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Celia Mariano Pomeroy: The hero who could not come home again

By Ed Maranan ( Updated July 28, 2010 12:00 AM
The struggles of Bill Pomeroy and Cecilia Mariano Pomeroy: They could have been matinee idols in another life.

MANILA, Philippines - The e-mail from her niece was brief, and painful like her husband’s earlier obituary. Celia Mariano Pomeroy, possibly the longest-surviving Filipino political exile in modern times, had passed on into history. Her last days on earth had been spent in a nursing home, instead of the small but comfortable flat she used to share with her husband, and half a world away from the homeland she always wished she could come back to someday. Until about four years ago, the couple Bill Pomeroy and Celia Mariano, both in their 90s — she was a year older — lived in the quiet village of Twickenham south of the River Thames in London. Their ground-floor flat lay at the end of a treelined lane in a quintessentially English suburban neighborhood. The visitor entered a narrow hallway made even more constricted by shelves stocked with books on Philippine history. On the walls hung paintings she had made behind bars as a political prisoner, and paintings later done in London. A stranger would never have guessed that this couple — who used to walk hand in hand along the banks of placid Thames towards sunset, looking as though they were old pensioners living an idyllic, charmed life in some Arcadia or Avalon — had actually spent long years waging a revolution in the fields of Central Luzon in the Philippines, and in the mountain fastness of the nearby Sierra Madre, pursued by government troops bent on crushing a peasant rebellion whose roots could be traced as far back as the first century of Spanish colonialism. Almost two decades ago, I landed a writing job for the Philippine embassy in London. In one of the Filipino community events, I finally met the legendary Pomeroys. They were the guest speakers during the 50th anniversary commemoration of World War II’s end in the Pacific. I was immediately drawn to the venerable couple. I introduced myself as a former UP activist who had been inspired by Bill’s book The Forest. It was the beginning of a long friendship, and for the rest of my stay in London, which was some 14 years, I would visit them from time to time, listening to their epic story — their lifelong romance, their undying love for the Cause. The Pomeroys, childless under the circumstances in which they had lived and struggled, could have been matinee idols in another life, many years ago. Their wedding photo shows a groom and bride who could have passed for a young Tyrone Power and a morena LVN superstar. While Bill exuded the demeanor of a thoughtful, soft-voiced scholar, Celia was always the feisty radical, who minced no words lecturing on imperialism and neo-colonialism, even during casual conversations. This was not surprising. A deep concern for those who had less in life was already stirring in the consciousness of Celia even as a young girl. In intermittent interviews during a span of several years, she recounted to me those early days of growing up in Manila, the first glimmer of social consciousness in her mind, and her eventual participation in the socialist movement. At the age of 10, she would accompany her mother in collecting land rent from their tenants in Panaderos. There, she saw how people lived in the slums — cardboard houses, wooden planks on the footpaths that turned into mud during the rainy season, public toilets only, no running water, no electricity, no home comforts. She could not fathom how the poor could stand their miserable way of life, how they could manage to look cheerful, “as if they were accepting the utter wretchedness of their living conditions.” She would often wonder why “millions of people lived in abject poverty, while a few lived in sumptuous wealth and comfort.” And the empathy she felt for the poor never left her, until she reached university where she met radical thinkers and youth organizers. Celia never dreamt she would someday become a rebel. She narrated to me how she became part of the resistance movement in World War II. When war broke out, she and her family evacuated to their farm in Tanay, Rizal, which was used as a staging base for the resistance forces in the province. She later joined the formidable peasant guerrilla force in Central Luzon, the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon or Hukbalahap, and became editor of the United Front’s bulletin. She recalled living a “hazardous and frugal life among the peasants, whose virtues of simple living and sharing whatever little they had, left a deep and lasting impression.” For her, there was now no turning back from the revolution. Shortly after the war ended, Celia married Bill, an American soldier-historian who had come with Gen. Douglas McArthur’s forces in 1944. Bill, a Marxist since his youth, decided to join Celia in the new peasant guerrilla movement,

particularly the remembered countryside of the Philippines.” a sad but bright-eyed Celia once told this writer. She drew and hand-printed Christmas. she would continue painting. and a self-taught artist’s old paintings of the farm in Tanay. Apart from Bill. For 10 long years. and suffering from severe arthritis which restricted her movement. even though we may never have the chance to go home again. until they were eventually captured by the Philippine Army and given long prison sentences. then wonderingly at her husband. (Her paintings from that period reminded me of the prison paintings my own generation of political detainees made during the martial law years. Celia at the Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong. There. Celia was not even aware — nor could be expected to understand — that Bill had gone ahead of her. While in detention. I realized she was no longer the Celia I knew. peace. turned her gaze to the garden and beyond. her health had begun to deteriorate. “will always remind me of the country that Bill and I will cherish until the end of our lives. birthday and Valentine cards for her husband Bill. as well as scenes in Eastern Europe. I remember the walls studded with photographs of a young couple madly in love. they languished in separate prisons. a pre-war Malabon with mountains visible in the distance. her only other love was art. participating in conferences on poverty. Bill and Celia died months apart in the nursing home where they had lived in separate quarters. Some years ago. while Bill was turning almost completely blind and deaf. who responded with passionate sonnets dedicated to her. The booming voice that always sounded like she was calling people to arms had become softer. and during my final visit with them shortly before returning to Manila. Celia during the last years of her life could still summon reserves of physical strength to attend meetings of the NAW. a rural landscape of lake and field. lecturing on the Philippines. weaker. Celia learned how to paint: she painted the serene. Russia and England. and the vegetable garden in Mandaluyong which she and her fellow women prisoners tended within prison walls. Sometimes. They finally decided to settle down in England so they could be together. restricted views from her prison window. almost distracted. and never spoke a word. I think of that old flat in Twickenham. But Celia could not be given a US visa because of her political beliefs. During her years in exile. Any dream of ever coming back to the homeland was now dashed. Together they spent years in the Sierra Madre of Luzon.” . “These paintings. on condition that he would go home to America and never come back to the Philippines. Last year. racism.) Bill and Celia were eventually amnestied and released from prison. she became an active member of the National Assembly of Women.the post-war Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB). Well into her 80s. She stared blankly at me. But that sweet smile never left her lips. Bill was incarcerated at the National Bilibid Prison. even wistful. education and South Africa. Senile dementia had begun to set in after she turned 90.