Published on July 19, 2009, 12:24 PM

Having to leave the Philippines for the United States when she was nine years old was a particularly painful experience for Filipino-American Melissa Roxas. Her desire to trace her roots brought her back to the country of her birth where, in May, soldiers kidnapped and tortured her for days.

By Alexander Martin Remollino

Los Angeles, California — As a Filipino who migrated to the United States to follow her mother when she was very young, Melissa Roxas remembers the pain of having to leave the Philippines. That pain stayed with her even as she later came to understand that what her mother did was in pursuit of a better life, a decent life that had proved elusive to them and to millions of others in their native land. Growing up, she always wondered why they had to be separated from their loved ones.

Her mother was the first in their family to migrate; she followed soon after. Melissa, a native of Manila, arrived in the US in 1986, when she was just nine years old.

She still has memories of her sporadic bouts of rage in the period between her mother’s departure and their reuniting.

Melissa Roxas

Melissa Roxas (Photo courtesy of Habi Arts)

“I remember feeling really torn…and have very vivid memories of actually screaming at every airplane…in the sky as I was thinking of my mother, and when we were reunited, I felt very isolated because the rest of the family was out there,” she said in a recent interview with Bulatlat in Los Angeles, where she grew up.

“I think that stayed with me, in the sense that I asked, Why did we have to leave the Philippines, why did we have to be separated from everyone that we loved?”

Going to school in the US, she would eventually acquire a sharp awareness that she was somehow different from other Americans. She spoke about students forming cliques based on race or color — and then asked for a pause in the interview.

She nonetheless was able to make friends even with people from different races, she said after the interview resumed.

In high school, in particular, she had many Latino friends. This, together with her readings — she was a voracious reader very early on — piqued her interest in Latin American culture, an interest that took her on exchange programs to Chile and then Mexico, where she came to learn about human-rights issues.

Her heightened awareness of Latin American history and culture eventually provoked in her a desire to go back to her roots in the Philippines.

She went to college at the University of California, San Diego, where she took a BS in Animal Physiology and Neuroscience and, later, a BA in Third World Studies with a minor in Health Care and Social Issues.

While in college, she began volunteering for community organizations advocating the rights of the youth, the homeless and the elderly. Later on, she would become involved with Filipino organizations aligned with the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance), the Philippines’s largest progressive group. Melissa, who is also a poet, would become a co-founder of the cultural group Habi Arts together with the late painter Papo de Asis and a few other US-based Filipino artists.

The Los Angeles-based Habi Arts, in turn, would, in 2005, become a founding member of Bayan-USA.

That same year, Melissa was among the organizers of a Bayan-USA contingent to the International Solidarity Mission (ISM) to the Philippines, a fact-finding mission that investigated the rampant human-rights violations, particularly the extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Two years later, she decided to go back to the Philippines, this time as a full-time activist doing human rights and community health work.

In April this year, she took part in a survey of several communities in La Paz, Tarlac, for a future medical mission.

On May 19, she was abducted together with two companions, Juanito Carabeo and John Edward Jandoc, by about 15 men in civilian clothes but wearing bonnets and ski masks and bearing long firearms. They were brought to a barracks, where they were repeatedly tortured for days.

Melissa, in particular, was called “Maita” several times and warned that there was nothing the “Canadian government” could do for her while she was being tortured.

She and her companions were later released on the condition that they would not speak in public about what was done to them.

But speak out she did. She has issued a number of statements exposing the violations of her and her companions’ rights, and is set to do more.

She confessed that nothing prepared her for the horrors they went through, even as she had always been aware of the risks to life and limb that are involved in being an activist. “I knew that it was happening, but it wasn’t something that you would imagine happening to yourself,” she said.

During the interview with Bulatlat, Melissa was still visibly shaken by the torture she and her companions went through. She lapsed into prolonged silence and struggled to hold back tears during parts of the interview that lead to flashbacks of the torture sessions.

She still hopes to go back to the Philippines, she said, this time to pursue a case against the military officers and enlisted personnel who were involved in their torture. “The Philippine government and military should not get away with what happened to me, and that means that I would have to go back to tell that story,” she said.

This, Melissa said, is because she is aware that the issue goes beyond what was done to her. Keeping silent, she said, “is like silencing forever all the voices that have been silenced.” (