Rest in Power, Petronila “Pet” Cleto

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  • Petronila Cleto (aka Pet, Tita Pet) passed away very early in the morning of Jan 11, 2018 at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. She was a journalist, poet, critic, playwright, artist, community organizer, and a long-time activist from the days of the First Quarter Storm.

    She was also a mother who single- handedly raised her daughter Cynthia,  a big sister, the auntie  or Tita ng Bayan to many young people in the Pinoy community,  and a good friend to  so many people who were lucky to have met her or crossed paths with her. She would have turned 73 years in October this year.

    Tributes have started to pour in, not only from the many who knew her, worked with her, or attended a conference or solidarity mission with her, but also from  migrants and women’s groups, both local and international, church and faith-based groups, the academe, etc. Images from Pet’s life that spanned her long life and career are being shared and uploaded.

    In the early 1980s I was a human rights worker and soon came to meet and know writers, particularly women writers, who challenged the government with their writings and investigative journalism work. It was not unusual for writers and journalists to be slapped with a lawsuit (or worse, detained or killed) by the dictatorship for writing the truth. Pet was no exception because as a journalist, she wrote about human rights, poverty, and politics for newspapers such as Malaya, the Manila Times, and The Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was the reporting on corruption in the Philippines that led to a 1-million peso lawsuit against her.  That lawsuit certainly did not stop her.

    Pet was an artist and authored five plays, including Operetang Tatlong Kusing (an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), which was produced twice by the University of the Philippines, and Pasintabi Sa Nuno (To Our Ancestors) which was performed at the Nancy International Theatre Festival in France. Being an artist and a writer, she was best known in the Philippines in the mid-70s as an art/film critic, doing interviews with directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog and Gillo Pontecorvo. She was named then as one of the leading film reviewers in the Philippines by the National Association of Film Critics.

    Her sense of justice was strong and militant. She was involved in the campaign to free political prisoners and in the “Free Satur Ocampo and other Political Prisoners Committee.” Satur Ocampo was a journalist and one of the longest held political prisoners during the Marcos dictatorship. She was one of the founders of Gabriela Philippines, Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott (WOMB), Concerned Mothers League and the first Philippine women’s political party, KAIBA.  She co-founded the Women’s Crisis Centre, a shelter for survivors of sexual violence.

    Decades later, I connected with Pet in Canada, when attending conferences in Toronto and Montreal. She was still doing the things she loved the most, writing and organizing, and found Canada a fertile ground for both. She was a regular writer for Toronto’s The Philippine Reporter. She helped organize Gabriela Ontario, perhaps the first women’s GAB chapter in Canada. With best friend and co-host Lui Queano, she became a regular voice and face for Radyo Migrante and recently for TV Migrante.  With persistence and stubbornness, she worked with the Adkdaan Kolektib and got the two volumes of Akdaan Literary Anthology, a compilation of works of Filipinos in exile, off the ground.  Pet and the Kolektib had Akdaan volume 3 in their minds. Pet often talked about Volume 3 of Akdaan. I read that she wanted to write her novel or was at work on one.

    Pet was selected by PEN Canada as the 2010/11 Lecturer-in-Residence at the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at George Brown College and was invited to join the Writers in Exile Network of PEN Canada. PEN Canada is an independent, non-profit organization formed in 1926 that aids writers in exile and fights censorship. Two years before this, she was the 2008 International Writer-In-Residence in the Dept of English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

    Pet was a busy woman and only the closest circle of friends knew what physical struggles and pain she carried. I never heard her whine or complain and never called attention to herself. She was soft-spoken but was not a pushover. She certainly was one feisty woman. I really believe that she had no mean streak in her body.  A good healthy sense of humour and a hearty laugh, Pet had lots of that.

    I ask myself this question: How does one sum up the life of Pet? Perhaps in many ways and this is, simply put, because she was so many things to many people. The one consistent thing in her life was that her actions, individual though they may look, she did as part of a movement working and organizing for change.  Pet was part of a historical movement, a progressive movement of workers, peasants, women, journalists, migrant workers, political prisoners, the poor, cultural workers, indigenous peoples, of students and other oppressed sectors.  It was this movement that she committed herself to, a commitment for a lifetime. At the end of the day, it was the movement and the vision of that movement that made her happy.

    Pet’s legacy is in the heart of the movement that she committed herself to and which continues to grow in strength everywhere.

    As of this writing, the memorial is on Sunday, Jan 28th in Toronto or contact migrantecanada@gmail.com

    Rest in power, Pet.

    By E. Maestro (Tinig Migrante)

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