Friday, July 20, 2007

Breathe, Annabel, Breathe

In a few hours, I’ll be flying back ot the U.S. to join my many friends working with 121 Coalition. Since I’ve been gone, Annabel tells me three more Florida Congresspersons have agreed to co-sponsor House Res. 121. She says the up and coming vote has got her and the rest of the coalition so busy there’s barely time to breathe.

Breathe, Annabel, breathe. When it seems there is too much work and the politics get in the way, close your eyes and hear the women’s voices as they give us the gift of their testimonies. The women have walked the path before us, beautiful warriors with so much pain in their bones, in the muscles of their feet, so much pain in the heart. Now they guide us to this right and noble end. We are on the road to justice, to relieving the pain of the past, to reconciliation and forgiveness.

Breathe, Annabel, breathe. The women who speak and name the crimes committed against them, speak for you and me, speak for all our sisters who have been on this earth, who walk with us now and who will be borne to us.

Breathe, Annabel, breathe. It is a gift to know their faces, to fight for justice in their name. It is a blessing to be on this path.

I have been reading the crazy propaganda out there. People write me and try to tell me that the women were paid or sold or volunteered. I let them talk because I know the truth. I have sat with more than forty survivors in my life time. I have heard the stories of at least half of them. I have been to their sites of abduction, to the “comfort stations” that were (and are again) churches and houses and schools for the people of the Philippines. Too many of the women have told me how they have been yanked from the path or dragged along the road. Too many have led my own hands to their scars and I felt the wounds of war. I have seen how the effects of war still wear on them today – sixty years later.

I don’t need to fight the propaganda because the truth is in the testimony of women who should be spending their twilight years among their grandchildren – feeding them, holding them, making kwento to them about the good memories of their lives – not standing in the streets holding banners, not testifying in courts and recounting stories of sexual abuse, not fighting a cancer born of rape or venereal disease at the age of 92.

This is what I do when the politics of this struggle overwhelm me, I go back to the lolas and I hear their voices. I feel their hands on me. I see what has happened to them and I remember with my heart. I breathe as if they are sitting right next to me, being with me.

The truth is too powerful. I have witnessed first hand the plight of surviving “Comfort Women” no politician too busy to meet with the women and hear them speak can convince me of any other truth.

So breathe my dear sister, it is the way of the heart. It is the reason we fight. Not just for these women, but for all women. Not just for the women, but for men too. For humankind, diba? Forget all the other rhetoric, remember why you do this and breathe.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Friends of the LOLAS: An organization of LILA Pilipina Supporters

Here is the text, in part, from a brochure about Friends of the LOLAS, an organization made up of friends and families of the Lolas who wish to participate in the fight for justice. Rechilda Extremadura, executive director of LILA Pilipina has granted me permission to share it with you. Will you join me?

Friends of the LOLAS –
• Sympathizes and supports the struggle of the Lolas for justice.
• Helps educate the public on the “comfort women” issue.
• Launches initiatives for the inclusion of the truth of “comfort women” issues in our history.
• Campaigns against historical repetitions of militarism and wars of aggression.

There is no better future without the clarifying of the past.

Until when should we speak about the past?

Join Friends of the LOLAS
The issue of military sexual slavery during World War II should be seen from the perspective of the women-victims. Justice should be delivered soon – while the Lolas are still alive. Now is the time to take more aggressive action to pressure the Japanese government to make apology and reparations.

It is the task of the present generation to prevent historical repetitions of severe violations of human rights.

WHAT I CAN DO TO HELP (in the Philippines):

A. Organize Forum/Symposium/Educational discussion.
B. Organize study tour on historical markers, “comfort sites” and related areas.
C. Conduct research on documents and related materials on “comfort women” issue.
D. Write letters to editor and articles about the issue.
E. Write to head of local government units, the Congress, the Senate, and the President to encourage actions for the Lolas’ demands.
F. Join in the legislative meetings and public hearings on the issue.
G. Gather signatures on the campaign to record the truth of “comfort women”system in Philippine history textbooks.
H. Join the Lolas in their regular rallies and other protest actions at Japanese Embassy.
I. Attend the integration programs with community visits to the Lolas.
J. Volunteer to spend your free time by doing work for the Lolas House (e.g.translation of documents in Japanese texts, write press releases,provide free medical/counseling services to the Lolas.)
K. Build networks (agencies or individuals) in support for the Lolas’ campaign for redress.
L. Launch income-generating projects such as running, biking or painting and donate proceeds for Lolas’ programs and activities.
M. Support the Lolas’ income-generating projects (i.e. buy gifts made by Lolas.)
N. Organize art workshops such as quilt, card, bag making, etc. with the Lolas.

For more information or to join Friends of the LOLAS: email Rechilda Extremadura at or at

You can also send donations or write to LOLAS’ HOUSE (through August 1, 2007):
49 Matimpiin Street, Central District, Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines 1100. Telefax: (632)-433-5061

LOLAS’ HOUSE (after August 1, 2007)
29B Mapagbigay St., Piñahan, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines 1100.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dancing Queens

As I walk into Lolas’ House, a community center for surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” in Quezon City, each woman grabs my face and kisses me. Each one I talk to worries about me and each one wants to know what is going on with me.

I have been in Manila for two weeks. Each day I’ve taken out my tripod and my video camera and I’ve taped the stories of Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII, lovingly and respectfully called lolas, or grandmothers by people all over the world. My little digital camera click click clicks away at their beautiful faces. I do it so we have a record of their stories, an image of their bright light and the music of their voices. So no one will forget.

What I cannot record, but I wish I could, is what it feels like to know each of them and to love them – and better yet to know what it feels like to be loved by them. This is a blessing that I wish on all of you – to know their characters and their love, to be able to call them Lola and really mean it.

The business at hand is their past and their current struggle for justice, so that history will not repeat itself, but what brings me back to them and what commits me to tell their stories is the love that we share.

Since I’ve returned, so many have debated on the ways I have changed and not changed in five years – some think I’ve lost weight, some say I grown fatter, some think I’m taller, or lighter or darker or younger or older – it is a source of delight for them to consider the changes.

They take my hand and they see one husband written in the lines of my palms – but only if I want him. One lola advises me, “Kahit pangit ang itura niya, pwede na kung mabait siya.” It’s better, in fact, if he’s not handsome, but good to you, loving to you, she tells me.

I know, lolas. You told me that last time. That’s why I sent the other boyfriend away. Guapo pero ang isip niya laging sa sarili niya. Handsome, but only thinking of himself.

This answer satisfies them greatly.

During my last visit on July 14, we have a party. We bring food and they roll out the videoke machine and there’s much laughter and singing and dancing. Before we begin, Richie Extremadura, the Executive Director of LILA Pilipina, reads an email from 121 Coalition leader Annabel Park. There are now 160 co-sponsors for House Res. 121 – 161 including Mike Honda. The Lolas know Mike Honda. They know that passing this bill in the U.S. Congress is one step closer to achieving justice. If House Res. 121 passes, they will have a lot of work ahead of them. We take a moment to be serious, to tape a message to the U.S. Congress, but after that, it’s party party party!

88 year old Lola Ashang boogies. She shakes her hips and waves her arms at me. She knows all the words to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” We dance together and she swings me across the dance floor.

Lola Pilar stands up and says, “I dedicate this song to Evelina Galang.” And she sings an old Tagalog song acapella style, inserting my name into the song. It is a love song, a song of heartbreak at the departure of a beloved one. She breaks into tears and all the lolas are laughing and teasing her but she continues to sing and cry and smile at once. My heart breaks.

Lola Puring holds me as she cries and tells me that even though she’s in great pain, she has come to Lolas’ House because they said I would be leaving for America. “I might die before you return,” she cries. “When will I see you again?”

In the past, I’ve brushed this worry away, but there are only twenty of my forty lolas still breathing. I know it won’t be long until they will all move onto a higher plane.

Lola Dolor tells me that when I'm in America and I feel someone brushing my arm softly, like this, she says, brushing my arm, “Wala na si Dolores.” Dolores is gone.

No, no, I tell her. When I'm in America and I feel someone brushing my arm like this, I say brushing her arm, Dolores is here! This makes her laugh.

There is a moment when we are all dancing and singing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” at the top of our lungs and I realize that I must be present right now and remember what this feels like – to dance among these strong women warriors, to laugh with them, to be counseled by them and to understand what it means to be women who have traveled a long and arduous battle for justice.

They have taught me so many things, my lolas. I think most importantly, they have taught me how to take care of myself, to know how to stand up for myself, and to understand that to give without receiving is to suffer. For so many years, the lolas were silent. They gave so much and they held onto the secrets of their past. When they came forward they began to understand the value of respecting the self. Standing up to the Japanese government has been an act of courage and love – not only for themselves but to all of us.

I am so sorry that Prime Minister Abe could not accept my invitation to visit the Lolas at Lolas’ House. He might have grown to know them, to see each face, to hold a hand and examine the lines there, or to look into the eyes to see the past and the faith which has helped them to transcend their pain. To hear their stories is to witness the evidence. To love them is to know the truth.