As the child of a government auditor whose work assignments took him and his family to various areas of the country, Melania Cristina Catalla was born and spent her early childhood in Manila but lived and studied in Mindanao for several years, before finishing high school in Quezon City.
Her father was then assigned to the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Laguna. Cristina, or Tina to friends, enrolled at the College of Agriculture, majoring in economics. She was soon active in many extracurricular activities. Besides the UP Student Catholic Action and the Delta Phi Omicron sorority, she joined the Cultural Society where she became active in the education committee. In her senior year, she was named associate editor of the campus paper Aggie Green and Gold where she wrote thought-provoking columns.
Although she was a quiet young woman, in 1969 Catalla already began actively participating in university-wide protest activities. Friends saw her everywhere: sitting in discussion groups, marching in rallies, going to protest concerts, attending lecture-forums. The following year, she joined the militant Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan.
For many student activists, the 1971 suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by President Marcos was a turning point. Catalla became filled with a sense of urgency and mission. She stopped going to school, deciding instead to work fulltime as student and youth organizer. At first she worked in areas around the campus then later moved to the nearby towns of Laguna.
She showed outstanding leadership qualities as she helped organize marches, mobilizing the public to protest Marcos’ growing abuses and imminent move towards creating a dictatorship. These efforts culminated with the organization of the Southern Tagalog Movement for Civil Liberties in 1972. Catalla was put in charge of coordination for Batangas sectoral organizing, as well as the training of instructors for popular education courses.
She was with five other youth activists in Makati, Manila, when all six disappeared on July 31, 1977. Family and friends made repeated efforts to find them – Catalla, Manuel Sison, Rizalina Ilagan, Jessica Sales, Ramon Jasul and Gerardo Faustino – but they could not find the youths. In 1978, military authorities wrote to the families of the three missing women, saying they had been killed in an encounter between soldiers and New People’s Army guerrillas in Mauban, Quezon. However, no bodies have been produced, except for Sison’s which was found in a common grave at the public cemetery in Lucena City.