VILLARON TANGENTE, Elma “Dalama”

Elma Villaron, known as Dalama, became a champion for the rights of her community, the Sulod-Bukidnon of Panay, called Tumanduks, before embracing the broader struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.

She was the daughter of her community’s leader, a man known as Sardin. Dalama was raised a binukot, literally a kept-maiden. In other words, she was a “chosen daughter,” who was not allowed to leave the house and be seen by strangers from age three. It is an old custom in which a “special” daughter is expected to command a lucrative dowry.

To prepare for her life as a chosen wife, Dalama learned how to cook, clean and be a keeper of Sulod-Bukidnon culture. She was taught to dance the binanog,  a courtship dance based on the movements of a hawk. She learned beadwork and sewing traditional clothes.

Surviving A Family Crisis

Dalama

But she was 15, when her family was rocked by a crisis. Her father, who was leader of the Panayanon [1], was imprisoned in Bilibid Prison for killing several people from a rival clan during a panambi or clan war. For her family’s financial security, Dalama was forced to marry. But she eventually left the arranged marriage because her husband was abusive.  Dalama renounced her binukot status and worked in the fields to help her family.

It was in 1971, at a time when young Filipinos were rising against the government of Ferdinand Marcos and a corrupt, elitist political system, that Dalama’s  political involvement broadened.

Student activists set up a school in Menan, next to Dalama’s village. They taught Tumanduk children to read, write and do arithmetic. Dalama took part in these classes and became known as a serious learner. She also became exposed to ideas about political and social issues.

When martial law was declared in 1972, more student activists from the city joined the first group of activists who set up the school in Menan. Dalama started helping the activists. She became romantically involved with one of them, but he  was later wounded in an ambush and captured by the military when he sought treatment in Iloilo City.

Resisting Military Harassment

Meanwhile, the Sulod-Bukidnon people endured harassment by the Marcos military who made many of them leave their ancestral lands. A 1962 presidential fiat promulgated that 33,000 hectares of land be turned into an army reservation. Military operations disrupted the lives of thousands of Tumanduks and there were many documented cases of human rights abuses. The community was abused in other ways. For example, they were compelled to pay rent to till their own land.

Dalama’s interactions with the young activists who organized in her community eventually shaped her political worldview. The activists had joined their resistance to the military and private interests. They helped the Tumanduks understand their land rights and shared new farming techniques with the community.

The activists also shared new ideas about women’s rights and equality with the community, which led Dalama to embrace a broader worldview. While speaking out against the discrimination suffered by the Sulod-Bukidnon people, she also questioned the cultural belief of early, if not forced, marriage, the tribal wars and feudal relations of land-owning, traditions she grew up with.

A Warrior Named Dalama

Eventually, Dalama joined the armed resistance to the dictatorship, despite the disapproval of her mother. She became the first woman from her community to join the guerrilla movement.

Dalama eventually played a key role in the guerrilla resistance. She organized new guerilla zones in the mountains of central Panay where Sulod-Bukidnon communities are located and she helped unify these communities to oppose the militarization brought about by the dictatorship.

But it was a dangerous life. In her early years with the underground, she was arrested by a Sgt. Nick Roca, a Vietnam War veteran and a psych-ops expert. She was taken to the city, but instead of jailing her, she became a maid in Roca’s household for several months. She later escaped and re-joined the resistance movement.

In 1978, Dalama married fellow activist Jose Aquilino Tangente (Bantayog honoree), a former seminarian from the city. They had two children.

A Pioneering Organizer

Dalama emerged as an effective organizer among her people. She helped reform the onerous sharing system between landowners and landless peasants. Moreover, she was able to broker peace pacts between the warring communities of Panayanon and Akeanon[2].  She was able to convince them to unite against the common injustices they suffered from the Marcos dictatorship, including human rights abuses, poverty and discrimination.

Dalama’s work and example would have a tremendous impact on her community. The Sulod-Bukidnon continue to resist the entry of mining firms, the construction of a mega-dam, land-grabbing and proselytizing evangelicals who regarded the indigenous beliefs inferior and pagan.

Dalama’s underground involvement eventually took her to Maayon and Cuartero, Capiz where she helped organize peasant communities. In 1987, police raided the community where she was based. Dalama and her four companions fought back, but were overpowered by the security forces. However, there have been no details of how Dalama actually died and where she was buried.

But she was eventually named among the martyrs of Panay in the struggle against Marcos.


[1] The indigenous communities in Panay, named Sulod-Bukidnon by anthropologists, identified themselves by their location – either they live near Aklan River (Akeanon) or near Pan-ay River in Capiz (Panayanon). Territorial and cultural disputes had erupted between them, ending in mass killings that were even made symbolic by cutting down the last tree stranding in the enemy community.

[2] The indigenous communities in Panay, named Sulod-Bukidnon by anthropologists, identified themselves by their location – either they live near Aklan River (Akeanon) or near Pan-ay River in Capiz (Panayanon). Territorial and cultural disputes had erupted between them, ending in mass killings that were even made symbolic by cutting down the last tree stranding in the enemy community.