Elsa Balando was one of the earliest casualties of the people’s struggle for their rights under the Marcos regime.
Little is documented of her personal circumstances before she left her hometown in Catubig, Samar in 1968 to try her luck in Manila. Her friends only knew that, like them, she needed to help her family survive.
First she worked as a housemaid for one year, then as a tindera (sales assistant). Later she found a job at a garment manufacturer in Caloocan City, Rossini’s Knitwear Factory; for her work as a seamer, she was paid three pesos a day. The other women there also came from poor rural families in Misamis Oriental, Agusan del Sur, Bohol, Pangasinan, Ilocos, Samar, Bicol, Nueva Ecija.
Eventually, Balando, called Liza by her friends, became a union organizer at Rossini’s. She was gifted with an inquiring mind, seeking answers to vital questions that bothered her. She was already living the deep injustice of the situation where factory owners squeezed their profits from the labor of the people they employed, forcing them to work in miserable conditions and for very low wages. She joined study groups where she was able to connect the problems of working people like her with the broader problems facing the whole of Philippine society.
When Rossini’s workers went on strike for the first time in March 1971 to demand better working conditions, Balando hardly left the picket line. She was among those who laid their bodies on the ground trying to prevent a company vehicle from leaving the factory compound. The city mayor’s goons harassed the strikers, but they refused to retreat.
On May 1, 1971, Balando was among 4,000 demonstrators, mostly students and factory workers, who gathered in front of the Congress building in Manila, at a rally marking that year’s International Labor Day. Combat troops from the 55th Company of the Philippine Constabulary and the Metropolitan Command (Metrocom) were deployed to “guard” the mass action; machineguns were positioned on top of the building, and a military helicopter hovered in the air.
The rally was underway when explosions were heard and shots were fired. Balando tried to seek safety, but bullets hit her three times in the chest before she could do so. She was among the three persons who were killed in what would be known as the May Day Massacre of 1971. Richard Escarta and Ferdinand Oaing also died, while fifteen others were wounded.
Balando’s co-workers and friends chipped in to buy her a coffin, pay for her funeral expenses, and send her body home by boat to her family in Samar. Hundreds came to Manila’s North Harbor to see her off, turning the leave-taking into a protest action against the repressive Marcos government. In Samar, thousands came to her burial, including poor farmers from neighboring barrios and towns.
A wave of indignation in and out of the country met the violent dispersal of the May Day rally. Labor unions, members of the political opposition, and student groups all expressed their dismay and anger at the incident. Australian demonstrators stoned the Philippine consulate in Canberra.
Two months after Liza Calando’s death, the union at Rossini’s won its demands from management.