Joanna Cariño, an Ibaloi activist


In the early hours of December 4, a soft-spoken 66 year-old is at her desk busy typing. In a room flooded with light, she is rushing her keynote speech for the 11th Congress of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) which starts in six days. This practice must be thoroughly enjoyed by someone who used to write in dark, narrow rooms and corners some 40 years ago during the martial law years to expose the plight of indigenous peoples in the Cordillera.


It has been a busy week at the CPA office, people from all over are coming and going. Meetings are happening from sunup to sundown. For the last decade it has been in the same building with other regional and sectoral organizations rendering much-needed services to the communities and sectors in the Cordillera. Much coordination are needed to be executed as well as reports of human rights violations are coming from member organizations on the ground. Still, members find time for laughter during meeting breaks – a far cry from forty years ago, when thousands of indigenous peoples were looking for ways to break down solitude among them and collectively assert their rights united with the country’s oppressed – where Joanna Patricia Kintanar Cariño has found herself in the frontlines of the struggle.

Rooted in Kafagway

A true-blue Baguio girl, Joanna is the second eldest of the eight children of Josefina Kintanar Cariño and Atty. Jose Cortes Cariño Jr. She is also among the direct descendants of Mateo and Bayosa Cariño of Kafagway, the traditional owners of Baguio City. Back in her days as a schoolgirl, she excelled academically while attending Baguio Central School and Baguio City National High School. A proud Ibaloi, it is participating in canaos during her childhood, she says, where she learned to dance tayao and ate demshang (roasted pork), pinuneg (blood sausage) and pising (boiled gabi stalks). She proudly wears the Ibaloi divit especially in protests. “We should wear our indigenous attire and dignity in struggle,” she says, amidst current criticism that indigenous attire should not be used in rallies.

Kafagway, as Baguio was traditionally known, belonged to the Ibaloi clans of Cariño, Carantes, Suello, Molintas, and Pucay. These families utilized the land that is now the Summer Capital as grazing grounds for horses and cattle, farming, and in the gold trade. In 1899, the Americans then found a haven in then-Kafagway to escape the heat and therefore planned to build a hill station. The ensuing years saw the American Insular Government pursuing their plan to claim Kafagway as their haven by grabbing the ancestral lands of the original Ibaloi clans that inhabited the area. To add insult to the injury, Mateo Cariño, her great-grandfather, was legislated out of his own house by Act 636 of the Philippine Commission, authorizing the then Benguet Governor to seize the land without due process, trial or compensation.

But the elder Cariño did not falter. He fought against the full force of the American colonial government first in long court battles that started in the Philippines and ended up in the United States itself. His rightful assertion for his ancestral land saw its victory when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark decision that Kafagway is a private domain, and was indeed the property of the Ibalois who took care of the land. The ruling, which later came to be known as the Cariño Doctrine of Native Title, however failed to actualize when the American Insular Government back in the Philippines fast-tracked the construction of its hill station in Kafagway. Mateo then never saw light of the court ruling which came out only after his death.

The historical injustice that the elder Cariño suffered has since remained in the memory of their descendants, Joanna included. While Kafagway transformed from a colonial hill station to Baguio, the country’s summer capital, not one official from the local up to the higher echelons of government batted an eye to, at the very least, acknowledge and/or give just compensation to the original owners of the city.

Rising to the task

In 1969, while studying at the then-University of the Philippines College Baguio (UPCB), Joanna became a member of the national democratic (ND) youth organization, Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and supported the then-striking workers of Udiao as well as the Hilltop Market vendors fighting against demolition. Joanna says that she, along with her four siblings, became activists before Marcos’ martial law was declared. “The semi-colonial and semi-feudal system breeds revolutionary families,” she says adding that the her younger three siblings became activists during the martial law itself.

Her Manang Jennifer or ‘Jingjing’, the eldest among the siblings, became known in the revolutionary underground movement as “Ka Maria” and then became a martyr for the revolution in 1976. Reacting to a 2010 Joel Lamangan film Sigwa about the revolutionary youth movement, she likens character Sita, a female NPA commander played by Zsa Zsa Padilla, to her sister Jingjing. She tells, “of course Zsa Zsa got the best character of all. Ganung-ganun ang tikas at tindig ni Jingjing.”

The Cariño siblings were already involved in different levels of activism when their house was raided when Martial Law was declared in 1972. Evading arrest, she worked underground for two years. She says that most of the time all they had to eat were different variants of sayote dishes, a vegetable commonly found in Baguio backyards. She reckons that she will never forget the time in 1974 when she, together with sister Joji, were illegally arrested, detained, and tortured in Camp Olivas for two years. One day, while in detention dozens of Kalinga tribespeople were herded into the camp. She learned that they were being detained for resisting the construction of the Chico dams.

Defense of ancestral land

It is common for one to be frightened and discouraged, especially after being repeatedly tortured and illegally detained. What was uncommon was to fight back and resume building the people’s resistance against the Marcos dictatorship then. Upon release from detention in 1976, Joanna was inspired by the growing people’s resistance in the Cordilleras to the Chico Dam and Cellophil Resources Corporation, then identified by Marcos as two of his priority economic projects that would dispossess hundreds of indigenous peoples of their ancestral lands. “I attended bodong conferences where the tribal elders would exhort their people to unite and defend their ancestral lands and their indigenous way of life. Traditional forms of song and dance such as the sallidummay, uggayam, ullalim were performed but infused with new revolutionary content,” Joanna says. The traditional bodong which is a bilateral peace pact between two tribes transformed into a multi-lateral bodong, she adds, “in an effort to unite all the communities that would be affected.”

Massive and collective mass actions were organized despite martial rule and intense militarization. It was a no-brainer that after peaceful ways of assertion failed, tribes resorted to armed resistance.

The treacherous murder of Chico Dam opposition leader Ama Macliing Dulag by the Philippine Constabulary in 1980 became a major turning point in the struggle of Cordillera peoples and generated national and international attention to the plight of indigenous peoples.

After a brief stint as a faculty member in Anthropology and Economics at the University of the Philippines Baguio from 1980 to 1985, Joanna help set up the Cordillera Consultation and Research, which later became the Cordillera Resource Center for Indigenous People’s Rights. She was among the founders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance in 1984, and served first as treasurer, then as secretary-general from 1985 to 1987. She also served as the convener of the CPA’s International Solidarity Commission and later of its Research Commission. She then coordinated the Ancestral Domain Research Network (ADRN) in the 1990s which did research into ancestral land issues in the Cordillera region.

In the past decade, Joanna has been continuously sharing her experiences as a front liner in the struggle for self-determination and national liberation as a member of the CPA Advisory Council. Among her most recent leadership roles is her co-chaipersonship of the national minority alliance SANDUGO Kilusan ng Moro at Katutubong Mamamayan para sa Sariling Pagpapasya, which was formed in 2016 as response to growing threats against the national minorities’ collective assertion for their right to ancestral land, territories, and self-determination.

“Auntie Joanna”

Joanna is an accomplished writer, researcher, teacher and editor among many others. She is well regarded in her long experience of producing papers, researchers and books that have been instrumental references in the mass movement as well as the academic community. However, it’s not all work and no play for her.

A known tea enthusiast, Joanna can be often seen bringing with her a selection of teas to the office. “I always see to it that I have some when I work,” she says. Comrades who manage to come across specialty teas in their travels make sure that Joanna gets one as some sort of souvenir. ‘

“Auntie Joanna”, as she is fondly called by her nieces and nephews, finds enjoyment by spending time with her extended family — playing board games which can sometimes be quite competitive. Her fondness for writing can only be, of course, complemented by her love for reading. Elizabeth Georges’ murder mystery novels and other thrillers have occupied her bookshelves for relaxation. A cat person, Joanna has five cats; a big fat one called Kitty and his playmates — Tidbit, 3D, Black and White, and Mustache.

In a speech delivered during a tribute to a pillar of the Cordillera mass movement, Ina Petra Macliing, Joanna says that Ina Petra would often question her choice to remain unmarried. She recalls Ina Petra as saying “apay ta haan ka nag-asawa ken nag-anak tapnu adda kuma ti mangtawid iti kinalaing ken gaget mo tapnu agtultuloy ti tignayan?” (Why didn’t you ever get married and have children so that they would have inherited your intellect and persistence so that the movement would continue?)

Despite remaining unmarried, Joanna is happily surrounded by her siblings’ children. More than an ‘aunt’, she has served as a ‘mother’ to succeeding generations of activists and revolutionaries who drew and continue to draw inspiration from her experiences as a pioneer in the mass movement to further advance the struggle for national democracy, not only in the Cordilleras but at the national level.

On to the next chapter

CPA convened its member chapters and organizations for the alliance’s 11th congress on December 10-12, 2017 with the theme “Resist the Fascist US-Duterte Regime. Courageously Advance the Struggle for Ancestral Land, Self-Determination and National Democracy!” For indigenous communities, CPA has long been in the frontlines of the struggle for the defense of ancestral domain. In times where there is destruction of livelihood and ancestral land for corporate interests, and rampant government neglect and intense abuse of power, CPA has remained steadfast in uniting the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera and leading its collective fight for the right to self-determination. In its almost four decades of existence, CPA has seen the relentless oppression and exploitation of indigenous peoples and their lands throughout its history, and is no longer new to the atrocities committed by state security forces.

There has been a restless atmosphere in the progressive mass movement since Rodrigo Duterte cancelled the peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) on November 23. In less than two weeks, two priests, eight indigenous farmers were killed by state security forces as well as thousands of indigenous communities were denied food and forcibly evacuated.

CPA has remained vigilant on any reports that has come up while preparing for its 11th congress. Indeed, the Marcosian similarity between now and then is undeniable, with Duterte pushing to dissolve established checks and balances in government to consolidate political power while fascist attacks against the people continue to intensify. He is presently showering favors both for political allies and family friends and selling national resources to US and China. He is rapidly dissolving hard-won civil liberties and combining the most fascist methods of previous presidents to kill dissent.

Faced with a repeat of history, Joanna remains resolved. “We will continue to fight,” she says. “The call that resonated during our time has never changed – makibaka, huwag matakot!” #


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