Two women from Panay island were recently honored as martyrs in the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship. The names of Coronacion Chiva and Dalama (Elma Villaron) were among the eleven added this year, 2017, to 296 names etched on the granite panels at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Shrine of Heroes’) wall of remembrance in Quezon City.

Bantayog honors the martyrs and those who significantly contributed in the struggle against the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, from 1965 to 1971 when he was democratically elected, and from 1972 when he declared martial law and imposed an authoritarian rule, up to 1986 when he was fled the country during a popular uprising.

A granite panel with the names of Coronation Chiva and Dalama (Elma Villaron- Tangente) unveiled on November 30, 2017 at the Bantayog ng mag Bayani (Shrine of Heroes) that honors martyrs and heroes in the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship.(Photo by Leti Boñiol)

Historians say that the struggle against the dictatorship drew out great courage from thousands of women in the Philippines. However Chiva and Dalama’s heroism left a special imprint to the memory of that epoch.

Born on 1926 in Calinog, Iloilo, Coronacion Chiva was better known by her nom de guerre, Walingwaling, when she joined the Hukbalahap guerillas resisting the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Hukbalahap, short for Hukbong Mapagpalaya Laban sa Hapon, is no ordinary group of armed partisans; their leaders and members were schooled in Marxism and had peasant and workers as their base. Chiva’s second husband, Andres Tugonon, was a fellow Huk member. He read political tracts and was a member of the Federacion Obrera de Filipinas (FOF), a labor union of stevedores and sugar cane field workers organized by the Jose Nava in Panay and Negros islands.

After the war, Chiva and her husband did not lay down their arms but continued to agitate for land reform as Huks – she, a combatant, her husband, an ideologue. They were arrested in 1952 for rebellion charges and brought to Bilibid Prison while awaiting their trial and conviction.

While in prison, Chiva gave birth to a son, Eduardo thus she was released on humanitarian grounds. When her husband was also set free from prison, they took up a government’s offer of a homestead in Mindanao in the early 1960s. However a few years later, when Chiva received a government pension on behalf of her late first husband, a soldier, she and Andres returned to Iloilo and use the money to buy a farm, work animals and build a concrete house.

As her life was a much better at that time, Chiva was also ready to help those in need. However she must have realized that her kindness does little to deal with poverty, landlessness and the pitiful wages paid to farm laborers. She joined the Panay Association of Nationalistic Laborers, Employees and Farmers’ Union (PANELFU) as labor organizer and was elected union president in her hometown of Calinog. She was an indefatigable speaker; she spoke during union rallies and fiestas, and before binayle or village dances.

When martial law was declared on September 1972, Chiva was arrested and jailed in Iloilo City along with student activists whom she regaled with accounts of her Hukbalahap exploits and her days at Bilibid Prisons to boost their morale. Because she was famous, the military let her be, even slipping her a bottle of her favorite gin. She was released six months later.

Chiva and her husband opened their home to student activists from the city that formed the core of New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas in Panay. Chiva and Andres provided them their union contacts, fed them, and gave their supplies like salt and cigarettes. But more than giving them shelter, Chiva taught them about the inevitability of revolution that she and her husband partook in the prime of their lives and that which they also want the activists to pick up.

When Eduardo, her firstborn joined the NPA, Chiva was arrested and detained briefly. For about a year, she had to report weekly to a military station, apparently to pressure Eduardo to give himself up. Eduardo died, in a clash with government troops, at 17. In his funeral, Chiva wore a red bandana and tucked a pistol into her waist.

Chiva’s legendary life ended when she was assassinated on her way home from the market in the summer of 1977. Two men followed her when she was about to cross the river and one of them pointed the gun at her. The women who were with her overheard Chiva saying: “You better squeeze that trigger or I will kill you.” She died from multiple wounds. She was 51.

The schools, the market and the municipal hall were closed down on the day she was buried. It’s either that people were afraid that the guerrillas would avenge Chiva’s death or she was held in awe that Calinog became a dead town as well.

It were the student activists who met her in the early 1970s who pieced together the stories of Chiva’s and of her family so that she could be nominated for the honor at Bantayog that they think was long-overdue. That her life encompassed two periods of historical resistance made Chiva’s political contribution significant.

Former Senator Wigberto Tañada hands a plaque of citations to Erlinda Pedroso, daughter of Coronacion Chiva, an honoree, with the former social welfare secretary Judy Taguiwalo (left) and Bantayog executive director, May Rodriguez (right). (Photo by Raymund Villanueva)

Dalama, another Bantayog recognized hero, was also a legend in her own right. Dalama was her given name and questions have remained on how did she acquired the name, Elma Villaron. Born on 1955 in Aglopacan, Capiz, Dalama is a Sulod-Bukidnon, the indigenous people of Panay island. She was a chosen daughter or a binukot, who, since three years old, was prevented from leaving their house and being seen by strangers. She was expected to receive a substantial dowry.

In Sulod-Bukidnon or Tumandok communities, a binukot, like Dalama, performs extraordinary roles to preserve their tradition in exchange for not working in the fields. Some of the binukot were taught to chant the epics, dance the binanog, which is a courtship dance with hawk-like movements, or do beadwork and sew the traditional clothes. Dalama was known for her superb dancing skills.

At 15, Dalama’s family arranged her marriage a much other man who was abusive that she eventually left him. Early marriage was a solution to the family’s hardship after her father was imprisoned for murder after leading a clan war. Conflicts of this kind occasionally erupt between indigenous communities in Panay, with mass killings that will end symbolically by cutting down the last banana plant in the enemy community.

When the young activists in Panay started the armed resistance in the early 1970s, they found their way into the Sulod-Bukidnon communities that were beset by poverty, illiteracy, absence of basic services, loss of ancestral land, and discrimination. Some families were even tricked to pay rent for tilling their own land. The activists set up a school for children that Dalama attended. She learned to read, write and count, and was exposed to political ideas.

Dalama’s interaction with the activists slowly changed her worldview, especially on the rights of women in her community that observed child marriage and forms of objectification of women. She also started to embrace the larger struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Thus, despite her family’s disapproval, she joined the New People’s Army and became the first woman from her community to become a guerrilla. She played key roles in expanding the NPA’s operation in central Panay and helped brokered peace among warring communities. She also organized upland peasants to demand less onerous sharing scheme imposed by landowners. She married a fellow activist, Jose Tangente, a former Catholic seminarian, with whom she had two daughters.

Dalama died, along with her four companions in February 14, 1987 during a police raid of their shelter in Maayon, Capiz. They were buried in a mass grave. Little has been known about the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

Dalama’s contribution to organize the Sulod-Bukidnon is well remembered in her community. She is an inspiration to indigenous communities of Panay that are now opposing the construction of a huge dam and protesting cases of human rights abuses blamed on government troops.

In retelling the stories of Chiva and Dalama, researchers, among them this writer, have difficulty piecing together the events concerning these two women who were considered for Bantayog’s wall of remembrance as early as 2016. Their families have little to offer by way of documents, photographs and vignettes. The stories came mainly from their comrades whose memory circuits are becoming wearisome or selective. They tend see the lives of Chiva and Dalama not so much in their own right, as their relation to them. Thus, unavoidably, when synthesizing the two accounts, an impression could easily become larger than life and the ordinary become exemplary. But in the end, the fact that their contribution to the struggle was relatively rare and relatively unprecedented, Chiva and Dalama are worthy of honor reserved mostly for heroes.

Diosa Labiste is a volunteer researcher with the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation since 2015. The work entails retrieving stories of potential honorees.