In school, she was always at the top of her class. Consistently, she would be chosen to attend conferences such as those held by the youth organizations Future Farmers of the Philippines or the Future Agricultural Homemakers of the Philippines. She was also active in her high school’s speech and drama club, directing several plays, including one which won her a trophy as the best director. She contributed articles to the school organ, the Ruralite. Enrolled at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, she was even selected Miss Freshman 1971 for her “beauty and brains.”
Yet this quiet young girl, who liked nothing better than to read books in the seclusion of her room –“nagmomongha sa silid,” her family teased her, cloistered like a nun – became a militant activist. It was in senior high school that Riza Ilagan joined a local chapter of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM).
As usual, Ilagan excelled. She was a mainstay in the theater group Tambuli under its director Leo Rimando. When KM set up Panday Sining to become a national theater organization, she was assigned to be its coordinator in Southern Tagalog.
Panday Sining performed plays where the common people were – in factory sites, plantations, depressed areas. Its stage was any space – a picket line, basketball court, churchyard, market place. Performances were realistic, the message a challenging one: the working people must fight to be free and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
When martial law was declared in 1972, Ilagan left the university in order to continue fulltime work in organizing and educating communities and sectors in the underground resistance to the dictatorship. At the time of her disappearance several years later, she was on the editorial staff of Kalatas, an underground newsletter in Southern Tagalog. Military intelligence was known to be keen on finding her.
Between July and August 1977, Ilagan and nine others in the Southern Tagalog network went missing one after another. The Ilagan family learned that she was abducted by military operatives on the way to a meeting. She had been with two companions, Jessica Sales and Cristina Catalla, also from UP Los Baños. They have never been seen again.