Bullet Marasigan:
A Filipina-American Study in Contradictions

By Pamela Burdman


The transformation of Bullet Marasiganís name offers a glimpse into her complex identity as an immigrant from the Philippines. Born Violeta Atienza, she was known as "Bolet," the Tagalog nickname for Violeta. But she opted for a catchy English substitute. "When I was in high school," she recalled recently, "I wanted to be different, so I decided to call myself Bullet. The name stuck."

The surname Marasigan comes from her husband. And few years ago, she began writing her name "Bulletx," after a Filipino numerologist told her the "x" would put her name into balance, bringing her good luck.

As the story of her name suggests, Marasigan was a savvy citizen of American society with roots deep in her Filipino culture, an iconoclast with traditional leanings, a dissident who defers to her elders. She was a community leader as comfortable lobbying for legislation as she was summoning her ancestors to help heal the ailing, a straight-talking community leader with an easy laugh and a clever wit.

Those traits contributed to her success in the last forty years as an advocate for Filipino people in both the United States and the Philippines. In this country, she worked as a social worker for Filipino veterans, retired farmers, and youth. And her seventeen years in the Philippines as an outspoken human rights advocate and opposition leader earned her a year in a military jail.

Her values were a product of both American and Filipino culture, and even her Filipino sensibility was broad in vision, embracing the elite Westernized strata of her family as well as the indigenous roots of her island culture.

Marasigan, sixty-one, was born in rural Quezon province, where her father was a judge and her mother the founder of a school. She remembers her father as a compassionate man who would cry after sending someone to jail or defeating an opponent in court. He ran a literacy program for prisoners, and every year on his birthday he would prepare bag lunches for the prisoners. Deotimo Atienza would sometimes bring promising students from poor villages to live with his family and attend school. This kindheartedness left an impression on Bullet.

Though her fatherís crying episodes amused her, Marasigan wanted to be a lawyer like him. "I saw him as a just person always helping the poor. But my mother said, ĎIf you are a lawyer, you will not marry well,í" she recalled.

She eventually settled on social work, and after graduation from the University of the Philippines, got a job with the countryís Peace and Amelioration Fund, where she underwent what she calls her "baptism" to the country.

"Thatís when I realized that we had a lot of problems of discrimination," said Marasigan. "When I was a student, I didnít know problems, because I didnít have any."

In 1959 she came to San Francisco for graduate school. "Rich people in the Philippines go to America after college for their masterís," said Marasigan. "You had money and you could study."

San Francisco State University was embroiled in a student strike over ethnic studies, and Marasigan became steeped in the 1960s protest spirit. After graduation, she went to work for the International Hotel in Chinatown, advocating for elderly Filipinos as they fought for fair welfare payments and struggled against landlords who were threatening to terminate their lease.

But there was another reason she didnít head straight back to the Philippines: She and her new husband, Pedro "Pete" Marasigan, had begun having childrenófour girls, and later, a son. In keeping with her parentsí wishes, she chose a Filipino husband.

"I did listen to my parents," she said. "A lot of Filipinos my age listened to their parents." When she returned to the Philippines in 1971, it was again because she was listening to her parents.

"They felt we would be better off in the Philippines. We had no helpers. They gave us a house. They gave us a car. I had four girls. I was afraid theyíd get pregnant here."

Marasigan was grateful that her children learned Tagalog and Filipino culture at the same time they witnessed the intense politics of the time. Marasigan took them to demonstrations, and all of them became involved in the student movement.

Marasigan ended up staying for seventeen years, becoming a cause célèbre in the United States during her 1981Ė82 imprisonment for opposing the Marcos government.

When she returned to the United States, it was again for family reasons. Her husband had already come back to earn money to put the children through college. When it was time for the girls to return to the United States, Marasigan reluctantly came along.

"The way I am now is mostly because of my I-Hotel experience and all the experiences I had with the National Council," she recently reflected. "They made me brave. Iím not afraid anymore if I do advocacy work. Filipinos have this internalized oppression. Thatís why if there are things to advocate in the community, Iím there. My best contribution will be to advocate for peace and justice."

In addition to her devotion to advocacy work, Marasigan returned from her homeland bearing more traditional giftsóincluding a Christian form of spiritual healing, a service she began offering free to her community.

When she puts her small thin hands on a sick person she would begin burping spontaneously to eliminate the bad energy. Then she silently uttered a prayer in a combination of Tagalog and Latin. "I canít explain it," she said of her healing art. "Itís very intuitive. When somebodyís sick and I start to touch them, I burp. When I stop burping, Iím done. When I heal people, I also get healed."

Marasigan extended her healing work to the broader Filipino community by performing "opening rituals" at community events. She would light candles and blow into a conch shell, summoning the spirits of their ancestors to bless the conference or workshop.

"Iím trying to recover who we are," she said. "We used to have a lot of opening ceremonies. When the Spaniards came, they banished them."

Marasigan also envisioned creating a gathering place for Filipino Americans in San Francisco, a plaza styled after those of the Spanish colonizers, but re-infused with traditional Filipino culture.

Her own reconnection to those indigenous roots seemed to help Marasigan see the magic in life, as happened earlier this year in the Philippines, where she spent her sixty-first birthday. "I went into the ocean in the early morning," she recalled. "When I came out, I saw a white heart-shaped stone. I was so happy. I was thanking the ocean, thanking the land and the air. It must be the oceanís birthday gift to me."

Full of plans for the future, she had no idea it would be her last birthday. About three months after her trip to the Philippines (and shortly before this publication went to print), Marasigan died in a freak accident. She had just stepped out of her car when it rolled down the San Francisco hill and killed her.

More than 1,000 people attended a series of memorial services in the San Francisco area to celebrate her life. The last of those services was held at San Francisco City Hall and attended by a host of city luminaries. In true Marasigan style, the session began with an "opening ritual" and included a call for a school to be named after Marasigan in San Francisco, where no schools bear Filipino names.

The following day, her family took her body back home to the Philippines to be cremated. It had been her wish to die there, by the sea. "This is my country, but thereís no place like home."