There are a handful of influential women recognized in Philippine history with gracious titles such as “Mother of the Philippine Red Cross” and “Mother of the Philippine Revolution.” The stories of these women still remain relatively unknown – as often is the case with Philippine history – but with the opportunity to shine light on any revolutionary woman in history, I decided to feature a more obscure name: Nieves Fernandez.
A former school teacher, Captain Nieves Fernandez is the only known female guerilla leader who fought against the oppressive and violent Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. While Nieves chose to join in the resistance, the unfortunate fate for many Filipina women was forced sexual slavery for the Japanese soldiers under the euphemism “comfort women”. While Nieves Fernandez may seem a violent historical figure to commemorate for Women’s History Month, in the context of Philippine history, her actions were necessary to aid in the liberation of her people.
The only record I found of Nieves Fernandez comes from an article in The Lewiston Daily Sun, a newspaper printed in Lewiston, Maine in November 1944, the contents of which are repetitively rewritten across the internet.
Among the articles highlighting moments of WWII and updates on Nazi Germany is a delayed story that has traveled across the sea: a single interview piece titled “School-Ma’am Led Guerillas on Leyte”. Nieves was 38 in the interview and had spent the previous two-and-a-half years on the outskirts of Tacloban fighting against Japanese occupiers. She reveals the torture that the Japanese brought upon Filipinos on her island: “They had ways of persuading… giving you scalding hot baths and freezing cold baths alternatively, with never a rest, never any food, never any water except the soapy water in the baths”.
Filipino bolo knife.
South of Tacloban, Nieves worked alongside guerillas where she rallied and commanded a small resistance of 110 native men. The weapons they used included three American rifles, bolos (long knives used for clearing vegetation), hand-made grenades, and hand-made shotguns from sections of gas pipe called latongs. Under Nieves’ training and command, the small resistance killed more than 200 Japanese and earned enough attention for the Imperial Army to offer 10,000 pesos for her head. Nieves’ leadership joined an unrest across Leyte that provided protection and aid to civilians and assisted in the overthrow of the Japanese occupation.
As a first generation Filipina American, I knew I needed to feature a revolutionary Filipina for this project. Nieves Fernandez resonates because of her unquestionable braveness, ferocity, and boldness illuminated in the limited information available within a concise article and a single photograph. She contradicts the stereotype of the submissive woman: leading her men into hostile situations and fighting alongside them to take back their land. When one understands the extent of the historical invasion, colonization, and corruption of The Philippines, Nieves’ story is undoubtedly and radically inspiring.
People forget the value in reflecting and learning from the past. The recent knowledge I’ve acquired reading about influential Filipinas in history empowers my sense of identity. It also reaffirms my understanding of the origins and affinities in my artwork – painting, assemblage, dance, and written word – initially created with blind intuition and unexplainable but inspired concepts. Understanding the history and rape of The Philippines strengthens my belief in activism: fighting violence against women, fighting invisibility and the “model minority” myth, as well as fighting to own my own body and the space around me as I refuse to be an exotified ethnicity or stereotyped as submissive. Let us continue to remember and celebrate revolutionary women in history and may they continue to inspire us.