“It’s a struggle!” When one said that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they would most certainly have been referring to any of the multifront resistance groups against Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s dictatorship, martial law, and the assassination of the opposition leader and former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.
Today, when spoken by some members of the protracted fight against the dictatorship, “It’s a struggle!” could more often refer to coping with the bodily aches and pains bedeviling many a senior citizen entering or well into their 70s—the average age of the most dogged of them, and for whom the same struggle against practically the same set of political realities continues. But like the adversary, which has shapeshifted over the decades (and ironically has come full circle today with the same unfortunate surname), so have the forms of protest become less strenuous, and more benign get-togethers are held with a frisson of excitement as the collective refreshes memories of the struggle’s close calls and a genuine, if elusive, sense of civic unity.
Such was the cheery reunion on Jan. 20 of members of WOMB (or the Women for the Ouster of Marcos and US Bases/Boycott) and their friends and allies at The Hub of the Diliman Preparatory School in Quezon City. It was, according to one of the organizers, Vikky Bondoc Cabrera, “practically an impromptu event that started with missing each other, and suggesting a get-together of the sort we normally have when foreign-based members visit town.” That would usually be a potluck for a group of 10–20 members and/or friends, she said, with “lots of chitchat, sharing of paninda (stuff for sale, like Nikki Coseteng’s kaftans), and kuru-kuro (opinions).”
For this reunion there was “no other agenda except to meet up again, and have fun, she added. “I guess that’s how we women work. Spontaneous. Creative. Excited. And full of fun.”
Innovating on protest
To be sure, when WOMB was founded in 1983 as a response of middle-class women and the urban sector to the Aquino assassination, it was all serious business: pushback against the Marcos regime. While the meaning of the acronym changed with the times—for a spell it was “Women for the Ouster of Marcos and US Bases,” and during an election year, it became “Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott”—the call for Marcos’ ouster remained constant.
WOMB was at the heart of the multigroup movement that fueled the 1986 People Power Revolt which ultimately overthrew the Marcos regime, but it was also about innovating on protest: It did not need to always be the placard-bearing, slogan-shouting street mobilization that a generation of dissenters had come to associate with the antifascist struggle.
This was also because the WOMB roster included some of the brightest creatives of the time—writers, actors, visual artists, professionals, media practitioners, playwrights, theater and film directors. WOMBies, as they came to be known, gathered in the homes of fellow activists—the late Dr. Mita Pardo de Tavera, Odette Alcantara, and Gilda Cordero Fernando—to organize activities. “With help from … Pardo de Tavera, … Alcantara, Maita Gomez, … Coseteng, and Gigi Dueñas-de Beaupré, Fernando dreamed up unique protest forms” for the group, WOMBie, writer, and poet Babeth Lolarga wrote in a tribute to Fernando after her death in 2020.
“One was a procession-rally, a pasyon, from Intramuros to the US Embassy. Only Gilda could get away with dressing CB Garrucho as the First Lady Imelda R. Marcos, Nikki as a Blue Lady, Joji Ravina as a bully RAM boy, Odette as Inangbayan,” Lolarga wrote. “A most memorable production was the State of the Nation Fashion Show at The Plaza dining hall in Makati. Gilda drafted the script read by CB and Behn Cervantes, while models like Maita, Gigi, Joji, Nelia Sancho sashayed down a ramp in deconstructed clothes and gowns that reflected the deterioration of society under the dictatorship… The show’s ambience was electric.”
‘We don’t let go’
Coseteng, a street parliamentarian and human rights activist during the Marcos years, and a WOMB stalwart who became senator during the Cory Aquino administration and has today become quite famous for designing kaftans, turned emotional when she delivered the welcome remarks at the WOMB reunion. “We thought [that this reunion] was impossible,” she said. But today there persist possibly harder truths and questions: How much longer before we see a responsible and progressive country? A woman’s place is in the struggle—but for how much longer? Is all this technology good for us?”
Her throaty voice breaking, she continued: “I guess this is why it’s called a ‘movement’—we may move faster or more slowly, but we don’t let go… The next generation may not be prepared for what’s to come next…”
But Maria Serena “Maris” Diokno, historian and retired University of the Philippines professor; Judy Taguiwalo, social worker and retired educator; and sociologist and Ateneo professor Mary Racelis, who is well past 90 but continues to teach and to organize and work with the urban poor—indefatigable warriors—all held up the inspiration board in brief speeches that paid tribute to the singular work put in by WOMBies who have since passed on as well as those carrying on to this day.
Thus, it was poignant that the short program featured the next generation of torchbearers. Actor and film director Karlo Altomonte, son of Dueñas-de Beaupré, was the emcee, while theater artist and singer Astarte Abraham, daughter of musicians Edru and Becky Abraham, opened the show with the rousing anthem “Babae” and closed it with the sensual salinawit of “Sway” (“Sayaw”) by the beloved poet Pete Lacaba.
Vicky Bayno, a two-term Quezon City barangay kagawad, and Clarice Palce, Gabriela secretary-general (and, at 20, arguably the youngest person in the venue) spoke on the continuing struggle for justice and the defense of our freedoms from poverty and fear, among others.
Feminist and anthropologist Anna Leah Sarabia noted that while the WOMB reunion was a way to recall the rage that drove the anti-Marcos protests, it should also “remind us that the fight against sexism [and the] patriarchy” is far from over.
Indeed, there’s no letting go when it comes to the fight for safer and better spaces for humanity. The reunion also featured a sale on donations of dresses, accessories, and household items from WOMBies Daphne Ceniza-Kuok and Coseteng to raise funds for Bawat Isa Mahalaga (Each One is Important), a voter education and value formation program in various communities in Manila. Also on sale were copies of the anthology of women’s essays, “First Draft,” with part of the proceeds allotted to help cover the reunion expenses. There were also products for sale from Solidarity of Orphans and Widows, an organization of mothers, widows, and orphans of extrajudicial killings in the communities around Payatas.
This reminder from activist, author, and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King never grows old: “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
Read more: Remember Ninoy Aquino