LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
By: Monique Wilson
March 8, 2014
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. It is an incredible honour to be standing here with all of you today, and I am so privileged to be in the company of amazing women and men who are changing the world for women.
I was born in the Philippines 43 years ago. My great grandfather on my mother’s side had been a Spanish civil guard.
My father’s father meanwhile, had been a child of an American serviceman. He left the Philippines when my father was nine, to find better opportunities back in America and never came back to the Philippines. Needless to say – some cycle of control, power and abuse was repeated in my parents own marriage.
For much of my earlier life, until I joined the theatre at nine years old, this double standard of living seemed like a pretty “normal” situation. Unfaithful and abusive husbands, other wives and children we never met, the wives always doing the adjusting and the coping, the children living in a culture of silence – these were similar to what many families were going through. I remember feeling at a very young age, maybe around 4, that life was never fair for the women in my family. But it would be more than twenty years later where the words “infidelity”, “bigamy”, “spousal abuse” and “battery” became a part of a vocabulary we eventually had the confidence to speak.
Not that the women were martyrs in my family. On the contrary, they were very strong women – albeit suppressed by a culture and a society they didn’t have many rights within. But they found their strength in other ways. My mother, for example – had made sure she always worked – realising that economic independence was her sure way out of the marriage – and the one aspect my father could exercise no control over. This was the same kind of sure-fire strength and determination she got from my other great grandmother on her side – who was the first woman mason in the Philippines. My great grandmother went underground at 18 years old, against the Catholic church to fight for the civil liberties of the Filipino people. Her father was captured and killed by the Spaniards and it was my great grandmother who kept the masonic movement going until liberation came – who in her later years also became a celebrated music teacher and opera singer. Today she is recognised as one of the pioneering women of the revolution who helped bring freedom to the country.
I guess this is what the older men in my family hadn’t counted on – or forgot – that somewhere in our blood – we were descendants of revolutionary women. I am, most certainly, the great grandchild of my grandmother – who fought revolutions against colonisers like Spain. I am, most definitely, the child of my mother – who fought personal revolutions.
At the age of three my mother brought me for the first time to the theatre to see a Repertory Philippines production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”. I remember two things very vividly. One, that I was being forced by my Dad (who worked for the Marcoses as Vice Mayor of Makati City) to greet then President Marcos and his wife. Two, that I wanted nothing more in the world than to act and be like the people I saw onstage. It wasn’t also a coincidence that it was a play about a young girl finding some humanity in the brutality of the holocaust. I’m pretty certain my love for theatre began there, and so did my appreciation for justice – though at that time I neither had the words nor the wisdom to describe it. Thirteen years later, when I performed the part of Anne in the same play with the same theatre company, I remembered that evening when at three years old I was introduced to theatre. At 16, I now thought – if someone so young could articulate something so eloquently and affect those who shared in her story, then so could I. I felt the first weight of responsibility as an artist then – the gravity of bringing the story of Anne Frank to audiences with clarity and truth – so that it may be a learning experience for them rather than just an entertaining evening at the theatre.
When I was nine years old my Mother enrolled me in a summer theatre workshop, and my life changed. Though my Dad was still abusive at home and controlling every aspect of our lives, I felt great freedom in theatre. I began to act professionally at ten. By the time I was 18, I not only had done more than fifty productions, I had also become extremely confident and independent minded. For some years now, I could fight my father head on and did so frequently, especially when he was very mean to my mother. At around this time, he also became less physically abusive to me (though not to my Mother) – but he continued with the emotional and mental attacks. In some way, I had a feeling he was scared of my strength. I think he knew where that strength might be headed one day.
Going off to university was a huge turning point. I wanted to go to the University of the Philippines (UP). I got accepted and of course my father didn’t allow me to go there. He claimed there were many communists and leftists there and that it was unsafe for me (he was a Marcos man remember), but I went and enrolled anyway. Since I had been earning from the theatre since I was ten, I paid for my own schooling and my father couldn’t say anything about it.
Life as a theatre major at UP was an awakening. I did meet many leftists and communists – artists, academics, teachers, writers, farmers – and I began to get politicised. Unbeknown to my father, I was attending underground meetings at UP, marching in rallies, organising petitions. It was a crazy time – a student and political activist by day (although very green), and a theatre artist at night. Even my life in theatre began to get uncomfortable for me. I couldn’t, after nine years in the theatre, reconcile the fact that when so many injustices were happening to Filipinos why we were still doing musicals that spoke nothing of our society’s ills – like there was nothing happening outside our theatre. We were still doing family musicals and comedies onstage when my own colleagues, teachers and friends at school were getting arbitrarily arrested and going to prison for their activism. My activism was born at university, though much of it was still not articulated. Much of what I felt remained inside me still. My theatre life remained the same too – though I could feel a restlessness in me for the first time. It would be many many more years yet where I would begin to feel a connection between what I did onstage with what I was feeling and experiencing in real life.
Many years later, after my years in London doing “Miss Saigon”, I came back to set up the New Voice Theatre company with the vision to do and create theatre that could inspire, awaken, educate, inform and incite people into action. And after many years of producing socially provocative political and feminist plays, I found the play “The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler. Or maybe better put – the play found us.
In 2000, when we first staged the play in Manila, we couldn’t even say the word “vagina” on television and radio, and most newspapers wouldn’t print the full title of the play. Fourteen years later, the play and the word “vagina” have become part of our national consciousness. We’ve performed it in the Senate and Congress, toured it around the country, taken it to Filipino migrant groups abroad, and performed a piece at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal for the Comfort Women. Today, college groups do V-Day events on campuses that once banned the play. From three artists who were initially involved, we now count more than a hundred actresses who have done the show with us. Today, we can also say “vagina” without censorship in the media.
If I were to define in a few words what The Vagina Monologues, V-Day and One Billion Rising have given me, it would be – at the core – Personal Empowerment and Sisterhood.
To have the freedom to allow both the intellect and emotion to be at play, and the ability to express exactly what you feel, to pursue one’s desires, whether they be economic, sexual, religious, cultural – are not commonly accessible to the Filipina. As a child, I was always aware of a certain level of repression we internalize as women from birth. Doing the play and being involved with V-Day gave me the courage to express my opinions, my experiences, my thoughts, and feelings on many issues surrounding women’s rights and choices – most, for the first time in my life.
I began to question why we accepted the conditioning of our religion and culture which places emphasis on a girl’s virtue and not her intelligence,; which places little significance on a woman’s opinion; which asks a girl to place her self-value in relation to men; which prioritises marriage and motherhood above self-development and career; and which encourages girls to be silent on the double standards on infidelity, sexism and discrimination and violence against women. As a woman in my early 30s then, I concluded that over the years we had sacrificed our intellect and opinions in favour of the status quo, and that when we fought against it, the struggle always involved personal discrimination. More importantly, the play made me realise that what we had sacrificed more then anything else was a right to be sexual beings.
The play, V-Day and One Billion Rising awakened for me, the potency, and vibrancy of the language of expression. The ability to express invigorates the spirit. The suppression of this can poison it. The play became a verbal expression of my power as a woman, of love, joy, lust, desire, aspirations, rage, anger, and pain. Once a voice is given the power to live, the violence women experience can no longer remain unspoken. It becomes visible.
V-Day and One Billion Rising have also given me the opportunity to connect with Filipinas from all walks of life, and with Filipino and international activists who inspire me. This sisterhood gives me the courage to go deeper politically – to use my art to transform. This sisterhood is a community of empowered voices that keeps me brave to keep speaking out, to keep taking huge artistic and political risks. But most of all, this sisterhood gives me a sense of how powerful a movement can be when women come together- of how the world can change when women’s voices are heard collectively.
Before I continue, I would like to thank our staff at our New Voice Company theatre group who are here with me today: Manang Lourdes, my yaya, who has taken care of me since I was born – Rona, Greg and Mang Toto whose care and love sustain me and the work every single day. Thank you of everything.
This award I have been given the most incredible honour of receiving this morning, is not about me – but about the many women who have influenced me over the last 4 decades – both artistically and politically – without whom I would not have grown both as an artist and as an activist.
I would like to thank my mom, Terry Wilson – who passed away during One Billion Rising last year after 11 years of illness – for all the sacrifices she made just so that her children could dream their theatre dreams and pursue them with open arms and hearts – for all her support in the early years -for her unwavering belief in my capacity to change the world with theatre.
I would like to thank my mothers in theatre – Tita Baby Barredo and Tita “Bibot” Zeneida Amador – who taught me courage from the age of 9, and who challenged me even as a child – to be the best in what I did – and who taught me the value of hard work, commitment, dedication, discipline – and to love and serve my art with all of my heart.
I would like to thank Eve Ensler – who taught me deeper love, deeper understanding, and deeper compassion about people and the world. Who taught me to take in what you see and experience – the suffering, the pain, the stories of the people, and to open your heart completely to that which changes you – which then affects what we choose to do in this world- with our art, and with our life. She has taught me, by example, what our function is as artists/ activists- to bring the truth to a wider platform, to serve that truth, then to step out of the way so that the grassroots women lead the way, but to be there behind them always in support and in service – and to keep learning from so much that they teach us. From Eve I have also learned what it means to move in this world with love. To have love as the core and guiding principle in everything that we do. And to keep deepening our understanding of love, and of what it means. She also taught me how to not just stand at the edge of a cliff, but to always be brave enough to jump off it – to keep leaping. From her I have also learned to see with my heart, not just with my eyes. And to learn to listen to it. And to trust it completely.
I would like to thank my dearest, beloved life partner of 16 years – Rossana Abueva -who is also here today – whose love, generosity and support – have been the wind and river of love that have been the motor, the fuel, the core of everything that I do – because she has not only helped spread my feminist wings both artistically and politically, and to fly as high as those wings can take me – but also rides every challenge with me with a love that truly has no boundaries – and with a generosity of heart that has allowed me to keep opening my heart to keep loving others. I am so deeply and profoundly blessed to share and touch both the skies of revolution and art with her.
I would like thank and to dedicate this award to the women of Gabriela – my mothers and sisters in the struggle – Tita Emmi De Jesus, Tita Luz Ilagan, Liza Maza, Sister Mary John Mananzan, Judy Taguiwalo, Carol Araullo, Joms Salvador, Lana Linaban, Obeth Montes – and the many other fierce, amazing and inspiring Gabriela leaders – who continue to give me my political education, who bring me to communities all over the country so that my eyes and my heart remain open. Who teach me everyday about humility, and what being of service to women, and what generosity truly and deeply mean. Who inspire me to the core of my heart and my soul with their passion and commitment, and with the sacrifices and risks they take to free and empower Filipina women.
These women have been the most inspiring examples for me.
I would like to thank St. Scholastica’s College for this award that honours, not me, but all the women who have created the path for me to not just to stand and walk on – but to dance in and fly from.
Thank you all – for being and doing everything your heart believes and stands upon.
For moving me to follow in your shining examples.
For teaching me that there can be poetry in revolution.
That there is always light where there is darkness.
For teaching me to insist on hope even amidst sorrow.
And to keep seeing the future and believing in it.
A future where there will be no more violence.
And to hold onto that vision, as the fire burning in our hearts, in the work that we do.
I have been deeply blessed to learn from these truly incredible women.
To be taught, influenced and inspired by them.
This award is for all of you.
Happy International Women’s Day.
Read more about the Hildegarde Award HERE