Meet Davao’s foremost ‘yellow’ activist: Soledad Duterte

Pia Ranada

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Meet Davao’s foremost ‘yellow’ activist: Soledad Duterte
Aside from being a well known philanthropist, the President's late mother was Davao's leading Yellow Friday Movement activist

MANILA, Philippines – It’s easy to simplify President Rodrigo Duterte as a supporter of the Marcos family after he championed the hero’s burial of their infamous patriarch, dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But a look at Duterte’s history shows that among his family was a woman who had been the symbol of opposition to the Marcos regime during the dark days of Martial Law – none other than his mother Soledad Roa Duterte.

Nanay Soling, as she was fondly called by Davaoeños, led the Yellow Friday Movement, a Mindanao-grown movement that opposed the Marcos administration in the 1970s to ’80s. 

“Nanay Soling is considered one of the pillars of the anti-dictatorship movement,” said Patmei Ruivivar, former chief of staff of Rodrigo Duterte whose mother was close friends with Nanay Soling, in a previous Rappler interview.

“All the martial law protests, Nanay Soling was there. She was like the mother of the activists here because she saved them from getting caught by the military,” said Ruivivar.

Back in those days, “yellow” or “dilaw” in Filipino was associated with the opposition movement against Marcos.

Its use started when supporters of Marcos’ political rival, Senator Benigno Aquino, tied yellow ribbons along the way to what was then called the Manila International Airport to welcome him from the United States. Aquino never got to see the ribbons as he was shot dead on the tarmac.

The yellow ribbons were inspired by the Frank Sinatra song, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Ole Oak Tree.”

Symbol of resistance

A GMA7 iWitness documentary by Howie Severino, aired in time for the 31st anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution, showed how Nanay Soling became the symbol of resistance against the Marcos regime in Davao City.

In the documentary, Eleanor “Baby” Duterte, her eldest daughter, said even the wealthiest citizens of Davao would go to Nanay Soling to complain about beheadings, about their money or property being taken away from them by the military.

This so angered the tough single mother of 5 and widow of a former governor of Davao that she took to the streets to voice her indignation.

Former Gabriela Party representative Luz Ilagan, a young activist in those days, remembers a Nanay Soling who was not afraid to speak her mind, even to the powerful.

For example, when then defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile came to Davao, Nanay Soling supposedly told him, “This is what you’ve been doing, you are guilty of the persecution of people.”

Ilagan said:” “When all others would keep quiet, when all others would be afraid to speak out, Nanay Soling would not hesitate to express what others were merely thinking.”

The presence of the feisty Soledad in any anti-Marcos rally lent “credibility” to the affair, said Labor Secretary and Duterte family friend Silvestre Bello III.

She became such a figure of the opposition that she caught the attention of then president Ferdinand Marcos.

Eleanor told GMA7 that Marcos had instructed none other than Soledad’s eldest son, Rodrigo, to tell her to quiet down.

Rodrigo, after receiving the orders, supposedly told the dictator: “Sir, you are telling me to lecture on my mother? She is the disciplinarian in the family, she has slapped me, castigated me, forced me to kneel by the altar when I make a mistake. Now, I will dictate to her to calm down? Sir, that is impossible.”

The loyal son

Nanay Soling’s fierce character was felt even in her home where she singlehandedly raised her 5 children after the death of her husband, the former governor of undivided Davao, Vicente Duterte, in 1968.

Ironically, Vicente was one of Marcos’ Cabinet members and was a known Marcos loyalist. He was tapped by Marcos to head General Services, a position equivalent to today’s interior secretary.

President Duterte loves to tell tales about how strict Nanay Soling was. (READ: Rody Duterte: The rebellious son, the prankster brother)

He has recounted in speeches the kinds of punishments she would impose: forcing him to kneel on mongo seeds in front of the altar or locking him out of the house when he came home late, forcing him to sleep outside.

“If you asked him who influenced him the most, it’s Nanay Soling who shaped him. They had a love-hate relationship because Nanay was also very strict, disciplinarian,” said Ruivivar.

Duterte has also told stories about Nanay Soling’s activism in the Martial Law years.

“Ang nanay ko was one of the 3 or 4 or 5 marching down the streets of Davao during martial law. In the dark days of martial law, ang nanay ko led the Yellow Friday sa babae sa Davao,” Duterte had said in March 2016 during his presidential campaign.

Back then, he cited Nanay Soling as one reason why he would never be a dictator. 

“So I will dishonor the memory of my mother by following the person she helped put down?” said Duterte.

Cory Aquino’s appointee

Nanay Soling’s activism against Marcos would eventually herald her son’s political career, and ultimately, his presidency.

Because of her role in the anti-dictatorship movement, newly-elected president Corazon Aquino asked her to become officer-in-charge vice mayor of Davao City.

Nanay Soling, who was 70 years old at the time, begged off and suggested her eldest son Rodrigo as an alternative. Aquino’s willingness to take Rodrigo on began a new chapter of Davao City’s history, and ultimately, the Philippines’.

So in a way, Duterte owes his political career to the “Yellow” anti-Marcos movement.

It’s a good reminder of how history has a way of mixing up loyalties and connections. The color “yellow” has itself evolved to become associated with the Liberal Party, with its supporters and members now termed as the new “dilawan.”

This strong connection between “yellow” and the EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled Marcos led Duterte to say in his EDSA anniversary message that “no single party, ideology, religion, or individual could claim credit for the bloodless revolution at EDSA.”

To make his point, he need not have looked farther than his own mother, a Mindanaoan widow of a Marcos loyalist, who took to the streets to fight a dictator. –


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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.