The Huk Rebellion: Guerrilla Amazons

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

Elena Poblete, Huk Commander

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!

First, a brief history of the Philippines.

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.

The Philippines in geographic context.

The Philippines in geographic context.

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.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

Huk Flag; a smaller version of the Russian Communist Flag.

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.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it's done.

A Huk woman shows an American GI how it’s done.

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:

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano and husband Bill Pomeroy

Celia Mariano

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.

Kumander Liwayway

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.

Kumander Liwayway

Kumander Liwayway

Filomena Tolentino

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).

By Vina A. Lanzona

By Vina A. Lanzona

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.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines and 1st woman President of an Asian nation.

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.


Amazons of the Huk Rebellion: Gender, Sex and Revolution in the Philippines

Celia Mariano Pomeroy Obituary

Felepa Culala

Flight of the Filipina Phoenix: The Rise of Pinay Feminism

Rejected Princesses

Tales of the Amazonas

The Making of the Philippines

Women on 20s: Four Short Stories

Currently in America, there’s a campaign to replace Andrew Jackson as the person featured on the $20 bill. After a first-round vote, the finalists have been narrowed down to four extraordinary women: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller. Rather than focus on a specific woman this week, I’d like to instead give you short vignettes on each of these four women, and draw attention to the Women on 20s campaign. The winner will get a much more in-depth biography!

Eleanor Roosevent

A blackand white photograph of a woman in her late 20s with  short dark hair. She looks directly at the camera, smiling slightly.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Often known for being the First Lady during her husband’s administration from 1933-1945, Eleanor had quite a distinguished career of her own, focusing on civil and human rights.

Born in 1884 in New York City, she suffered immense personal tragedy early on, losing her mother at age eight and her father just two years later. She lived with her grandmother for a time, then in London while attending finishing school. The headmistress of her school was an outspoken feminist who doubtless influenced young Eleanor’s views on women and equal rights. Upon her return to America, she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt, her fifth cousin – they quickly fell in love and were married in 1905 (then-President Theodore Roosevelt gave the bride away!).

The couple had six children between 1906 and 1916, though reportedly, Eleanor enjoyed neither sex nor motherhood very much. In 1918, she discovered her husband having an affair with his secretary. And though they chose to stay together, Eleanor made it clear she would no longer sleep with Franklin. From that moment, they became a political match, and Franklin began his career in politics soon after.

In 1921, tragedy struck again as Franklin fell ill with the polio which would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. He very nearly quit politics, but Eleanor persuaded him to not give up. She became one of her husband’s most ardent supporters, doing quite a lot of campaigning on his behalf.

However, Eleanor made time to pursue her own goals while also helping Franklin. In the 1920s, her chief cause was promoting women’s rights in the workplace. She allied with the Women’s Trade Union League, which successfully campaigned for a 48-hour workweek, a minimum wage and the abolition of child labor.

In 1933, Franklin became the 32nd President of the United States of America, and Eleanor the First Lady. The role of First Lady up till then had largely been a social one – hosting dinners, parties and similar events. Eleanor, however, refused to simply be a hostess for the duration of her husband’s administration. She redefined the role as a political one, and used her time in office to campaign for the rights of the poor, as well as civil rights for African-American voters (a task she was so successful at that she single-handedly shifted the African-American voting demographic from Republican to Democrat; a trend which persists to this day).

After the White House, Eleanor served as a delegate to the United Nations, where she continued her work for human rights, assisting in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a charter universally adopted by all member nations (though several Soviet states abstained).

She died in 1962 at the age of 78.

Harriet Tubman

A black woman with short black hair faces the camera with a stern expression. She wears a dark buttoned dress with a white scarf.

Harriet Tubman

Born into slavery as Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross sometime in the early 1820s in Maryland, Harriet Tubman is most known for her work on the Underground Railroad. She witnessed early on the destruction slavery had on the family, as three of her siblings were sold away, and her mother risked her life to keep her brother.

Harriet was put to work at age 5 minding the infant of friends of her white owners, and would be whipped whenever the baby cried. Harriet would carry the scars of these beatings for the rest of her life. One beating was so bad she suffered a permanent head injury, causing her lifelong bouts of narcolepsy, epilepsy, seizures and hallucinations.

Around 1844, she married a free black man, John Tubman. Somewhere around this time, she also changed her name for Araminta to Harriet (possibly to honor her mother, also named Harriet). However, the couple lived in fear of Harriet being sold away; or of their children being enslaved. In 1849, this threatened to become a reality when Harriet’s owner tried to sell her. Only his lack of success in finding a buyer and sudden death prevented the sale. However, her owner’s widow began selling many of the household slaves, and Harriet knew it was now or never.

After one unsuccessful attempt to escape with two of her brothers, Harriet escaped on her own. Aided by conductors on the Underground Railroad, Harriet eventually made it to safety and freedom in the Northern states.

However, Harriet could not forget those she left behind, and soon made plans to return in order to liberate more loved ones from slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant slave-hunters could capture escaped slaves even in Northern states, and so Harriet extended her route to Canada.

All told, she rescued approximately seventy slaves. She was never caught, nor were any of her charges. She also provided a great deal of support to other escaping slaves, giving them advice and guidance. She ran her last trip in December, 1860.

During the Civil War, Harriet tirelessly supported the Union Army, working as a spy, scout and even once personally leading a military attack on a group of Maryland plantations. The raid was a success – the Union forces seized several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies, and over 750 slaves were liberated. She was also a voice in Lincoln’s ear, convincing him to allow black men to enlist, counsel he eventually took. Despite all her work, Tubman was never fairly paid by the government for what she had done.

After the war, Harriet worked various odd jobs, and in 1869, she married Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. However, they were often in financial difficulty, and survived due to community donations (including sale of a biography about her). She dedicated much of her time after the war to the cause of women’s suffrage, including suffrage for black women.

She died in 1913.

Rosa Parks

A young black woman in a black and white photograph. She wears glasses, and has a black and white striped shirt underneath a dark vest.

Rosa Parks

Though America lost Harriet Tubman in 1913, we gained Rosa Parks on February 4 of that same year. She grew up on a farm in Alabama with her mother, her maternal grandparents and several siblings. She attended several schools, but was forced to cut her education short when both her mother and grandmother fell ill and required Rosa to care for them.

She grew up in a Jim Crow climate, where she regularly witnessed white children being bused to much nicer schools than hers; her school was twice attacked by arsonists, and the KKK would march through her neighborhood. And though white bullies would sometimes attack Rosa, she would never back down, and would often (dangerously) fight back.

She married Raymond Parks in 1932, who was a card-carrying member of the NAACP. She finished high school in 1933, becoming part of the 7% of African-Americans at the time who successfully did so. However, she could not find suitable work, and often worked unstable employment as a domestic servant. In 1943, she, too became active in the NAACP. At one meeting of the Montgomery chapter, she became elected secretary by virtue of being the only woman in the room. However, she proved to be quite good, serving in this role until 1957.

In 1944, a young black woman was gang-raped by white men, and Rosa spearheaded a successful campaigns to get justice for Recy Taylor, the survivor.

As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, one of the issues which Rosa’s local NAACP chapter paid attention to was the segregation of the bus system, and decided to protest the unfair rules.

Some narratives have Rosa too tired to move at the end of a long work day. And while Rosa was tired, she was more tired of injustice. Her refusal to move was a deliberately calculated move to force the bus driver to enforce these unfair rules on her (thereby bringing attention to the injustice). This he did, having Rosa arrested and taken to jail.

She was bailed out the next morning, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott had begun. Rosa was eventually convicted of violating the municipal segregation laws, and charged $14 in fines. This, she refused to pay, and appealed her case. A young reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a relative unknown, rose to prominence leading the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott eventually ended when the Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that these laws were unconstitutional.

Though Rosa had by now become a symbol for the Civil Rights movement, that very notoriety made her (and her husband) unemployable. She eventually moved north to Detroit, where she found a system of segregation that, while not official and legal, was no less insidious. However, she provided crucial assistance to John Conyers, then running for Congress. Upon Conyers’ election, Rosa was hired as his secretary, a job she would hold until 1988.

Rosa’s new cause was housing fairness, as she saw how housing inequality and ‘urban renewal’ programs disparately affected blacks and other people of color. She worked for this cause, and many others, until her health eventually declined to the point where that became impossible.

She passed away in 2005.

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Perhaps the least well-known woman on this list, I personally can think of no better person to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

She was born in 1945 in Talequah, on Cherokee Nation land in Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother Dutch-Irish who nevertheless adopted Cherokee customs and lived in Talequah with her family.

Her father was extremely poor, relying on a small patch of land to survive. However, this land was seized by the US Government (along with the land of 45 other Cherokee families) to expand Fort Gruber. In 1956, the family left Oklahoma and settled in San Francisco.

She married at age 17, to an Ecuadorian college student named Hector Hugo Alaya de Bardi, and had two children with him. She attended Skyline College, then San Francisco State University, finally graduating with a degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma.

In 1969, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a year-long protest meant to call attention the seizure of Native lands. The protest had a solid legal footing – several treaties guaranteed that unoccupied federal land belonged to the Native tribes, and Alcatraz had not operated as a federal prison for six years. Unfortunately, Wilma and her companions did not succeed, as they were eventually forcibly removed by government agents.

However, Wilma did not let this failure dull her activist spirit. She became dedicated to the idea of helping her people.

In 1977, she divorced Hugo and moved back to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and inherited the role of principal chief when her counterpart took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was elected principal chief in her own right in 1987, and served until 1995 (she is often credited with being the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation… though it’s doubtless that some of her female ancestors may have also served in similar leadership roles, as Cherokee culture has a long tradition of female leadership).

During her tenure, Wilma was dedicated to improving life for residents of the Cherokee Nation. She worked closely with other community leaders, as well as the United States government, on a variety of programs meant to foster community involvement. She completely redefined tribal relationships with the US government, founded schools, improved tribal health care and increased tribal enrollment to nearly three times what it had been. Her work was not without controversy, but she can be fairly said to have made all her choices with an eye towards making life better for her people.

She married again in 1986, to a full-blooded Cherokee named Charlie Lee Soap; where they lived on Wilma’s ancestral land (the acreage taken several decades before by the government).

In 2010 (after already suffering bouts of myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, lymphoma and breast cancer), Wilma was diagnosed with the disease that would kill her – pancreatic cancer. She died in April of that year, leaving behind not only the legacy of a leader who broke gender barriers, but as a symbol of Native resilience in the face of attempted genocide. In 1830, then-President Andrew Jackson worked very hard to pass the Indian Relocation Act, by which the settled tribes of the American South, among them the Cherokee, were to be forcibly relocated east of the Mississipi. This eventually led to the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 people died during a 21-day forced march from Tennessee to Oklahoma. And yet the Cherokee, as a people, survived. As such, I think it more than fitting for Jackson to lose his place on our money and for Wilma Mankiller to replace him.

However, all four of these ladies are extraordinary, and I encourage you to visit Women on 20s and vote for your personal favorite!