Petronila Cleto, writer, social activist (born 18 October 1945 in Nueva Ecija, Philippines; died 11 January 2018 in Toronto, ON). Petronila Cleto was also known by her nickname, Pet. She was most notable as a film critic from the Philippines. She was a poet, playwright and journalist. As a women’s rights activist, she helped found the Filipino women’s group GABRIELA.
See also Filipino Canadians.
Education and Early Career
Petronila Galicia Cleto was born and raised in the province of Nueva Ecija, Philippines. At a young age, she developed a strong affinity for writing. She became a student journalist and editor for her high school’s newspaper in Manila. In 1961, she participated in the National Secondary Schools Press Conference. At the time, this was the highest competition for high school journalists in the Philippines. She received a silver medal at the conference.
Although she went to pre-medical school, her desire to write compelled her to shift course a few years later. She decided to join her sister in Canada. Petronila moved to study medical technology and literature at Carleton University. In the 1970s, she returned to Manila and studied at the University of the Philippines. There, she pursued her Bachelor of Arts in English and Comparative Literature.
At that time, the Philippines fell under Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian rule. In 1972, Marcos imposed martial law on the country. He abused his power to acquire vast amounts of wealth and property. He oversaw the military crackdown on newspapers, television and radio networks. Student publications became the alternative press. They exposed the conditions Filipinos experienced under Marcos. The political climate pushed Cleto to become heavily involved in the student movement against the Marcos dictatorship. While she produced poems and newspaper articles about the Filipino cultural scene, Cleto offered literacy lessons to the urban poor. She also taught theatre and journalism workshops.
After university, Petronila Cleto committed herself to becoming a professional journalist. She wrote on a broad range of topics for major broadsheet newspapers. Cleto notably wrote for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Manila Times and Malaya. She also wrote feature articles for Philippine Panorama, Who magazine and Celebrity. Her art reviews and film critiques helped propel her writing career. In the mid-1970s, she covered the Manila Film Festival (now the Metro Manila Film Festival). While doing so, she produced a series of articles featuring acclaimed directors Akira Kurosawa, Werner Herzog and Gilberto Pontecorvo.
Cleto reported on corruption in the Philippines. Her work led to a 1-million peso lawsuit being filed against her. In the early 1990s, she exiled herself to Canada. (See also Refugees to Canada.) Once there, she joined the international Writers in Exile network of PEN Canada. In 2008, she was the International Writer-In-Residence at McMaster University’s English and Cultural Studies department. She became the 2010–11 Lecturer-in-Residence at the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at George Brown College in Toronto.
While in Canada, Cleto managed Newsfilm, a Manila-based video news agency. She produced documentaries on political prisoners and migrant workers. (See also History of Labour Migration to Canada.) She was an active member of various media organizations. These included the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, Philippine Press Club of Ontario and the Filipino Canadian Writers and Journalists Network.
Cleto worked as a staff writer for the newspaper The Philippine Reporter. She also co-hosted public affairs shows TV Migrante and Radyo Migrante. She was key in the radio show that won an honourable mention from the National Campus and Community Radio Association in 2014. As a community broadcaster, she also received the 2016 J.S. Woodsworth Award for Human Rights and Equity. (See also Gender Equity.)
Women’s Rights Activism
Petronila Cleto advocated for women's rights. (See also Feminism.) She helped organize and co-found many of the women’s groups that sprang up across the Philippines in the 1980s. These included GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action), WOMB (Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott) and the Concerned Mothers League. Cleto also played a key role in the first all-women political party in the Philippines: KAIBA (Kababaihan para sa Inang Bayan [Women for the Motherland]). In 1989, she co-founded the Women’s Crisis Center in Manila. The Center provides immediate intervention, temporary shelter and support services for women and their children affected by gender-based violence. Cleto continued to be part of various organizations even as she later migrated to Canada. (See Women’s Movements in Canada.)
In 2008, Cleto helped found the local Ontario chapter of GABRIELA in Toronto. The chapter elected her to be secretary general in 2012. She guided the group in various campaigns advocating for temporary foreign workers and care workers. In 2010, she also joined other activists in founding the International Women’s Alliance (IWA). IWA is an anti-imperialist network of grassroots women’s groups and individuals. They are dedicated to the cause of empowering women as a political force. They also coordinate campaigns that link women’s issues in the global framework.
Late Career and Legacy
One of Pet Cleto’s film essays was featured in The Urian Anthology 1980–1989. The anthology is a collection of works by members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP) — a Filipino association of cinema critics, writers and scholars. In 2004, the MPP named Cleto as one of the country's leading film reviewers.
Cleto wrote many plays during her life. Operetang Tatlong Kusing is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. The opera has been produced twice by the University of the Philippines. Her play Pasintabi Sa Nuno (To Our Ancestors) was performed at the Nancy International Theatre Festival in France. Her theatrical piece Operetang Maynila was performed in 2008 at McMaster University.
She edited two volumes of Akdaan — an anthology of Filipino writing in Canada published in 2013 and 2015. She started preparing to mount its third volume and was planning on writing a novel. Her plans were interrupted, as she died on 11 January 2018 at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
In 2018, she was posthumously awarded the Golden Balangay Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was granted in recognition of her years of community service in Canada.