Ma. Violeta Marcos was christened Maria Remedios. She grew up amidst a devoted Catholic family. The young Remedios grew up religious herself, going to Mass and receiving communion daily. She was shy and quiet, even docile. Her mother brought her every year for a religious pilgrimage to Antipolo in Rizal, praying she would survive a sickly childhood.
Later Remedios’ mother became ill and died, and the siblings came under the care of relatives. Then eight years old but eldest of four, Remedios learned to do house chores, and on weekends assisted in the care of her sister and brothers. Occasionally she also helped prepare food for the family farmhands.
After graduating from elementary school, Remedios told her family she wanted to become a nun. But religious though the family was, the elders disagreed and moved her to Manila to try to distract her from her plan. Remedios enjoyed her years as a high school student in Manila, gaining new friends, including boys, but still prayerful and devout. She completed her course, became a licensed chemist, found a job as teacher at the La Consolacion College in Manila, and took a second course in education.
When she turned 23 and no longer needing family consent, she entered the Augustinian convent. On learning about it, her father came and told her her grandfather was on his deathbed and asking for her. Coming home, she discovered the subterfuge. A serious discussion followed, ending in the family finally accepting Remedios’ intent. With the family’s blessing this time, she resumed her life as a young Augustinian novitiate, rechristened now Ma. Violeta.
She continued her training as an academic, attending classes and reading up on literature covering a wide range of interests. One of the topics that began to interest her was the seachange offered to Catholic life by the Vatican II. Meanwhile, in 1966 she became director of the La Consolacion College in Manila and later in the early 1970s, she accepted an assignment to Negros island as administrator and principal of La Consolacion College in La Carlota City. This new assignment would both test and renew her faith, as well as change her life.
History of political involvement
Her time in Negros revised much of what she once thought as her work among “God’s people.” The island was a social volcano about to explode. Sugar export was becoming a very lucrative industry and Negros’ landowners often resorted to grabbing lands to expand their holdings. The exploitation of sugarworkers was onerous. Families being thrown out of their lands and farm leaders getting killed were becoming common incidents.
Violeta became involved with the Bacolod diocese’s program for sugar workers run by then Fr. Luis Jalandoni, diocesan social action director. She once attended a seminar of Catholic religious and layworkers where she heard sugarworkers explain their situation. “That was my wake-up call (Doon ako namulat),” she later revealed. Being a natural leader and a teacher, she was soon giving similar seminars to her fellow nuns and priests in Negros.
Under martial law, the social conflict in Negros became worse, as landowners close to the regime grew even more abusive and seized lands with even more impunity. Soldiers poured into the island, terrorizing communities, and arresting protest leaders and their supporters, including priests, seminarians, students and union organizers.
In 1975, Violeta gave up school work altogether and became a fulltime secretary of the Justice for Sugar Workers Committee, a new group composed of religious and lay workers sympathetic to the plight of sugarworkers. She helped establish the Negros Occidental Women Religious Association (NOWRA), which then created several committees, including a justice and peace committee which undertook the care of political prisoners. Violeta also became part of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines under the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines.
By 1976, abuses in Negros have become very serious. Civilians were getting shot and killed for the flimsiest reasons. Parishes that supported people-oriented activities were being threatened. Soldiers tortured a 19-year-old female catechist in Kabankalan. Violeta joined a church team that searched for the catechist, including at the constabulary headquarters, signed letters and sent urgent telegrams to martial law officials such as Juan Ponce Enrile. The catechist was found after ten days in a hospital, badly beaten and emotionally broken. Violeta helped minister to her as the young woman sought to recover psychologically. Violeta cared for another woman shot on the foot by soldiers, having to recover for a year in hospital. In 1978, she handled the documentation and protest campaign in an attempted summary execution of other Catholic lay leaders.
Working fulltime now as a human rights worker, Violeta often had to face danger herself. She opened her convent to victims of atrocities, and convinced fellow religious and lay leaders in Negros to do the same. She helped create a human rights network in Negros that documented the abuses, found legal aid for the victims, gave support to the victims and their families through prison visits, assistance with medicine and clothing, and other kinds of humanitarian support. Human rights workers like Sr. Violeta risked their lives every day, facing possible arrest and detention themselves, even abduction, or sexual abuse, or assassination. Living in a small convent with only her strong spirit for defense and protection, Sr. Violeta pushed on despite the daily risks of her work.
By the late 1970s, Violeta was herself joining protest rallies against military abuses and against the continued landgrabbing and other abusive practices of Negros landowners. The martial law government had sent a special team, the Long Range Patrol, that promoted the slogan Walang Patawad and cracked down even harder on the protests in Negros. In 1980, 12 people were summarily executed within weeks of each other. The jails in the province were packed with political prisoners. The human rights network of which Violeta was part had its hands full handling both the humanitarian aspect and the protest campaigns. They even documented anomalies in military camps, as in a jail warden profiting from a hollow-block-making project supposedly for the prisoners’ benefit.
Violeta is considered as having helped win then Bacolod bishop Antonio Fortich to the cause of justice in Negros. A priest who was a human rights supporter had built a considerable collection of pictures of human rights cases and protest actions in the island. He and Violeta made them into albums and made duplicate albums for Bishop Fortich, giving him complete and updated information about the abuses. This, among others, convinced the bishop that the church in Negros had to take the side of the poor.
In the early 1980s, Violeta left Negros to take up new duties in Manila. In Manila, she continued to be active in human rights advocacies under the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines and Balay Rehabilitation Center, as member of the justice and peace commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines, and as director of the Tahanan Social Services at the La Consolacion Convent.
She also focused her energies in instituting reform within her own religious order. In 1989 she and a group of sisters of her order sought permission from the Vatican to create a new order, the Augustinian Missionaries of the Philippines (AMP). This was granted in 1999, and Violeta became its first superior general.
Circumstances of death
Not long after the successful establishment of her new order, Violeta began to weaken physically and was later diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2001, she succumbed to the disease, ending quietly and with little fanfare what she once described as her “dialogue of life with the poor.”
“She worked as if there was no tomorrow especially in areas where the poor was downtrodden. Her undying love and devotion to the people of God is unmatched, from the rallies that we organized on the streets of Negros, to battling oppression during the Marcos regime, to the endless hours we spent with prisoners, talking to them and documenting their stories. (Sr. Violeta) was a remarkable woman.” (Mila Abrera of the Negros Occidential Women’s Religious Organization)
“She was a gentle woman with a strong conviction and deep-rooted love for the poor, deprived and oppressed. She stood for what she believed to be right and put the good of the many over herself. She was intelligent and assertive, but open to listen and learn from others… She never complained no matter how difficult or risky the task was… She gave up the comforts of life to immerse herself in the sufferings of the many… Every encounter with her was a learning experience.” (Rose P. Tan, executive director, Commission on Family & Life, Diocese of Bacolod)