Warrior, artist, visionary, Tita and friend

Community Opinion & Analysis Jan 26, 2018 at 4:21 pm
Standing: Meagan Miller and Chris Sorio; seated, from left: Conely De Leon, Ethel Tungohan, Pet Cleto and Jesson Reyes.  (Reporter's file copy)

Standing: Meagan Miller and Chris Sorio; seated, from left: Conely De Leon, Ethel Tungohan, Pet Cleto and Jesson Reyes. (Reporter’s file copy)

A tribute to Tita Pet Cleto

By Ethel Tungohan, PhD

I first met Tita Pet in 2008 during an organizing event for Gabriela-Ontario. Cynthia (Palmaria) was there, too. Tita Pet and Cynthia were tirelessly establishing Gabriela-Ontario and were a constant presence in different community events. Cynthia invited me to a workshop on the history of Philippine women’s oppression, which was held at OISE, and from then, I knew, that I wanted to be part of Gabriela-Ontario.
In those early days of organizing and community building, I got to know Tita Pet. There was a period of time when I saw Tita Pet often – every week, two times a month. We had so many events and so many ambitions about the organization! We met at the SEAS office on Gerrard East, at OISE, at the Tim Horton’s next to OISE, at the Timothy’s on the Danforth, and even one time in my former apartment on Greektown. We planned how to recruit more women, we discussed women facing issues of inequality, we strategized on our responses to Gab members who were facing fraught situations of abuse while under the LCP. During one of these meetings, I remember talking to Tita Pet about books. Specifically, at that time, I was reading Arlene Chai’s book, which was a fictional retelling of the events facing a family during the Martial Law era. We had a long conversation about the book, which she borrowed (and which she never returned! HA!), and I realized, while we were talking, that in Tita Pet, I found a kindred spirit. I realized, then, that Tita Pet – aside from being a journalist and an activist – was also an artist.

I have two memories of Tita Pet that stand out.

My most memorable moment with Tita Pet was when she roped me to perform in a play – Teatro Lila – that she had written, involving different Gab members. We presented this play twice: first at an events space in Kensington Market, then at a community gathering at OISE. The purpose of this play was to highlight themes of loneliness and family separation as a result of labour migration. Tita Pet’s words were beautiful. As a director, though, she was unflinching! And exacting! She made us recite our monologues over and over and over until she was satisfied. And then, at the last minute, right before the show was supposed to start, she presented us with beige lyotards (!!!) to wear on stage. I told Tita Pet, “nakikita niyo ba ang bilbil ko? (do you see how big my belly is)?” Tita Pet laughed and told me I needed to wear the lyotard. At the Kensington Market performance, we needed more people to take part in a scene involving a mass protest, so even my partner, Wayne, got brought up at the very last minute! And the monologues worked out well!

My second memory was being Tita Pet’s roommate during the International Women’s Alliance (IWA) meetings held at UP in Manila in July 2012. The IWA meetings were illuminating for me because it was the first time I met so many different progressive and fierce feminists from the Philippines, Indonesia, and from around the world. I realized when watching Tita Pet hang out with her Gabriela-Philippines friends that Tita Pet has been part of the struggle for migrants’ rights, for women’s rights, for Philippine democracy, for her entire life. Anyway, for those of you who attended the IWA conference, you will remember that the schedules were quite heavy. We would have meetings from 9 am until 6 pm. One thing I noticed about Tita Pet, when rooming with her, was that I don’t think she slept. She was always at her laptop, writing, thinking, strategizing. I was too exhausted to keep up with her and was dozing by 1 am. By the time I woke up at 8 am, Tita Pet was already awake. So in the midst of planning and learning during IWA, I was put to shame by Tita Pet, who didn’t appear to be exhausted amid the busy schedule. As roommates, we had nice, long chats during which I got to know Tita Pet better – I learned about her past as a journalist, her expose unearthing corruption in the Philippines that compelled her to leave the country, her activist history with organizations like WOMB and Gab-Philippines. It was fun being roommates with Tita and I got to know her quite well then.

Tita Pet was a constant presence in any and in all events to advocate for and uplift working-class Filipino migrants. Even when it was raining, snowing – and, in Canada, sometimes it rained and it snowed at the same time! – Tita Pet was marching. She was there even when those of us who were younger than her were trying to back out because it was too cold! We marched during the International Women’s Day march for a number of years, the labour day march, the march that we spontaneously organized during the last ILPS meeting. During one International Women’s Day march was so freezing that my fingers could barely hold up the banner that we were trying to raise. But I felt I couldn’t just go home then – if Tita Pet could march, so could I.

Tita Pet was also there during multiple and sometimes dreadful consultations with politicians and policymakers and different community members. Sometimes, these consultations were so awful, with authority figures clearly feeding us bullshit. During these moments, I liked to sit across from Tita Pet. Every time something ridiculous was uttered, we exchanged looks and even sometimes rolled our eyes affirming that what we heard was b.s. It was comforting for me to know that she shared my thoughts.

I also worked with Tita Pet on the Gabriela Transition Experiences Survey (GATES), a project that Gabriela-Ontario women first conceptualized and that initially involved learning research methods over a period of several weekends at OISE. With Megan, Siva, Pinky, Cynthia, Elvie, and other Gab women, we learned what it would take to mount a research project by taking an actual class on research. Through the resolve of Gab women, this project ended up reaching more than 600+ participants across the country and also influenced policy discussions taking place about the LCP. Tita Pet, Conely, and I used the material that we had gathered from GATES and wrote an op-ed highlighting the necessary policy changes to the LCP. Working with Tita Pet in this project was a learning experience. She taught me the importance of engaging more deeply and listening to the community and why in our projects, it should always be the voices of the community that are prominent. When there were moments when she felt that community priorities weren’t being centered, she gently called us out. This lesson from Tita Pet is one that has become one that I have always tried to heed. This, in fact, forms the basis of my approach to my own work as a professor.

The last time I saw Tita Pet was at the sharing session that Mithi organized at Earl Beales park in August, during which members from Gab-Philippines and from Gab-Ontario had a picnic. We talked about many things: how to support the Lumad, misogyny and injustice under Duterte, online trolling. Even though it was raining and we were huddled under the tarp, it was a nice way to spend an afternoon. I gave Tita Pet a hug and said, “sige Tita, I’ll see you soon.” Had I known then that it would be the last time I would see her, what would I have said?

I like to think that I would have thanked Tita Pet for being a warrior, an artist, a visionary, a tita, and a friend. Rest in power, Tita Pet.


(Ethel Tungohan, PhD, Assistant Professor Departments of Politics and Social Science, York University)