Welcome to Amazon Month Week 5! Sorry for missing last week, things got crazy busy. But we’re back, and ready to wrap up Amazon Month! I’d like to give a shout-out to Rejected Princesses; without their coverage of Kumander Liwayway, I would never have known about such a perfect story for Amazon Month!
Though most of these stories have been somewhere from old to ancient, the Huk Amazons are quite recent!
Originally, the islands were settled by peoples coming from all over the Asian continent; who blended together with varying degrees of success. In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan reached the region as a representative of Spain; and Spanish colonization began several decades later. This was not an easy task; along with the difficulties which usually accompany colonization efforts, Spain also had to fight off other Asian nations who wanted the islands for themselves. However, Spain prevailed, becoming the unquestioned ruler of the Philippines (named after then-prince and eventual King Philip II) in the early 17th century.
Though the Spanish weren’t exactly gentle colonists, a side effect of their activities in the Philippines meant the islands gained a sense of national identity and cultural unity where none had existed before. Of course, this was largely because native Filipinos from various ethnic groups banded together to resist the Spanish. Rebellions flared up with some regularity; and though the Spanish were able to put down most of them, they eventually lost. In 1898, the Philippines declared themselves independent from Spain.
Spain took a unique approach to the problem. They had just lost the Spanish-American War, and as part of the peace treaty, handed the islands over to America. The United States proceeded to thoroughly ignore Philippine claims to independence, dismantled the nascent republic, and fought for three years to assert their ownership of the territory. Eventually, the First Republic of the Philippines folded, and America assumed rule.
However, the Americans were much more moderate than the Spanish. Filipino culture, especially cinema, flourished in the first part of the 20th century. In 1936, the Americans began to grant the Philippines some measure of independence, and planned to eventually bring self-rule to the nation. However, the advent of World War II, and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, severely disrupted these plans.
And thus began the Hukbalahap Rebellion, often shortened to Huk Rebellion.
Communism had spread to the Philippines, and many peasant farmers, tired of being oppressed by landlords and dreaming of owning land themselves, embraced the ideology. And most of the islands’ residents, especially those of fighting age, had grown up under American rule and were largely pro-American (or, at least, had friendlier feelings towards Americans than the Japanese, who were not kind to the islands during occupation).
So when the staunchly imperialist Japanese invaded and proceeded to commit several famous atrocities. the peasant farmers decided to rebel. They formed what was called in Tagalog Hukbong Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, which means something roughly like ‘National Anti-Japanese Army,’ or ‘People’s Army Against the Japanese.’ A difficult phrase for most English-speakers to get their tongue around, so it’s often shortened to the Hukbalahap or Huk Rebellion.
The army officially formed in 1942, under the command of a four-person military committee – including Felepa Culala, also called Dayang-Dayang.
Felepa led one of the first armed attacks against the Japanese. She formed her own resistance group before the official founding of the Hukbalahap, and when several of the men under her command were taken prisoner by collaborators, Felepa organized and led a successful mission to rescue them. When the Japanese army tried to retaliate, Felepa was there and ambushed them, driving the Japanese back to their outposts. Felepa led other missions, largely attacks on collaborators and policemen, where she captured weapons and ammunition for her cause. Inspired by Felepa’s example, many women left home to join her.
According to some estimates, approximately 10% of the Huk warriors were women (by way of comparison, approximately 14.5% of the US Armed Forces are women). And these women were fighters. They were not content to stay back and camp and work as nurses – these women hiked into the jungle, stole supplies from downed planes, disrupted supply lines and cut off lines of communication for the Japanese forces. Felepa even rescued some American soldiers from the infamous Bataan Death March!
The local media absolutely loved the Huk women, calling them amazonas. While these women weren’t actively conducting missions into the jungle, they were dedicated to making life better for the average Filipino or Filipina. Women (and men) in Huk camps were taught to read, and land controlled by the Huk army was distributed equally to member farmers.
In addition to Felepa, known amazonas are:
Born into the property-owning class, Celia was moved by compassion when seeing how her family’s tenants lived. She joined the Filipino Communist Party shortly before the war; and successfully convinced her family to donate two of their farms for use as Huk training camps. When the former editor of the Huk newspaper was captured and tortured to death by collaborators, Celia bravely stepped up and ensured the newspaper continued to operate. In 1944, she was elected to the central governing committee of the national Communist Party, and dedicated many of her post-war efforts to improving the lives and status of women in her home country, including establishing trade schools.
A former beauty queen, Kumander was known to do her makeup and nails before a raid. When challenged over her supposed vanity, Kumander said she was fighting for the right to be herself. And fight she did; leading up to 100 Huk soldiers in guerrilla raids.
Growing up impoverished in Luzon, Filomena had to leave school after the third grade. Under Japanese occupation, she lived under the continual threat of rape by Japanese soldiers. Joining the Huk rebellion not only allowed Filomena to escape this threat, but also to complete her education. Though Filomena did not fight, she nevertheless risked her life by spreading anti-Japanese propaganda. This she did by going from village to village, and using performance to communicate revolutionary ideas to the people living there. Only Japanese ignorance of her native language kept her safe.
Marcosa de la Rosa
The daughter of the ‘Bandit King’, named because he would so often incite peasant farmers to rebel against their landlords, Marcosa grew up with political activism in her blood. As a Huk amazona, Marcosa worked in propaganda. She also became part of the intricate and highly effective courier network, carrying messages between Huk camps (and often traveling through occupied territory to do it).
However, the end of the war did not necessarily mean the end of the Huk rebellion. Though the Philippines gained independence on July 4, 1946, many members of the Huk army strongly disapproved of the new government. The Huks, remember, had a strong Communist foundation, and many rebels saw the new government as simply continuing many of the problems the Huks fought against.
And so the army transitioned, from a group of guerrillas resisting foreign occupation to a group of guerrillas instigating civil rebellion. As one might imagine, this did not endear them at all to the ruling class – but crackdowns only empowered the Huk army.
In the end, it was war weariness which brought an official end to the Huk rebellion. With the war over, few members of the guerrilla army had the heart to keep living and fighting in the jungle – especially because so many of them missed their families. Slowly, Huk fighters moved back to the cities. Some, such as Celia Mariano, were imprisoned (though she was eventually pardoned on the condition she relocate; Celia spent the rest of her life advocating for working-class causes from England).
However, this does not mean they gave up the fight entirely. Surviving Huk women often became political or academic leaders, and many notable Filipina feminists of the 60s, 70s and 80s got their start as rebels (Dayang-Dayang, sadly, was executed by her own people in 1943 for an anti-Communist ideology and accusations she was using the Huk rebellion to enrich herself). Though they did not get the Communist government they wanted, the Huk amazonas did improve life for the Filipino peasant and working classes; especially for women.
Though life for women in the Philippines is certainly challenging (the Philippines ranks 77 out of 139 on the Global Gender Equality Index), Filipinas do enjoy relatively more independence than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries. And while this is partly due to long-standing cultural traditions (placing the family as the center of Philippine culture and the woman as center of her family), some credit must be given to a robust feminist movement which found its voice fighting in the jungle, and has helped inspire subsequent waves of Filipino feminist thought.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about the Huk amazonas in pop culture. Not in English language pop culture, anyway – I can only hope that these women show up in the art and culture of the Philippines more often than they appear in American culture!
And with that, Amazon Month concludes! We’ll return to our regularly scheduled roster of amazing women next week – if you have a woman you’d like to see featured, use the Suggestion Box or leave a comment below! Also leave feedback if you like themed months like Amazon Month; I’m considering doing a Women of World War Two month sometime in the summer or fall.