July 18, 2012

Maita Gomez (1947-2012): Beauty transfigured

“The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant…She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history…” - Ma. Lorena Barros, “Liberated Women II”

I only met Maita Gomez, one of two fabled beauty queens turned revolutionaries (the other one is Nelia Sancho), after she had already surfaced from the underground in the early ‘80s and became one of the leading lights of the resurgent women’s liberation movement in the Philippines. She helped found the nationalist and democratic women’s alliance GABRIELA, the anti-dictatorship women’s alliance WOMB (Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott) and, after the Marcos Dictatorship had been overthrown, the first all-women political party, KAIBA (Kababaihan para sa Inangbayan), under whose banner she ran but lost for a seat in Congress representing the Malate district in Manila.

Still, she and I were only peripherally acquainted with one another.  She was then studying for her masters degree in Development Economics, was involved with several non-government organizations that were politically more liberal than Left and, except for the annual March 8 International Women’s Day rally and some other GABRIELA activities, seemed busy with concerns other than mainstream Leftist projects or activities.

It was only as recent as 2008, when a long-time common friend asked us out to lunch, that Maita and I warmed up to each other.  I had till then no idea that she had been holding some kind of grudge against me because she had been told I was spreading nasty rumors about her.  She casually brought it up and when I denied it as completely false, she immediately took my word for it, setting the matter aside.

Thereupon we plunged into an animated discussion on how to broaden the movement to oust Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from power.  That was the beginning of our friendship and more fruitful cooperation in projects with that objective.

In time, she grew more and more active again in the national democratic movement in varied ways.  She agreed to be a co-convenor of the broad formation, Pagbabago! People’s Movement for Change in 2009, together with such personalities as activist nun Sr. Mary John Mananzan, writer Bibeth Orteza, whistleblower Jun Lozada, UP professor Judy Taguiwalo and myself as BAYAN chairperson.

She was also active in the human rights movement; she agreed to be in the National Council of SELDA (Samahan ng mga Ex-detainee Laban sa Detensyon at para sa Amnestiya), the martial law-era human rights organization that has consistently worked for freedom and general amnesty of all political prisoners. She worked for a time with the progressive think tank, IBON Foundation.

But what really excited her was the founding of the Leftist political party Makabayan that launched the senatorial bids of GABRIELA Women’s Party representative Liza Maza and Bayan Muna congressman Satur Ocampo.  Maita was elected Makabayan Co-Chairperson.  She was in the thick of  brainstorming, tacticizing and working to build up Makabayan organizationally in time for the 2013 elections when she died unexpectedly last July 12 due to a heart attack.

Maita's sudden demise and the consequent revelation of many of the lesser-known details of her extraordinary life, has only further deepened what to many is an enigma.

Why did someone like Maita Gomez - scion to landed clans, toasted as tallest and prettiest in the exclusive circle of debutante-models of high society, with a sharp intellect and an uncommon wilfulness to boot - turn into a revolutionary, a guerrilla fighter of the New People’s Army in her youth, then a champion of women’s liberation, an advocate for the voice of the Left in the electoral arena, and a defender of the national patrimony (against wanton exploitation by mining companies) among many of her specific causes in later years.

On the one hand, those who knew her well would say, it was vintage Maita.  As she had emphatically taught her children, the important thing in life is to choose to do the right thing when the time comes, and to do it the best way you can, quietly and without fanfare.

Mara Llanot, a close friend, wrote:  “At UP (University of the Philippines), the bedrock of student activism, Maita befriended poor students, went to her first demo against the Vietnam War, got her first exposure in the rural areas on a medical mission, where she collected medicines, donations, etc...  From AB Pre-med, she shifted to Philosophy. ‘The movement appealed to all my deepest beliefs. My involvement translated ideals into action.’”

According to Jose Maria Sison, founding chairperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines: “Maita Gomez was inspired and energized by the First Quarter Storm of 1970, the Diliman Commune of 1971and the further mass protest actions until 1972.  She wanted to be a revolutionary.  And she availed of the opportunities in sight for learning about the revolution.”

When martial law was declared, Maita, like so many youth and student activists at the time, decided to go underground, initially in Manila and then Baguio City.  She was arrested, escaped detention and was deployed, upon her request, to the countryside and the NPA, first to the Bicol-Quezon border, and then Central Luzon, where she endured the rigors and hardships of a guerrilla’s life.

Llanot describes matter-of-factly how Maita sundered her relationship with her first husband when he asked her to choose between their marriage and her deeply-felt beliefs and commitments.  And how she turned her back to her father’s entreaties that she abandon her plans to go underground.  It gives us an idea about her decisiveness to indeed translate her ideals into action but not half of the pain that accompanies such decisions.

For Maita was not impervious to emotions.  As Llanot avers, “Maita recalls, teary-eyed, how the people sheltered her in times of danger, how they shared with her what little they had.”

Llanot’s quote from Maita reveals a  profound insight that transcended class prejudices, and could explain why Maita would thereafter consistently take the side of the downtrodden even against her own class : “Decent poor people have incredible courage because they face the same vicissitudes in life we face with nothing, without a bank account, without connections, no electricity, no back-up system. They’re so incredibly brave just to face their day-to-day life. I have come to appreciate their intelligence and their scientific knowledge. They live with nature. They know the laws of nature so intimately. I find this fascinating and admirable. I find that the poor are such generous people. Really, they are the children of God.”

Maita resumed her political activism in the legal arena after she got sick and came down from the hills.  Not immediately but eventually.  She could have gone back to her former carefree and privileged life or quietly earned a living, taking care of her children and safely pursuing her non-political interests that she had neglected while she was a full-time revolutionary. But she chose not to.

"Hindi importante yan, pero bahala sila sa gusto nila," she would tell her children and friends whenever her current passions and lifestyle were juxtaposed to her having once been rich and famous. She especially hated it and was visibly annoyed when even in “movement” affairs she was introduced as a former beauty queen, as if it matters all that much to what she believed in and dedicated herself to doing.

Once she told me, in between puffs of cigarette smoke, that she had come to a point in her life when she decided she would not spend the time, money and effort to try to keep her youthful looks.  She had far more important things to do.

But she was not beyond using - or enduring - her celebrityhood as a means to gain adherents to causes and projects she considered worthwhile.  What was important was the purpose it served; that ultimately, lending her famous name and face would help advance the people’s national and democratic aspirations and women’s emancipation.

Maita, however, had already proven that she had much, much more to contribute other than the public persona urban lore had constructed around her.   Apart from being an assiduous student of political economy, she did research and wrote on the causes she espoused, helped run progressive NGOs and taught young people what she knew as a teacher in the University of the Philippines and De la Salle University.

She also took pride and pleasure in raising her children into the caring, socially aware adults that they have become including two who have followed in her footsteps as activists.

Maita Gomez’s journey in life is indeed the stuff of urban legend.  In the end her story shows us how one can transcend one’s social class and upbringing and go on to live a fulfilling, productive life serving the people as part of a historic, revolutionary mass undertaking.  #

Published in Business World
20-21 July 2012


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