Gilda Vestil, Cebuana Katipunera

By: Jobers Reynes Bersales - CDN Digital | November 25,2019 - 07:57 AM

Hermenegilda ‘Gilda’ Vestil was just 18 years old when the revolution in Cebu against Spanish colonial rule finally broke on April 3, 1898. Born in Mambaling in 1880, her brother, Gabino Vestil, was an active member of the fledgling Katipunan movement in Cebu and was once a ‘cabeza de barangay’ of Mambaling. 

It may have been through this personal connection to the Katipunan that she would distinguish herself in the resistance, especially during the Philippine-American War, only to recede from history thereafter. Her contributions to the cause in Cebu, especially in the assassination of Pablo Mejia, is a story that I found among the papers of Jovito Abellana, author of the controversial “Aginid Bayok sa Tawarik” and the USC Press-published biography of his harrowing incarceration by the dreaded Kempeitai entitled, “My Moments of War to Remember By.”

Six days from today, the country will once again pay homage to Andres Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan, on his 156th birthday. In Cebu, the celebrations will most likely happen at Plaza Independencia where a statue of Bonifacio was installed by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) to mark the sesquicentennial of his birthday in 2013. Bonifacio, of course, never set foot in Cebu, but it was his dogged resolve to rise up against Spanish oppression that resulted in the creation of the Katipunan, which eventually reached Cebu in late 1897. 

In a four-page unpublished typescript, on April 3, 1988 and simply titled, “Hemenegilda Vestil,” Abellana describes this Katipunera as “the most, daring, reliable and the bravest of all women.” 

There has never been confirmation about who assassinated Pablo Mejia but in this brief bio, Abellana places Gilda Vestil into this sad but historic affair. Mejia, to the uninformed, was appointed by the Spanish authorities to run the government—and to wait for the Americans to take over—after their departure from Cebu on Christmas Eve, following the signing of the Treaty of Paris that sold the Philippines to the United Sates. 

According to Abellana, Gilda served as a lookout during this fateful event that was carried out on orders of the Katipunan commander Pantaleon del Rosario allegedly due to the failure of Mejia to turn over to the Katipunan some firearms left by the Spaniards. Abellana missed the main reason why Mejia was assassinated, however, which was because the Katipuneros saw this Spanish as illegitimately appointed, nothing more than a usurper without any authority from them. Days later, thus, Mejia was assassinated in his own house. 

If we are to believe Abellana, it was a Pedro ‘Bola’ Abella who was tasked to kill Mejia with the assistance of another Katipunero named Miguel Cabarrubias. Gilda not only served as lookout but was also tasked with leading them safely out of Mejia’s house near Pahina Bridge after the deed was done.

Less than two months after the Republica Filipina was inaugurated in Cebu, the Americans, of course, arrived on board the gunaboat ‘Petrel’, anchoring off Fort San Pedro on February 21, 1899. Refusing to recognize the American rule over Cebu, many Katipunan leaders, led by Arcadio Maxilom, Juan Climaco, Pantaleon del Rosario, Mateo Luga, and a host of other officers promptly left the city to begin guerrilla warfare.

Despite some confusion in Abellana’s narration of events surrounding Gilda’s contributions to the Katipunan, it is clear that she was instrumental in procuring weapons for the anti-American resistance at this period of Cebu’s history.   

During one mission, she was sent to Mabolo to procure revolvers and bullets from an ‘arms smuggler,’ hiding the revolvers underneath her long wide skirt while she wrapped the bullets around her waist and thighs. She then walked casually all the way to El Pardo where the resistance had set up a base. Along the way, she was, however, accosted by American sentries which she somehow managed to escape from. 

At one of those sentries manned by just one American soldier, she had to hit the soldier with a metal pipe she was carrying, knocking down the hapless American as she ran to evade capture. 

A search for her immediately ensued, forcing her to avoid the road as she detoured to the swamps of Sawang then swam near the mouth of the Kinalumsan River, where she deftly avoided detection. She later arrived at the El Pardo (now just simply Pardo) base with seven revolvers, a hundred fifty bullets and one Mauser rifle that was tied to her left thigh.

Gilda went on to carry out more missions for the resistance, including providing vital intelligence that led to a successful ambush of American soldiers on their way to El Pardo.

Unfortunately, after the Philippine-American War ended, her exploits apparently went uncelebrated and unrecognized. According to Abellana, she married Adriano Menao after the dust of war had settled, giving birth to two daughters and a son. Her desire to defend the nation, it would seem, did not end with her, however. For her son, Basilio, joined the Philippine Scouts and fought in Bataan at the start of World War II and survived, passing away some years before Abellana wrote this piece on Gilda.

I really hope the Vestils of Mambaling and elsewhere can confirm this story. It is not often that one finds a brave young woman at this vital moment of our history only to remain forgotten thereafter. 

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