Interview With Emma Sisles

Emma Sisles shared her experiences of migration from Negros to Mindanao and within Mindanao, her experiences with the government’s resettlement program, her marriage, and the use of occult practices to keep oneself safe amidst conflict.

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Emma discusses her early life and the hardship she had to endure from an early age. She does not remember anything about her place of birth, Negros Oriental, and begins her recollections from her years in elementary school, in Leyte. Her parents worked as fish vendors. She notes that they had no electrical appliances. As a student, Emma would have to go to the fields to process grains, prepare her own meals, and collect water before walking to school on her own.

    The family moved to Wao in Mindanao in 1963 looking for better opportunities, under a government resettlement program, and entered agriculture as contract farmers, although they were unfamiliar with farming. This allowed them to send their children to school. However, their fortunes did not improve as they would have to loan the seeds from the corporation on credit and repay it in cash, such that they had to continue their trade in fish alongside the agriculture. Still, they could only afford meals of water and salt.

    In 1966, Emma got married, and they moved to Cagayan de Oro the following year. While her husband had been kind and friendly towards her in the past, he changed and ill-treated her. Emma worked with her husband carrying fish from the ports to the market, but later stopped to focus on childrearing. She notes that the owners of the fishing boats were rich, while the manual labourers like herself were not. Due to her husband’s poor financial discipline, she had to return to work as a tailor to provide for her family.

    She also highlights the clash between the Muslim and Christian communities in the 1960s in Mindanao. Originally claimed by the Muslim community, the land was cleared by the government, and Christians were allowed to resettle there. However, the two communities remained clearly divided, with the Christians living in the plains, and the Muslims in the mountainside. The military was also deployed there to pacify the region. Emma and her children had to keep moving back and forth between Wao and Puerto to avoid the conflict. Conflict resurfaced in Wao in 1973 when a new Christian mayor was elected, replacing the Muslim incumbent. Emma suggests that the Muslims retaliated, and that ILAGA was emboldened by the protection granted by the new mayor and mounted counterattacks. 

    She also discusses her spirituality, as she joined the Blue Army religious group, which her husband was opposed to. He also followed occult practices to keep himself safe from harm during the conflict, which Emma considered dark and against her faith; and prayed for his conversion. In retrospect, she considers her difficult relationship with her husband as the greatest hardship she has had to endure, up to his death in 2013

Interview 1

Interviewee: Emma Sisles, born in 1947

Interviewer: Kisho Tsuchiya                    Interpreter: Marjorie Lucagbo Tsuchiya

Transcriber: Dominique J. Lucagbo

Date: August 8, 2019

Location: Puerto, Misamis Oriental

Language: Bisaya and English


I was born in Negros Oriental in 1947. But our family moved to Cebu when I was 3 years old, so I do not remember anything about my birth place. Then again, we moved to Leyte when I was at grade 2. So, I finished my elementary school, and spent my childhood mostly in Leyte. 

My parents were fish vendors: They walked around and sold fish in streets. 

But, what I remember about my childhood is hardship. My father was a good person in his heart, though being a drunkard and caused a lot of troubles to the family. He accepted people into our house if they had nowhere to stay. But, the problem was that he was also jealous. If that lodger (or sponger) was a man, he accused and scolded his wife, accusing that she was having affairs. 

That time we were poor, and did not have many properties: No TV, no radio. Everyday, I had to wake up around 4 am, go to the field to process grains, cook and pack lunch, collect water, and then have to walk back and forth to the school which was 3 kilo meters away. It was really busy and tough. 

We moved to Wao (Lanao, Mindanao) in 1963 and started farming. As our lives in Leyte was very hard and poor and the government was promoting the resettlement program in Mindanao, we felt here could be better opportunities. Thanks to parents’ new work, we were able to go to school. But anyway, I stopped school at the first year in high school for financial issues. Our meals were water and salt. 

Several things made farming in Wao difficult. To begin with, both my family and my future husband were originally fish vendors and were not familiar to agriculture. Moreover, we had to “utang (debt, to loan, to credit)“ the seedlings from the “commercial” beforehand. After the harvest, we had to pay it back in cash. Not much remained after paying utang. That’s why we often worked both in Puerto as fish vendors and as farmers in Wao in different seasons, just to survive. 

That time (in the 60s), Wao was in a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Before our settlement, the government cleared the land, which was previously claimed by Muslims. Then, through official resettlement programs, migrants from the Visayas like ourselves moved to Wao to do agriculture. When we moved in, Christians from various parts of the Philippines (Ilongos, Ilocanos, Cebuanos, Batangueños, etc.) lived in the plain while the Muslims lived in the mountain side. The two groups lived separately, never communicated one another except for our encounters in the market. But, sometimes Muslims came to the plain to make troubles. 

The national army’s rangers also came in to operate there. They were the bravest ones to fight against the Muslims, and after a while it became peaceful. 

Also I married to Antonio in Wao in 1966. Antonio was from Puerto, Cagayan de Oro, and his parents were fish vendors. Before he courted me, he visited my house many times, and was very kind to my father. Antonio and my father became close friends. Later on, they made a small group, organizing “bayli (dancing events)” once a week. There, Antonio and I made friends to each other.

My marriage life was very bitter: My husband did not work unless someone invited him to work. His attitude changed, and he became like a “warrior”. He tormented me a lot.

I gave birth to our eldest son in Wao. Women were expected to take care of children and to be responsible for the house. So these children went back and forth between the mountain side (i.e. Wao) and the seaside (i.e. Puerto) with me due to war, economic situations, etc. It was very tiresome. 

Then we moved to Puerto, Cagayan de Oro around 1966 or 67. That time fish boats visited the seaside and brought fish to the town’s market for sale. When my husband and his family were working as a “fish laborers” there, I used to carry fish with a cart from the port to the market. Usually the owners of fish boats were rich, but the fish vendors and carriers were poor.  Later fish carriers disappeared because the method was changed after a while: Fish tracks then directly bring fish from port to the market (so there was no demand for “fish carriers” anymore).  

I gave birth to our second child in Puerto. During that time, my husband  borrowed 50 pesos from Monica (the second interviewee), and lost it in a gamble. Then, he went to Wao again without telling me. We rented a place in Puerto at the rate of 4 pesos a month at the time, and I had to find a way for living. I joined my sister who was a fish vendor. 

After some time, I became a tailor. My mom was a tailor too, and I studied it one month in Wao. People of Wao were strict about the quality of tailor work: They often requested tailors to buy a new one or to re-do it. My skill wasn’t good enough. So, it was only after I moved to Puerto (where people are less strict) that I made sewing as my work.

Despite such hardship with my marriage, I did not separate with Antonio. I abode with God’s word that once a couple is united it is only Him who can separate the two. Also because of hardships, I joined the Blue Army, the religious group of Our Lady of Fatima. That time our procession (or parade on every first Saturday of the month), started in 3 to 6 a.m., which my husband did not like.

Sometimes I laid over my hands to my husband, and prayed Rosary for his conversion. Beside already mentioned issues, my husband had occult practices of “anting-anting”. Usually they conducted “orations” beforehand, and ate broken glasses or chopped his body parts (with a knife) without being affected by them. 

He started such practices during the war time in Wao, probably in 1974, believing that “anting-anting” could protect him from dangers. Myself have seen the effect by my own eyes, but I knew it was evil. Since 1973, Wao was in war again, after the emergence of the Ilaga group. That time the mayor (of Lanao del Sur) was a Muslim, but after several elections they were replaced by a Christian one. (In her view) thus the war broke out again from the Muslim side. They ambushed when Christians came home late at night. The Ilaga group fought back, and the group was under the protection of the Christian mayor. That is why Christians were armed and started practices like anting-anting to defend themselves. After the conflict we evacuated to Negros. 

In the past few decades, I’ve lived mostly in Puerto. Looking back my life, it was full of hardships; poverty, conflicts, migrating here and there, and above all, the relationship with my husband. Antonio, my husband died in 2013. (She laughed.) Actually I feel much better since then! 

Interviewer: Kisho Tsuchiya

Interviewee: Emma Sisles

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Transcript Notes


  1. Did the Philippines experience a singular Cold War, or multiple Cold Wars, given Emma’s testimony of the situation in Mindanao?

  2. Consider, through Emma’s story, how gender and socioeconomic status shaped the Filipino civilian populace’s experiences of the Cold War.

  3. How did religion and spirituality shape the common citizens’ responses to the Cold War in Mindanao, and the Philippines more broadly?