I would be asking myself in 2010 was, what can those old women teach me—not about being Pinay or being a feminist or a guerilla—but what can they teach me about myself?  It’s been 13 years that I have been on this journey and I have been driven, fighting battles that have taken me all the way to the U.S. Congress.  I have written open letters to the Japanese Prime Minister and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and in 2007, within a four-month span, I authored an international petition where 2,240 signatures from Greece, France, China, Japan, Brazil, and other nations have demanded that Nancy Pelosi’s Congress urge Japan to make a formal apology to the 200,000 survivors. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared there was not enough evidence to prove the women were coerced, I started a blog to enumerate the evidence I have found.  To stand up and say, hey, wait a minute!  I have seen the evidence!  I have touched the evidence!

Somehow, sitting in that dark theater in 1997, with the spotlight darting back and forth, I found myself drawn to the light, dancing around it, warming myself in the heat of it.  I went on a search for the women and I found a small handful of them.  They have trusted me with their stories and they have asked me to set the record straight.  I cannot rest until I do.  I cannot sleep.

And here is what I am discovering: The women, wise crones, slowly moving into other spheres have made that great transformation from victim to survivor to heroine.  They are now counselors of light.

© M. Evelina Galang

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