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High Blood

To our ‘Gran Babaylan’

Remedios Ignacio Rikken has been by turns an accountant, researcher, cooperative organizer, Philippine Educational Theater Association administrator, executive director of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women or NCRFW (precursor of the Philippine Commission on Women), and gender resource person without peer. But to two generations of the women’s organization Pilipina, Remmy, 86, is our gran babaylan — mother, mentor, raconteur, and various roles to which she has brought indelible traits.

One of Remmy’s most endearing traits is the way she mangles the English language, as in “happy trigger” and “Epileptical Circle.” Twin to this is her habit of leaving a sentence hanging in mid-air which Karina David once monitored, recording one incomplete sentence out of every four. But because beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, without words we got her meaning, every time.

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Trusting in the Spirit for what happens next is yet another attribute, fine with I-Thou encounters but risky with big conferences. A women’s cooperative association had once asked Remmy to keynote its founding convention. She came with no written speech, only some ideas and transparencies, sending coordinator Lota Bertulfo into a panic: What if Remmy could not deliver? But deliver she did, as always bringing the house down. The Spirit, and her spirits, never fail her, or so it seems.

Remmy is also fun, and unpredictable. On the heels of the 1986 People Power Revolution, she succeeded staid and elegant Leticia Perez de Guzman as executive director of the NCRFW. But early into the transition, Remmy had staff tumbling onto the floor if not rolling in fits of laughter with gender sensitivity sessions that literally, and metaphorically, turned their world upside down.

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Remmy was, is pragmatic. At one board meeting I commended her purple dress, noting, however, that a week earlier she had a similar garment of a different color. She said she liked the dress so much she had it done in five other colors. Time-saving genius, I mused, something she also applied to cooking, with a week’s supply of sautéed garlic, onions, and tomatoes in the ref ready to hand when needed. This pragmatism was manifested early on in her choice of accounting over long and costly medical training, because she had to earn quickly as the oldest of eight children.

Remmy could also stun. Decades ago at a gender seminar, women workers poured their hearts out with tales of abandonment by philandering husbands, or leaving their husbands to keep sane, or being widowed overnight by illness or armed conflict, and so on. Later she said, we must teach our women how to live alone. I was flabbergasted, what did she mean? Look, she added, over half of our participants have lost their husbands by circumstance, or choice. Women’s autonomy gained a deeper meaning for me.

Remmy was, is also humble, acknowledging that some things are beyond her ken—incest, for instance, which she felt she needed to understand more deeply. With her artistic sensibilities, Remmy knows that life is not straightforward black and white. It has layers of gray that must be grappled with, defying easy comprehension.

And so I come to a quote by Archimedes: Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth. For the women’s movement, Remmy helped to provide that lever with her incessant whys and why nots, wagering on a world free, fair, and equal, for ourselves and for our daughters and sons. But the vision had to be fastened with nuts and bolts, the flights of fancy needed blueprints and basic frameworks. In the past four decades, Remmy has focused on forging that lever and building that platform.

Dear Gran Babaylan, we stood on your shoulders to sally forth into the jaws of patriarchy in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and onto the new millennium. Our weapons were pen, placard, charm, cunning, but always with fire in the belly that burned bright with your wisdom and courage, your love.

Keep safe and keep well, mahal namin na Remmy.

* * *

Jurgette Honculada, in her 70s, is a member of Pilipina.

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