Maria Lorena Barros lives on in the hearts and minds of people whom she touched in many ways. She is remembered as a dear friend, a brilliant poet-writer, a fearless feminist-activist, a caring daughter, a loving mother and a warm and genuine person. She is admired as a heroine following in the footsteps of Gabriela Silang and Gregoria de Jesus who fought against tyranny and foreign oppression. This short biography is but a glimpse into her short but extraordinary life, the woman called by her many nicknames as Lorie, Laurie, Lory, Wawi or in her many other aliases such as Cita, Luningning, Luz, Ligaya or Solita.
Lorie was born on 24 March 1948 in Baguio City. Her mother Alicia Morelos once nicknamed her Laurie, after the lead character in the book “Little Women.” Alicia had a short-lived relationship with Lorie’s father, Romeo Barros. Alicia rarely talked about Lorie’s father but it appeared that Lorie never met nor knew his father and was made to believe that he died soon after the separation. However this family lore remains a mystery. Suffice to say Alicia raised Lorie single handedly until she was 11 years old. Thereafter Alicia met another companion with whom she bore three more children, Rodrigo, Mercedes and Ramona.
Alicia’s early childhood had comfortable beginnings on account of her mother’s inheritance but this wealth was squandered gradually by her father’s wasteful ways until the family was reduced to penury. Alicia had to vend cigarettes when she reached high school. The Japanese occupation halted her desire to pursue higher education. War conditions dispersed the Morelos siblings among relatives living in the provinces. Sent to live among her relatives in Pampanga, anti-Japanese guerillas recruited Alicia to serve as courier.
After the war, Alicia got a small paying job working for a wealthy relative’s family enterprise. Lorie was sent to study at the Instituto de Mujeres from grades 1 to 2 and transferred to St. Joseph’s College from grades 3 to 6. Lorie spent high school at the Far Eastern University and college at the University of the Philippines. In high school, Lorie became a leader in Student Catholic Action and received a special award for creative writing. She became editor of a high school paper and was active in school plays and gymnastics.
Perhaps because of economic deprivation, Lorie became aware of society’s harsh realities from early childhood. Going to Quiapo church with her mother every Friday, Lorie would observe beggars and the homeless wandering by. Lorie would often harass her mother with social questions such as why are there rich and poor people. Alicia who was fond of reading introduced Lorie to the world of books. Lorie started writing poems at age 10, her first attempts she would dedicate to her mother. As she grew older, her inclination bent towards creative writing. In one of her poems, she began to reflect a growing social awareness, prompting the editor of the Sunday Times Magazine to comment: “You’re so serious for one so young. Why write about skulls and such? At your age your world is still beautiful.” Her poem “A Skull among the Flowers” was turned down.
In UP, Lorie enrolled in Chemistry initially to please her mother but after three semesters of trying but failing to stir up an interest in equations and formulas, she shifted to Anthropology. She latched on to this course with much interest, making her a budding intellectual among her peers. Her creative and artistic side found expression in other fields. She joined numerous organizations including the UP Writer’s Club, Anthropological Society, Philosophical Society and UP Bowling Team. Her writings took on a literary style with numerous poems and short stories submitted to the Philippine Collegian. She became editor of the Anthropology Bulletin for a year where she started writing scholarly research. She also loved acting and joined in dramatic plays that were staged in several places. She mixed with the bohemian crowd, hanging out at the UP building basement much to her mother’s disapproval. College life for Lorie was a period of self-revelation and as her poems revealed, soul searching.
The defining moment of her life came with the onset of student activism. Lorie got embroiled in political issues like the Vietnam War and in ideological discussions that gripped the rank of students. She joined the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and the “Learning from the People Drive” of the Nationalist Corps that brought her face to face with the impoverished folk from the countryside. Lorie easily connected with the plight of the poor as her mother’s meager income could barely suffice for her school needs. While living in Cubao, Lorie would sometimes walk a few kilometers to go back and forth to UP and would lunch on banana cue for lack of money. She worked her way to school taking jobs as a student assistant. But being a bright student, she got scholarship grants and became a part-time teaching assistant after graduating cum laude in Anthropology.
In 1969, she joined the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK) whose platform aimed at seeking societal change through radical action. She joined countless rallies in front of Malacanang and the US Embassy. She joined exposure trips among poor peasants and immersed with workers on picket lines. As her activities became purposeful and deliberate, so was her diligence in shaping the philosophical underpinnings of her involvement.
The Women’s Liberation Movement in the West and the glorious exploits of Chinese and Vietnamese Women red fighters resounded in the mass movement. Lorie and other women members of the SDK were drawn to the exploits of these women. It became apparent that a women’s organization was essential to address the women question and integrate it with the burning issues of the day. Thus Lorie together with other female comrades founded and organized the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (MAKIBAKA) in April 1970. Lorie led the picketing at the Binibining Pilipinas beauty pageant to protest against the commercialization of women and their unequal treatment in a male dominated society. At the outset, MAKIBAKA succeeded in attracting women students from exclusive schools and other women who were hesitant to join heterogeneous youth organizations.
She became the chair and spokesperson of MAKIBAKA and “mother hen” to members who found in her a source of strength and guidance in times of crisis, be it personal or political. Lorie steered MAKIBAKA through the political debates that sought to sideline the women’s issue to bigger concerns. But even before she could probe deeper into women’s issues, Lorie had her sight on a far greater calling. Her analysis of socio-economic historical conditions had led her to the conviction that only a violent upheaval could liberate the long suffering masses from the yoke of local and foreign domination and exploitation.
A blow to Lorie’s love life came in early 1971. Her sweetheart Felix Rivera who joined the New People’s Army (NPA) a year before died in a military encounter in Isabela. He was said to have stood up firing at the state troopers while covering the retreat of his comrades. Lorie nursed a broken heart while grimly resolving to carry on with the struggle. Spurred by the heightening political tensions with the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, Lorie left MAKIBAKA and went deeper into the underground. Initially, she was assigned to handle a propaganda conference that sought to render art and literature in the service of the revolution. While in the thick of preparations, she met a former college professor turned guerilla fighter Ramon whom she married in a ritual up in the northern hinterlands of Isabela. That union gave birth to a baby boy named Emil in November 1972.
Lorie’s initiation into the NPA came in August 1973. She was assigned to the Bicol area as a political instructor and officer. But the military soon caught up with her after three months. She was jailed at a local precinct in Sorsogon with her captors failing to establish her true identity. Shortly after, she was taken to Camp Vicente Lim then transferred to the Ipil Rehabilitation Center in Fort Bonifacio in May 1974 where the military found out who she really was. Inside the prison bars Lorie refused to be tamed. She joined with other detainees in protesting against bad prison conditions and led hunger strikes to demand their release.
Inside prison Lorie was reunited with her son. For a time both mother and son shared precious moments together, but this did not last. The spirit in her could not be stifled. She longed for freedom much so after learning that her husband Ramon was said to have surrendered and cooperated with the military. It was another blow to her political and personal life. She vowed to repair the damages done by her husband’s perceived betrayal. On 1 November 1974, at the height of heavy rains, Lorie together with five others managed to escape from the heavily guarded Ipil prison.
Lorie re-joined the guerrilla forces in Southern Tagalog where she was deployed before her arrest. It was a perilous decision. The area was besieged by military operations forcing the NPA units to move around constantly. Morale was low among NPA comrades as many had fallen into the hands of their enemies at grievous cost. Torture and summary executions of captured NPAs were common. Lorie held on tenaciously and even tried to uplift the sagging morale of her comrades but deep inside her spirit was deeply wounded. She was having nightmares and spoke in her sleep of “a whale trying to swallow me.”
Her fateful end came on 23 March 1976 when the military was tipped of her mountain hideout in Mauban, Quezon just before dawn. A male comrade was said to have pleaded with her to move to another location after a local comrade who knew her whereabouts was feared to have been caught by government soldiers. Lorie refused to budge saying she would risk her life on the cadre’s trustworthiness. She was alone when the military surrounded her.
Accounts were spurious but Alicia recalled the account of the commanding officer who led the attack during her last moments. The officer said that they shouted at her to surrender but she fired back instead. She was mortally shot in the head. She tried to run away and was found bleeding among the bushes. In her dying breath she told the officer: “You were lucky to be alive, my gun jammed.” Her final words were, said the officer: “Let me die for my beliefs.” At the young age of 26, Lorie gave her precious life for her country and the cause she believed was worth dying for. (Rosa C. Mercado)