Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lola Lucia Alvarez: An excerpt from "Her Name Means Light"

I watch a tape that was shot two months after we had met Lola Lucia in 1999. She had just come back from the beauty parlor with her haircut and styled, pulled off her face, a face that was clean and smooth and bore wrinkles so fine they were nearly nonexistent. During our stay, they had kept her busy, and she was unable to participate in all the events fully. She’d begin a painting, and then be called to run to the post office. She’d walk into the gates of Lolas’ House and see a drama going on and would be pulled into the middle of it, not really understanding what we were doing. She’d play the part of a soldier or a comfort girl. She’d play the part of a husband or a boyfriend. She’d play each role the same way, hiding behind her toothless grin, giggling.

In the tapes, Lola Lucia talks about the way her body reacted to that month long series of abuse. As she demonstrates the way they tied her arm up in a sling, her hand takes hold of her right shoulder and grips it throughout her testimony. Without thinking about it, her body takes on the past.

I can’t imagine sitting in a room, my body exposed and left dirty for one week, an arm swollen and wrapped tight around my body. I can’t imagine waiting in this timeless space where hours and days are marked by soldiers coming and going, assaulting me with their words, with their cigarettes, with their bodies. What did she see in the reflections of the mirror? When she looked down at her feet? What did it feel like to be caged when you were just a sixteen-year-old girl, learning to be a woman?

When she gets to the part where she’s finally out of the garrison, roaming the seaside in search of a boat to take her to the other side, her body relaxes in the chair. She lets go of her shoulder and begins to use both hands to gesture her story to life. She pulls the edge of her skirt to her face and wipes her brow from perspiration, giggling.

When she describes the people who found her, her face emits a soft glow. She smiles at me and taps the top of my legs. “They took pity on me.” I imagine myself, a mother coming home from the market, falling upon this teenager by the water -- her dirt covered her body, her dress tattered and full of blood. I see her standing there with a smelly old rag holding up her infected arm. I wait for her to speak and all I hear is her breath slowly filling up an unfed belly, releasing in heavy sighs. I look into her eyes and I see they are the color of fear. I imagine that I would want to put my arms around such a girl and hold her, let her cry.

“Sige ang iyak ako.” I cried continuously. “Kasi hindi ko kaya.” I couldn’t take it. “Hindi ko tinatese.” I couldn’t bare it. The pain in her arms and back stayed with her from the minute she fell on the stone and broke her elbow joint in 1944, to her very last moments at San Juan de Dios Hospital in Pasay City in 1999.

I have been flipping through my photos, holding tight to every photo I have of Lola Lucia. Her self-portrait sits next to me even now. Of course it looks nothing like her. It’s an ink drawing, a stick figure. But then, even her soft body and sweet face were deceiving. She was more complicated than that. When I imagine her running up and down the streets of Quezon City, an envelope under one arm, a kerchief wiping her brow, I see that none of us saw her as she really was.

What you see is not what you get. She let the others, the ones with a flare for drama and colors like red and hot pink, chartreuse and cannery yellow, stand in the center and radiate light. Lola Lucia went about her business, glowing softly everywhere she went. Her name means light. While other lolas were apt to do what in the Philippines they call O. A. -- over act -- she was happier going behind the scenes, picking things up, dropping them off, giggling to herself. She looked like she had nothing to say, she was an activist, a doer. Those Japanese soldiers thought they had hauled in a virgin – something sweet, inexperienced, fresh. But she was a wife and a mother. Lucia Alvarez was a grown woman who knew better than to test her captors while they stripped her of her clothing, and raped her over and over again. She knew she had a choice, to stay quiet and live, or to resist and feel the bullet coursing through her body, ending it all right there. She chose to be quiet. She chose to settle things afterwards and in her own way.

At this moment 1628 people signed the petition to support House Res. 121. There are six days until Abe arrives in the United States, six days to get 2000 names. Please sign. Please spread the word. Please write Congress.

Lola Urduja Travels to the Comfort Station (Another excerpt from "Urduja is the Sweet Flesh of Kopra")

When the truck came to the main road, we saw thousands of people from the neighboring towns all lined up and ready to march from Dumagit to New Washington. There were miles and miles of people, Evelina. Old and young and entire families. My mother and cousins were there. I could not stop weeping as we began the long march to New Washington.

The sun was so hot that day and there was no shade for us. We had to walk and walk. And as we did the Japanese taunted us with their guns, hitting us with the back end of the gun, poking us with the bayonet. When the old people grew too weak to walk, they shoved them with their feet; they spat on them. Of course, when you’re old you walk slowly; so then they bayoneted the old. When the children cried too loud and faltered in their step, the soldiers slapped them over the head. Sinipa sila! HMMM! Sometimes they shot gunfire through the crowds to scare everyone to move faster. I thought to myself, this is it. We’re dead. We walked what felt like hours. The hot sun took all the water from our bodies, left our throats parched and our tongues dry.

I have no idea how far we walked, but by five in the afternoon, the long line of people had reached New Washington. I could see all the people in the plaza lined up and waiting. There were many many people there from so many other barrios. Too many to count all of them. The Japanese had gathered all our people like they were collecting coins, pooling us all together like that then counting us and dividing us into groups.

The garrison was inside the compound of a coconut plantation surrounded by barbed wire. The gates we walked through were made of bamboo. From the plaza we could see the main building, the plantation owner’s house. You know, Evelina, that guy gave his house to the Japanese – he was a collaborator, a Makapili! All along the compound, Japanese soldiers stood guard, holding their long bayonets up in the air, ready to attack.

And then they started to divide us. It made me even more scared when they separated all of us. “Old people over here! Men over there! Families here!” And all the women, they put inside – everyone else stayed outside, but they put us in the basement of a kopra warehouse.

They didn’t speak to us – but threw us one by one into one of three rooms. I counted twenty-five women in my room. There were no chairs. No beds. No rugs to sleep on, only the cold floor. We sat there on the floor, our legs drawn to our knees, our faces covered in sweat and dirt and we stared at one another, not talking, not knowing what to do. Since they had gathered people from several barrios, we were not accustomed to the faces before us, and this made me even more nervous.

We could hear screaming from outside our room, and some noises. I leaned on our thin wooden wall and listened. The wall was made of soft cheap wood. If I pressed my finger hard enough I could make an impression. Someone poked a small hole and we could see more women on the other side. Twenty-five of them. We took turns looking into the hole, as if we might recognize someone there, as if seeing them might bring us help. But do you know what it is to look through a hole as big as your finger and only see yourself looking back? It was a cage of wood – without any windows except a small one with bars. If we wanted to look outside, we had to climb on the tops of each others' shoulders, just to get to the light. But when we got to the top of the window, all we saw was more death. In the plaza, they would line civilians up and execute them.

They had no mercy, Evelina. They’d slice the pregnant women’s bellies open and yank the baby from the womb. They’d take their hands and rip the cord from the mother and child. Then they take that baby and they toss him high to the sky and make a game of skewering newborn infants on the tips of their swords. So many babies tossed in the air that way. So many of them caught by on the sharp end of a bayonet. That is how they were.

If you have not signed the petition or written your congressperson PLEASE SIGN!!! We are 400 names shy of 2000. Remind your friends. Show your support and spread the word. This is not how we treat our women. This is unacceptable.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

From a Student at VT

April 17, 2007

If you can, please send this information out to other schools as well. I've heard some rumors of some horrible hate crimes toward the South Korean community in UVA. I just hope that it was nothing more than a rumor.

Blacksburg will heal. The media doesn't exaggerate when they describe the tight-knit community. People are directing their strength and support outward, even to strangers on the sidewalk. And they look after their own families to make sure they are doing well. I've been going through an uncontrollable rollercoaster of emotions since finding out about the death of a friend of mine and I know I'd be much worse off if I didn't have my community to turn to. Everyone is doing the same with their own biological or makeshift families and while we won't be healed anytime soon, but at least for now we can be content with mending.

A Student from VT

Eric Byler is trying to reach Asian American students at VT right now by phone, email and Facebook, to begin a dialogue with them about what they need, how we, Asian American activists, can help them. If you know students at VT, please put them in touch with Eric. ( )

In Solidarity with our Friends at Virginia Tech

Recently, I received an email from Jean Miyake Downey, a contributing editor for the Kyoto Journal. She was talking about the growing number of people speaking out for surviving comfort women, but I feel her words hold true for this most recent atrocity. She writes, "I feel as if there's a volcanic eruption of voices happening." I say I feel as if there's a volcanic eruption of humanity happening. Once again violence has plagued the innocent. Here were the lives just beginning to unfold, heating up and warming up for the long haul, learning who they were and how to live, here were students finally opening up to all the possibilities. And then there was gunfire.

For myself, and my community here at the University of Miami, news of the shootings at Virginia Tech hit a little too close to home. And maybe that is also why the students are fast to react, to want to show their support to their friends at Virginia Tech. There are so many ways that our community wants to bless Virginia Tech -- in the prayers at a memorial mass, in a candle light vigil, in a conversation among students and faculty, in a fund raiser for the families of the victims. We are sending our blessings and our prayers and our good energy to our friends at Virginia Tech. We are sad for their loss and cannot imagine going through their days. But we want them to know that we are here. Supporting. Calling their name, in solidarity.