Leonila discusses her early life, how her education was disrupted by her mother’s enforcement of traditional gender norms, and how she later built her own career and family, making different choices for her children.
Born the oldest of 10 children in 1938 in Leyte, Philippines, Leonila shares how she grew up with a different name, Teodola; and only recently discovered her true name when she belatedly filed for her identification papers as an adult. She recalls life during the Japanese Occupation, fleeing the Japanese military; and recounts witnessing them torturing the locals, of all ages. This was known as Huwes de Kutsilyo, or “justice by knife”, and she claims that the soldiers even filmed these acts of brutality to send to the victim’s family.
After the war, she pursued primary education. However, although she was a good student, her mother decided that as a daughter and the oldest child, she should remain home and look after her siblings. Her mother also believed that women should remain subservient to their husbands, and not pursue tertiary education. Leonila’s education ended after elementary school due to her mother’s decisions, dashing her dreams of attending university, becoming a writer, and emigrating to America. She was drawn to the United States by popular images of its affluence vis-a-vis the Philippines, and the fact that many Americans married Filipina women after the war. Yet, she notes that these marriages were not very successful.
She then found employment at the Philippine Packing Corporation in Cagayan de Oro City through the recommendation of her cousin, who already worked there. While her mother was again resistant to her pursuing a career, preferring one of the sons to take the job instead, Leonila’s father intervened and allowed her to go to work.
There she met and married one of her colleagues in 1959, and had 5 children with him. As a parent, she committed to treating her sons and daughters equally, unlike how her mother had treated her. Her husband was a highly supportive spouse, and allowed her to stop working to look after their children, while he traveled to other parts of the Philippines to work. During these times when he was posted to Davao and Manila, she could not contact him by phone or afford to send letters, relying on a bus driver friend to pass messages instead.
Ultimately, they were able to ensure that all their children graduated university, and managed to save enough funds to buy small properties for their children to inherit when they started their own families, which some have. While her loss of an opportunity to pursue her education further remains an enduring regret for Leonila, she was able to ensure her children did not suffer the same fate with the help of her husband.
Interviewee: Leonila, born 1938
Interviewer: Kisho Tsuchiya Interpreter: Marjorie Tsuchiya
Writer: Dominique Jonietz O. Lucagbo
Date: August 15,2019
My name is Teodola but only recently discovered that my real name is Leonila. I was born on February 17, 1938 in Southern Leyte, during that time when the Japanese colonized the Philippines. And documents such as birth certificate were something difficult to get and newborn babies were usually registered late. So I had to file a late registration for my birth certificate and discovered that my name is Leonila and not Teodola. During the war, I was able to witness how the Japanese tortured the Filipinos. They call it Huwes de Kutsilyo, meaning justice by knife. The Japanese would use a knife to torture and kill the Filipinos; and they didn’t choose who to kill, even pregnant women and children of age 10, 9, 8 and even lower were not exempted. Some were even documented by video being skinned alive by the Japanese, who would even send the video to the family. We would hide under our house where we built underground tunnels just to save our lives. I was still a child back then and it forced me to grow up at a very young age. I consider Huwes de Kutsilyo as the most violent moments of war.
After the war, I entered primary school and my education ended right there because my parents especially my mother believed that a woman should always be in the house doing the house chores. She believed that women are to serve their husband, and so they won’t need to have a degree and continue going to school. I fought a lot with my parents about this and would even talk back to them.
Later I realized that, whatever your reason is, talking back to one’s parents is very disrespectful in whatever perspective you might see. I regret it now being a mother of my own children where even they would sometimes disrespect me just like how I was with my mother. Now I always pray to God for forgiveness regarding my previous rebelliousness.
I have 10 siblings 5 boys and 5 girls and I was the eldest. Being the eldest I was the least priority in many things especially in education. My parents owned a land property and planted coconuts. They were earning money just enough to let us all go to school but chose not to. I felt it’s unfortunate because my performance was excellent in the school. I was very angry to my parents at the time because I wanted to continue studying. I believed that boys and girls should be treated equally in education and inheritance. [Leonila was crying a lot while talking about her parents and education.]
My pleas were just thrown out of the window and my mother was not having it, and so I stayed at home but one day my cousin visited us in Leyte. She was from Cagayan de Oro City and worked as a forelady in Philippine Packing Corporation. At the time, PPC was hiring a lot of female workers without checking CVs. She wanted to recommend one of us to work there, and my mother suggested my younger brother. I protested. I even cried that time telling them my sentiments as to why they won’t let me be someone I want to be and why they won’t let me decide for my own. I really wanted to finish my education and to be a writer but because they have this close-minded mentality that a woman should serve her husband I was to suffer being an uneducated person. There were times I would feel dumb when someone is talking to me in English and I would understand nothing about what they were saying. There were a lot of what ifs, what if I was able to finish my education. I felt pitiful and I hated it. I envy some of my classmates from my old school where some of them were already working or studying abroad.
Going abroad, especially to the United States, was one of my dreams back then. I used to imagine that other countries have nice sceneries. And, the United States was especially popular among the Filipinos that time. In Leyte, some of our neighbors married Americans after the war. They suddenly became rich, and I thought that other countries were more abundant. But, I thought their marriage lives were not good because the Filipinas who married Americans often had affairs with Filipino men.
Also, my children had a lot of Japanese suitors who were sailors. We came to know them through our informal business of trading [she called it “smuggling”].
Fortunately though, my father let me go with my cousin in Cagayan de Oro despite my mother’s protests that I should just stay home and take care of my siblings, but I was stubborn and continued my way.
While working in Philippine Packing Corporation, I met my husband Eupemio or he was sometimes called in his nickname “Popong”. We were neighbours in Leyte and we were close friends, close enough that we ended up being together. He knows all my struggles and he felt pity for me and asked me to marry him. I was desperate that time to have my own life and so I agreed at his proposal and by 1959 we married in the church of Jesus Nazareno Parish. He really wanted me to have a happy wedding that’s why he chose to marry me in a church and even went to Leyte to asked permission to my parents. I was 21 years old that time and only my father was able to attend my wedding because my mother still needed to take care of my siblings in Leyte. My husband’s parents were already dead and so our guests were just our close relatives in Puerto and my father from Leyte.
I never regretted marrying Popong, we had 5 children where 3 are boys and the other 2 are girls. We tried to fulfill our promise that they would never experience our struggles in life. While both of us were working in Philippine Packing Corporation, we would save our money to buy small land properties for about 200 to 300 squares per meter for my children to inherit soon as they build their own families. When I got pregnant with our eldest, he let me stop working so I could take care of my health and also our baby. He was a very thoughtful and responsible husband. He applied to a lot of work and there are also companies that wanted him because he was responsible and trustworthy. After work, he would go home and still take care of me and the children even though he was already tired. He wanted me to have enough sleep and wouldn’t let me wake up in the middle of the night when the children cried and when he would give them milk. He was also able to work in Davao and Manila, communication was difficult because there were still no phones and sending letters were expensive. For him to send his message to us he had a friend who is a bus driver and would just relay the message to him and the driver would deliver it to us. He would go 3 or 4 times a month to visit us.
Because of my husband’s perseverance, we were able to send all our children to college and they all finished with a degree. Two of them are seafarers and the rest are now successfully married. They inherited the land properties we bought and built for their own houses. I was happy that after all I experienced, because of my husband, I was able to fulfil a promise to myself.
Interviewer: Kisho Tsuchiya
What can Leonila’s testimony tell us about the continuing interactions between the US and the Philippines society in the postcolonial era?
How were the experiences of women in the colonial and postcolonial Philippines shaped by their social and historical background?
Consider the degree of agency they had in shaping their daily life experiences.