Truth, liberty and Josefa Llanes Escoda
Sept. 20, and the commendable role volunteer responders are playing in the rescue and relief operations in the provinces devastated by Typhoon “Ompong,” bring to mind an inimitable social worker 100 years ago — Josefa Llanes Escoda. This Sept. 20 marks the 120th anniversary of her birth.
Pepa, as Josefa was fondly called, and her husband Antonio were visiting the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Girl Scouts chapters in the US and Europe when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Foreseeing the war eventually extending to Asia, the couple cut short their trip.
Upon their return to the Philippines, Pepa began rallying the 800 National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC) chapters across the country to educate women on how to gather information, conduct orderly evacuations, set up emergency first-aid centers, grow and preserve food in homes, and make bundles for emergency.
Following the fall of Bataan, Pepa and Antonio joined a group of doctors leaving for San Fernando. They came back with lists of names of prisoners, addresses of relatives, notes. Pepa mobilized the NFWC staff to make the connections between prisoners of war (POWs) and their families in Manila. Thus began the work of the women of the Philippines for national defense, connecting families with the POWs, passing food, clothing, money, messages and information useful to the resistance movement.
Pepa and Antonio even opened a coffee shop on the road leading to the prison in Cabanatuan, where hundreds of American soldiers were held, so they could gather information from the conversations of Japanese soldiers taking their break in the shop. After gaining the trust of the Japanese, they were given passes to supply rice and other foodstuff to the prisoners in the camp. Sacks of supplies served as caches for secret messages exchanged between the prisoners and their families.
In January 1944, Pepa and Antonio began to get word that their activities had become the focus of undercover agents working for the Japanese, and that the Kempeitai were on their trail. In June, Antonio left Manila with Gen. Vicente Lim for Samar, from where they were supposed to be conducted by submarine to Australia to join Gen. Douglas MacArthur. However, they were captured in Batangas. They were beheaded in November 1944.
Sensing her own capture imminent, Pepa left this message to someone: “If you survive, tell the people that the women of the Philippines did their part in making the ember sparks of truth and liberty alive till the last moment.”
In August 1944, Japanese soldiers arrested Pepa. She was believed to have been executed in the Chinese cemetery in February 1945.
Pepa was the first-born of the seven children of Gabriel Llanes and Mercedes Madamba of Dingras, Ilocos Norte. She graduated valedictorian in grade school and salutatorian in high school in Dingras Elementary School. She went to Philippine Normal School in Manila where she graduated with honors in 1919. After obtaining her teacher’s certificate, she became a social worker for the Philippine chapter of the American Red Cross.
The Red Cross sent her to Columbia University in New York, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Sociology in 1925. There she met Antonio Escoda, a reporter from the Philippine Press Bureau. They got married in Manila in 1927. They had two children, Bing and Tony.
While Antonio worked as assistant editor at the Manila Bulletin, Pepa busied herself teaching in several institutions, including the University of the Philippines, and working with the Associated Charities and the Red Cross. To accommodate motherhood into her schedule, Pepa eventually reduced her working hours to serving mainly the NFWC, the Red Cross and the Bureau of Health. She also founded the Girl Scouts of the Philippines.
As the NFWC secretary, she traveled around the country with NFWC president Pilar Hidalgo Lim, organizing women’s groups in support of the women’s suffrage plebiscite that would give women the right to vote in national elections.
Josefa Llanes Escoda played a large part in keeping the sparks of truth and liberty alive. She lit the fire. Truly, a woman for all seasons.
Oscar P. Lagman Jr. is a retired businessman and management professor.
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