In Spanish, “colegiala” simply means a schoolgirl, but in Philippine usage it has come to refer to someone studying, or who graduated from, a Catholic girls’ school. The term “convent school” is also sometimes used to refer to the institutions, complete with connotations of shy and sheltered, innocent and demure girls.
I can hear some of you laughing out loud now, both colegiala readers and their sons, fathers, husbands. Over the years, I’ve learned that colegialas aren’t exactly shrinking violets or, to use a local metaphor, “makahiya,” the plant whose leaves fold up when touched.
I thought of the colegiala during the recent battle of newspaper ads waged by Assumption graduates, currently divided in their views about one of their fellow alumna, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. I’m not going to write about that little battle except to say they haven’t been mincing words, as one would expect a colegiala. But what’s most interesting is the way the controversies around Ms Arroyo have brought on the fighting spirit not just among Assumptionistas but among colegialas in general.
Besides the stereotyped “innocent and demure” images, colegiala does have another connotation and this is one of class. To come from a convent school suggested one was upper-class, although with variations. To be from Assumption, qualifying the old Assumption in Manila or Assumption San Lorenzo in Makati City, meant you were from a very rich and usually old family. Being an Assumptionista meant breeding, with long Spanish-sounding surnames and knowing how to handle your cutlery, and even having a distinctive handwriting.
There’s irony here because Assumption actually had humbler beginnings in the Philippines. The Assumption sisters first arrived in the Philippines in 1892 to establish a school for women teachers in Intramuros. Today, they still operate a small network of schools in the country, catering to a broader cross-section of society.
Back in 1892, a school for women teachers was actually quite radical because the Spaniards were not too keen about educating women (or the “indios” [natives], for that matter). Remember Jose Rizal’s letter to the women of Malolos? They were young upper-class Chinese-Filipino “mestizas” [women of mixed blood] who had been rebuked by the Catholic clergy when they asked for higher education.
The American occupation opened new opportunities for women’s education, and the Catholic Church, partly fearful that the American Protestants would take over, was quick to respond. English-speaking members of the Religious of the Assumption established the elite Assumption school in Manila’s Herran-Dakota area in 1904. St. Scholastica’s was established by Benedictine Sisters in 1906. The Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) sisters set up St. Theresa’s Manila in 1915.
There were many other Catholic women’s congregations that put up schools in the country, including many which cater to the middle and lower classes. Most notable is the homegrown Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) founded by a Chinese mestiza, Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santa. RVM now has 57 schools distributed throughout the country.
Colegialas love to swap “horror stories” about how sisters tried to control their sexuality (for example, no ballet, no shined shoes, lest they reflect undergarments) yet many of the colegialas themselves will admit it was these schools that helped to empower, even “liberate,” them. The graduates of these schools were articulate and outspoken, and came to shape Philippine society as educators, professionals and political leaders. Two autobiographies offer us glimpses into how one school, St. Theresa’s, shaped the minds of two Filipinas: Gilda Cordero Fernando’s “The Last Full Moon” and Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil’s “Myself, Elsewhere.”
Ironically, it was the upper-class convent schools that often saw a radicalization of both the sisters and their students, about women’s rights as well as wider social issues. The schools, often associated with European and American sisters, had to deal with the issue of colonialism. The American Maryknoll Sisters slowly transferred management of their school to Filipino sisters, who eventually turned over the school to lay administrators. The renaming of Maryknoll College to Miriam College in 1989 was a dramatic way of marking the transitions.
Some of the congregations have emphasized social involvement of their schools. St. Scholastica’s College, for example, is known for its immersion programs, and its women’s studies. St. Theresa’s College has moved away from the education of upper-class women to a more middle- and lower-class orientation. Even Assumption has adopted some social-action programs, and a strong involvement in environmental issues.
All these developments should not be surprising. More than the priests, Catholic sisters tend to be in closer contact with the poor, and with the problems of society. Many work in hospitals and schools, and see the social problems first-hand. I know Catholic sisters who promote pills and condoms because they see family planning and protection from HIV/AIDS as issues of social justice and women’s rights.
In times of political ferment, it’s the Catholic sisters who tend to be more outspoken, although they do this in their own quiet but firm style. Throughout the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, it was the women’s division of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) that issued the most critical statements against the dictatorship. Heading the women’s AMRSP for many years was Sr. Christine Tan, who graduated from St. Scholastica’s but joined the Good Shepherd Sisters.
The sisters didn’t stop with statements. They marched in the streets, opened their schools to the trade unions, peasant groups, student activists for meetings and workshops, visited political detainees, reported human rights violations, and even moved to live in urban slums and rural areas. Sr. Christine, for example, lived in an urban poor community in Leveriza, Pasay City.
The sisters, and their colegialas, are once again visible these days, serving as “bodyguards” for Jun Lozada and marshals in rallies. Their campuses are once again hosting symposia on current issues.
We can say the sisters, and many of their colegialas, are only being faithful to the original messages of Christianity, around social justice. We will hear more from them in the years to come, even if it means speaking up in protest of a colegiala president. And with many colegialas working overseas, we just might hear of them taking up other social causes globally. I have no doubt they will do their schools, and the Philippines, proud.
nating Guapo.Pareng Joeseg atPareng Magno!