Upside: ‘Sheroes’ preserve legacy of Gabriela, Katipuneras

(First of 2 Parts)

LONG before the women’s movement dawned on the west and the United Nations recognized International Women’s Day (IWD), a woman named Maria Josefa Gabriela Cariño de Silang had already defined woman power.  In the Philippines. In 1763.

Historians say she was 32 years old when she commanded rebel forces to free their beloved Ilocos from its Spanish overlords after the assassination of her second husband Diego Silang, leader of the Ilocanos’ fight for independence.  She was later captured and executed, and to this day inspires Filipinas to stand up to injustice.

About a century later the Filipina brand of courage and love of country came to fore anew in Gregoria de Jesus, Agueda Kahabagan, Teresa Magbanua, Melchora Aquino, Trinidad Tecson and the many unsung Filipinas who contributed in various ways to the Philippine Revolution against Spain. 

De Jesus founded the women’s chapter of the Katipunan, led by its “Supremo,” her first husband Andres Bonifacio.  The revolutionary organization kindled the bravery of Kahabagan, a general in Laguna, and Magbanua in the Visayas, and Aquino, who tended to injured revolutionaries in Manila even at later age.  Tecson went on to establish the Philippine Red Cross.

Philippine history’s renowned female fighters would be replicated by their fellow Filipinas in the United States.  “Shero” first appeared in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in 2008 though it is said to have been used before the turn of the last century.  FilAm “sheroes” assert the valor of their ancestors by nurturing, protecting and empowering their communities amid societal challenges.


Her married name rings a bell in legal and political circles everywhere, but the former Cynthia Arnaldo is her own woman, who set out to do good by earning a master’s degree in religious education and coming to America to confront oppression.

“Ate Cyn,” as Cynthia Bonta is called by intimates and mentees, currently sits on the board of the Central Valley Empowerment Alliance (CVEA), described by executive director Mari Perez-Ruiz as a “multi-ethnic…grassroots” community development nonprofit to “empower through transformative change” in the state’s deep rural communities and urban centers of Fresno, Madera, Visalia and Bakersfield.

Three years ago, CVEA opened the doors of the Larry Itliong Resource Center in Poplar, Tulare County, to celebrate the birthday of FilAm labor organizer and California Hall of Fame inductee Larry Itliong and honor the stakeholders of the farm worker movement that unionized the community.

In the middle of that movement and the five-year farm worker’s strike was Cynthia Bonta and then-husband fellow missionary Warren Bonta. 

Cynthia Bonta attributes the victory of the movement to inclusion and collaboration, with indigenous and Yemeni workers locking arms with Filipino and Mexican workers.

Her activism begins at home where she raised her children the best way she knows how: “to be a contributing member of society by being a protector, a teacher, an enabler, a guide, an example,” she says.  Her children Lisa Ligaya Bonta Sumii, a psychotherapist; Jonathan, a diversity and environment expert, and Rob, California’s Attorney General, prove the efficacy of her lessons. 

These days Bonta’s grandchildren are the beneficiaries of her guidance.  Her granddaughter Reina, eldest of Rob’s three children, produced and directed “LAHI,” a short film dedicated to Cynthia and the impact of the Filipino diaspora on its multigenerational relationships.  Reina’s middle name is Gabriela, in honor of the fearless widow of Ilocos warrior Diego Silang.  The AG’s second name Andres honors the Katipunan “Supremo” Andres Bonifacio.

Bonta left the Philippines but kept the land of her birth in her heart by organizing the Philippine Independence Day and Filipino American History Month festivities in Alameda, California. 

Recently Cynthia Bonta called together current and former elected officials to press on with the progressive agenda.  Her appeal resonates this election year:

“All of us are threatened to lose our freedoms and our rights as human beings as authoritarianism, fascism rises up in the world,” she warned.  “Women are being targeted and I dare say is a threat to patriarchy because our latent power when released is as a swollen river that breaks the dam of sexism and objectification. We are showing our power in movements internationally!”

She aired regret that women are “still relegated to staying home” at domestic chores” as she does “not sense a breakthrough in the power systems run by men to treat women equally.”  Yet she expressed hope in the “women’s movement gaining more and more political power to bring about transformative change in our society to live together in mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation.” – Adapted from original reprinted with permission from INQUIRER.NETUSA

(To be Continued)