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The Malaya Lolas

Lola Lita outside the remains of the Red House, which is what the Malaya Lolas call the house where they were repeatedly assaulted by Japanese soldiers.

ISSUE:  Winter 2021
In the wake of postwar trauma, and absent any formal restitution, a group of Filipina women have forged their own path toward healing.

Burden bearing [pagdadala] is experienced daily by most Filipinos, namely, those who are poor…. The metaphor or model of burden bearing makes sense only when viewed through the actual experience of burden bearing.

– Edwin T. Decenteceo, “The Pagdadala Model in Counseling and Theraphy,” Philippine Journal of Psychology (1999)


“We came home to ashes,” Isabelita Vinuya told photographer Hannah Reyes Morales. One wouldn’t know it, for all the green.

I am looking at photographs from the several weeks Hannah spent with Isabelita in 2019, documenting the story of the Malaya Lolas, sometimes translated from Tagalog as the Free Grandmothers or Grandmothers of Freedom. We are in her apartment in Makati—the red light, rather than the business, district—which, over the years and across collaborations, has become a second home to me.

Isabelita’s village of Mapaniqui was at the heart of the Filipino resistance against the Japanese during World War II. Toward the end of 1944, as Japan’s defeat seemed imminent, fleeing Japanese soldiers wreaked havoc throughout the countryside, pillaging and destroying villages as they went. When they arrived at Mapaniqui, they rounded up more than a hundred young women and girls, marched them to a house being used as an outpost, and kept them there for days, raping them repeatedly.

“Lola Lita is the leader,” Hannah tells me, referring to Isabelita as “grandmother,” following Philippine custom. “They all still live on the same street,” she says, in the same town, just a couple of miles from where they were held. “Ang Bahay na Pula,” they call it, the Red House.

The Tagalog language refracts the word pagdadala, the act of burden bearing, in different ways; a variation in the way it is said is a variation in nuance. The word struck Filipino psychologist Edwin T. Decenteceo as “a model for viewing the life experiences of the Filipino.” Framed by his Pagdadala model, “the Filipino is then revealed as committed to his or her tasks, responsibilities and relationships, taking these to their destinations, crawling on hands and knees if needed.” 

He avoids calling it the Burden Bearing model because it “sounds so depressing, according to English-speaking Filipinos.” This doesn’t seem to be a problem for non-English-speaking Filipinos, on the other hand, who “tend to carry their burdens lightheartedly, for the most part.”

Ang dinadala:
The burden

Lola Lita was fourteen when it happened. Some girls were only eight or nine. For some of them, the ordeal lasted a day. For others, as long as three weeks. By the time the girls spoke up about what had happened, they were old women. In the early 1990s, women from all over Asia, Korea in particular, testified as the former sex slaves of Japanese soldiers, who had made use of at least two hundred thousand “comfort women,” a euphemism for what was, in truth, a systematic weapon of war. Those who survived this violence (an estimated 90 percent did not) had to organize themselves—that is, to build a system of their own in order to demand justice.

The women of Mapaniqui were inspired to do the same. In 1997, they started calling themselves the Malaya Lolas, so that their story, too, could be known. They formed their own organization, gave interviews to the press, and made their way to Tokyo, where they filed a suit with the Japanese courts, demanding a formal apology, compensation, and the inclusion of their story in official histories. They even had a song, written by Lola Lita, that memorialized their experience through rhyming verse, in the style of a pangangaluluwa, a traditional Tagalog hymn for the dead.

The Japanese government refused to allow them to sue on the grounds that, under international law, the Malaya Lolas needed to be represented by the Philippine government. But their own government has repeatedly refused to help them. In 2004, the Malaya Lolas filed a petition with the Philippine Supreme Court, asking that it compel the Philippine government in its lawful duty to support their claim against Japan. Five years later, their petition was unanimously dismissed. Various reasons were given, including the peace pact the Philippines had signed with Japan in 1951, decades before any comfort woman had come out with her story. Also, the Japanese government had already compensated other comfort women through private donations from Japanese corporations and individualsthis, according to the Philippine government, should have been enough; for many of the women, anything less than an official state-sanctioned apology and compensation felt evasive, and they refused to accept the money. The Supreme Court decision acknowledged the suffering of the Malaya Lolas, and lamented that, “in apparent contravention of fundamental principles of law, the petitioners appear to be without a remedy to challenge those that have offended them.” In other words, theirs was an injustice that was also a lost cause. Most of them have died without receiving any formal reparations; of the original ninety, only twenty-eight survive.

They attempted to transform the Red House into a museum. Instead, it’s up for sale. A bronze statue of a Filipina comfort woman was put up along Manila Bay in 2017, and almost immediately taken down. Drainage improvements, the reason given; pressure from the Japanese government, the reason suspected.

Ang nagdadala:
The burden bearer

Climate refugees forced into prostitution. A city ravaged by decades of civil war. The pregnant girls of the country’s biggest fish port. The subjects of Hannah’s photographs are people who are constantly asked to tell their story, over and over—for the record, for the camera.

There has been some debate over whether the Malaya Lolas can even call themselves comfort women. Other groups of comfort women spoke of ordeals that lasted months, even years; the Malaya Lolas hadn’t been held for nearly as long. The official line was that mass rape is not the same as sexual slavery.

They saved newspaper clippings. “Mass rape in Mapanique [sic],” reads one alliterative headline, April 1997. “The Rape of 100,000 Women,” another newspaper dramatizes, inaccurately. “PAMPANGA VILLAGE ‘SEX PARADISE’ DURING WWII.” One caption describes Lola Lita and her friends as “sex toys.” “That’s the one that really hurt me,” says Hannah. “I don’t like the way that we either further victimize survivors, or glorify them almost in a caricature way.”

She wanted something more collaborative, so instead of questioning them about what happened, she asked the grandmothers to draw. Plants fill up almost every page, painstakingly colored and labeled. Varying expressions of the fields of rice that surround the village. “All of them have gardens,” explains Hannah. “It’s the only thing they want to talk about.”

What sets Hannah apart from other photographers who document survivors is how, almost by feel, she pinpoints a tenderness that doesn’t undermine resilience, but rather supports it. Her work traces the gossamer web of care spun by her subjects and their loved ones—moments that are safe enough for the softer aspects of survival: rest, play, even joy. And though their effect is deeply emotional, Hannah herself describes her photographs as “simple.” “People respond to the questions you bring to a photograph,” she says, and the question she asks her subjects is simple: How do you see yourself? 

Hannah asked herself this same question again and again after she was sexually assaulted in her family home in Manila, in the bed she shared with her mother.

Ang pagdadala:
The manner by which the burden bearer carries the burden

Trauma has a way of moving everything around a person. “It alters the course of a life, forces you to make sense of it in new ways,” Hannah says. She couldn’t see herself in any of the survivor narratives she came across. “I didn’t want to be viewed that way. I didn’t want to be photographed that way. That’s not me.”

For the grandmothers, trauma is refracted through the manner by which each of the women carry their burdens. Some are like Lola Lita, eager to tell her story, wary of forgetting. Some are more reticent. Some would rather talk about how their friends are doing.

“The story was tinged with far more horror in my head,” Hannah says of her expectations before traveling to Mapaniqui to meet the lolas. Sitting with these photographs, my gaze lingers where hers must have—the brown of their skin, the silver in their hair, the mismatched patterns of their clothes: details given depth by the afternoon light. “I didn’t know the place would be so beautiful.” 

“How many times did it happen?” I’d never asked her before, but I do now, for the record.

“Just once,” she says quickly. But it didn’t happen to only me in that house.” As she gestures, she accidentally knocks over a glass of water, barely missing her laptop.

She pauses, offers something else—another way, another sense. “I’ve been thinking a lot about photography as a way of listening; listening with everything.” Engaging not just with what people say, but where they come from. Perhaps the photographer’s task is simply to be present, so that the photograph can happen.

When she listens to the lolas talk about their gardens, their love stories, all the funny things that happened to them while they were rallying in Japan, about the grandmother who went missing—“My dress got wet, looking for her,” Lola Marta complained—Hannah hears the intent that has kept these women moving forward, together, all these years. An activist today might call it allyship. To give support in Tagalog is pagaalalay. “The helper moves with the burden bearer,” Decenteceo writes, supporting her on the journey to her destination.Pagdadala is an assurance, explaining not so much how one might reach one’s destination, but how one might keep going.

Lola Virginia, her back to the camera, assisted in the shower. “You took a photo like this of yourself when you were in lockdown in the States,” I tell Hannah. In that picture, she looks away, neck bare, her sloped back to the camera, as if weighed down.

Ang patutunguhan:
The destination of the burden bearer

It’s easy to see that the Red House was a fine house once, the kind that would be called a “heritage house” today, its official story embossed on bronze. The kind Japanese soldiers typically seized to use as garrisons. After the war, Lola Lita and her sister, Emilia, were hired as its caretakers.

“Like [the Malaya Lolas], I had to live in the house where it happened to me,” Hannah says. “I wanted to understand why they stayed.”

More than that, she wanted to understand how their home, how the land itself, held their trauma. She describes trauma as having “so many rings” (I’m reminded of a tree trunk, marking time in concentric circles). “It didn’t just happen to them as individuals. It also happened to their town. To their family. To their next of kin.”

The narratives about the Malaya Lolas focus mostly on what happened in that Red House. But in their own retelling, the lolas tend to talk about what they lost, fathers and brothers. “They burned everything. We didn’t even have clothes left to wear,” Lola Natalya recalled. “We saved all of the bones and put them in a bucket. I couldn’t tell which bones were those of my father.” In Mapaniqui’s elementary school, a grave marker bears their names, the ink nearly faded.

Hannah left home the first chance she could. She doesn’t talk about it much. Her stories sneak out through asides in telling other people’s stories, like how she slept in a dentist chair for months. I had to make her repeat it to make sure I’d heard right: There was a clinic attached to her home, and at a certain point she refused to sleep in her own bed any longer. 

And yet home is never as far away as she likes to imagine. Her own ancestral home in Bulacan, just a couple of hours from Manila, had also been used as a garrison during the war—she learned this in middle school, upon interviewing her grandmother for an assignment. Her own lola was haunted by what she and too many others had witnessed: babies speared by bayonets; burning fields; a live grenade tossed in through a window. That last one always got my Lolo Billy shouting in his sleep.

In the years since, Hannah has often returned to what her grandmother said—or rather, all the things her grandmother didn’t tell her. The gaps in those stories provoked questions that, as a photographer, she could pursue. “But I couldn’t go back and ask her what had really happened. Because by then she had lost her memory and her ability to speak.” So she began researching stories from her grandmother’s time, and came across the Malaya Lolas.

As she mapped out the stories of comfort women, she soon realized that many of them weren’t far from her family’s hometown. She shows me a news story about a priest performing an exorcism on a former “brothel.” I start to remark on the inappropriateness of this word, then see a name I know: San Ildefonso, the town my father grew up in, where he taught me the names of all his favorite fruits, and how to catch dragonflies by their tails. The same town as the Red House.

Ang pagdadaanan:
The path of the burden bearer

The first time Hannah talked about what happened to her was with her classmates, during a spiritual retreat organized by their all-girls Catholic school. She was about the same age as the Malaya Lolas had been, not quite a teenager. After she spoke, some of her classmates came to her with their own stories. “That’s when I felt some healing, because it wasn’t just me. It was something that really happened.” Speaking up in a group setting must have restored to her a sense of agency as well.

The so-called developed world has its formats for healing: therapy, AA meetings, the Meetup app. Here, in the developing Philippines, family and friends prevail—or don’t, if you have no one. In the absence of functioning systems, relationships are our only refuge. “The different aspects of Pagdadala are defined and given meaning by the community of the burden bearer,” writes Decenteceo. “The solitary explorer is idealized in other cultures. In contrast, the solitary burden bearer is not meaningful in a Philippine context.”

For Hannah, friendship has been her revelation. Despite the supposedly global #MeToo movement, a systemic reckoning with the sexual violence regularly experienced by women and children in the Philippines has yet to happen. “I wasn’t able to receive the justice I deserved. But I needed to see that other patterns were possible, that there’s no singular way. There are,” she insists, “so many paths to healing and surviving.” 

The Malaya Lolas still haven’t gotten their apology. “But they did find their own way of living with the trauma. They had each other, and the land. They didn’t go through it alone.” 

“In a lot of ways, their healing is their gift to us, also. It’s the work they’re doing, and it might not be done perfectly, but it’s also our inheritance. They did the harder work.  We didn’t live through the war. The least we can do is honor that.”

“And what about your mother?” I ask. She raised Hannah without support from her biological father; her own family, struggling themselves, helped however they could. “What burdens does she still carry for you?”

“Is that a ladybug?” Hannah asks. 

It takes some time before I see it, crawling on the wall. “No spots, though,” I answer, unsure what to say. It disappears under a framed photograph.

There are subtle shades to how women take up space; an attunement to this some like to call grace. For many women, grace is born from the experience of making safe spaces, however fleeting, or informal, in the face of ordinary and extraordinary danger. Still others celebrate this as resilience: a secret, silent history of the world. 

Whatever we call it, the burden is gendered. Perhaps this is why the emotions that arise in response—melancholy, hysteria, bitterness—are also accused of being such. Hannah can’t help but see the burdens that the Malaya Lolas carry for our generation: “For me, if I help tell their story, I’m carrying the burden with them. And that helps them heal, somehow,” she says. She hopes. Her own safe spaces are scattered all around the world, now cut off from her because of the pandemic.

“Burdens are temporarily set down in the telling of one’s story,” writes Decenteceo. What is therapy after all but a form of translation?

It’s getting late. Hannah invites me to sleep over, so that I don’t need to find a rideshare at this hour. I leave the audio recorder on, and it fills up with the sounds of the room: a work call (hers); a conversation about Dune between Hannah, her husband, Jon, and me; but mostly the sounds of nothing at all. In the stillness I think of my own sister: I can almost hear her pencil against her sketch pad as I tap away at my laptop. Sister energy, I call it, when trying to describe this to people. Hannah and I eat tres leches, salty sweet, and save the rest for breakfast. 

As for Lola Lita, she drinks a bottle of Pale Pilsen every night to fall asleep.

Ang pinagdadaanan:
The experiences of the burden bearer
on the way to the destination

Hannah recounts how one day, while Lola Lita was out for a walk, some children approached her and asked if she was one of the Malaya Lolas. They had learned about them on YouTube (they’d never been taught about them at school). They asked if they could interview Lola Lita. She obliged; sang them the song.

Idad kong katorse ay parang nilason
(My fourteen years were poisoned) / …

Ang murang katawan ay namimilipit
(Our delicate bodies hardened)

One child turned out to be a descendant of one of the lolas. Standing next to them, in their school clothes and backpacks, Lola Lita looks like a child herself. 

These days, the Malaya Lolas are becoming delicate again: losing their memory, their ability to speak. Hannah made these photographs before the pandemic; but now they can no longer visit one another like they used to. A volunteer from the Malaya Lolas organization has children from around the world write letters to lift the lolas’ spirits. The lolas wrote a letter of their own to President Rodrigo Duterte, who has boasted of assaulting women, asking him for money to buy medicines.

Malaya. Unlike in English, there is no monetary aspect to the Tagalog word for “free.” But my father says Malaya Lola doesn’t actually mean anything. It was probably directly translated from English, which gives the suggestion that the name wasn’t even the grandmothers’ idea. In Tagalog, more words are needed to tell the story of what the word for “grandmother” has to do with the word “freedom.”

Decenteceo created the Pagdadala Model especially for patients who did not speak English; he wanted something that Filipino counselors and clients would find “natural, simple, and easy to understand.” His larger project is the indigenization of psychology: to cultivate concepts that move with his patients (even if they “crawl on hands and knees”). He writes that the model helped him “become more sensitive to what [his] clients were saying.” In other words, he needed new words to teach him how to listen.

There are Filipinos around the world, at least a tenth of us, carrying things for other people. Plates of food, small children, and the passing of other people’s aged parents. A socioeconomic model as much as a psychological one. Like the unseen winds of a typhoon, the burden bearers are known by their burdens; named for them. Ang pagdadala: The sense of their bodies, striving to get from here to there, shape the words they use to describe their experiences.

Perhaps psychology is too specialized a word for what we need here: a better story to tell ourselves, about ourselves. “The way that this story was reported on before was as if it had nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with us,” Hannah says, her voice firm now. 

From the last deadly throes of World War II, to the sex tourism surrounding US military bases, to the rape jokes made by Filipino male politicians in Duterte’s government: When there’s a man in the room, brown women have been sexualized, sometimes found dead. Fabel Pineda, fifteen years old. Angel Rivas, twelve years old. Bree Jonson, just turned thirty. Three Filipinas whose deaths made it to the news in the past year and a half. 

Before the pandemic, the girly bars downstairs would have been blasting EDM at this hour—maybe the odd Filipino R&B track, but mostly just the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling” on loop. We’d end up at our favorite ones on the best of nights, places where Hannah and Jon knew every girl’s name, and the head waitress would let us play our own music. Tonight, barely any sounds come in through the apartment’s open windows. The neon lights are on but the streets are empty. 

“We can’t think about any of these issues that we’re dealing with now without looking at our history,” Hannah says finally, taking a drag from her cigarette, exhaling out over the city, our city. “These Filipino women are part of our history. And we don’t have to accept the history that’s been given to us about them. Those were just first drafts. I have my own perspective. I have something to say.”

A photo: Lola Marta on her bed, a mosquito net separating her from her husband, Lolo Apolinario. She leans toward him, their foreheads not quite touching. Unlike many other husbands, ashamed of their wives’ past, Lolo Apolinario supported Lola Marta in speaking up about what happened to her. “It’s not a bad thing,” he told her, “to seek justice.”

Many of the Malaya Lolas married, and had many grandchildren. Initially, Lola Marta didn’t want to marry after what happened. “If I had it my way, I would have grown old alone,” she told Hannah. But Apolinario, who grew up in the same barrio as she did, courted her for a long time, refusing to give up. “I could hardly get any sleep because I’d remember what happened to me. He’d tell me, ‘It happened. Don’t pay it mind. You didn’t choose it. As long as we’re together, as long as we love each other, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s done.’ He made my sadness go away. So we got together and had ten children.” 

Hannah was there under the net with Lola Marta. The light shifted—a new angle—and the net suddenly glowed, threads lit up like a spider web beaded with dew. The photograph (my favorite) gives the impression of a halo, an atmosphere, a painting, Turneresque, of the light itself.

Let’s try that translation again: The Free Grandmother would be Ang Lolang Malaya or Ang Malayang Lola—the freedom known by a grandmother; a grandmother known for being free. Freedom Grandmother would be Ang Lola para sa Kalayaan. Kalayaan is our word for freedom. When you say Malaya, you mean that she is already free.


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