The Woman Who Made A Difference

The mission of Merly Hermoso

By Fr Shay Cullen SSC

One day, 28 years ago, I walked into a small dingy office in Manila to collect some documents and met someone who was to become a dedicated companion in mission and who helped change the history of the Philippines. Her name is Merly Ramirez Hermoso, a woman of extraordinary faith, courage and determination and who fulfilled a challenging and difficult mission for Jesus Christ.

Great events begin in small ways. In 1973, I was planning to set up a recovery center for the young people of Olangapo City so exploited by drug dealers, sex tourists and pedophiles. I wanted social workers of strong faith for this challenging mission, which I knew would be dangerous and difficult. There were few available during martial law when the military ruled the land with a cruel heart and jackboot tyranny. Merly Ramirez was the first to say yes. As a graduate in business studies, she was an unlikely candidate for a tough mission but I saw her courage as a sign from God.

Vietnam War

Olangapo is three hours drive northwest of Manila, situated on the shores of Subic Bay and the huge naval base for the United States 7th Fleet was there until 1992. Brothel operators and pimps groveled at its gates offering women and children, drugs and drink to the thousands of U.S. sailors, marines and airmen. They came for rest and recreation after their stint waging a controversial war against the people of Vietnam.

Dirty business

The sex trade was a shameful and evil business. Thousands of Filipinos were enslaved, the HIV-AIDS virus was rampant, unrestricted abortions caused untold deaths and sufferings; drug abuse and broken homes plagued those unable to escape the clutches of the local mafia. Corrupt government officials made it all possible by issuing permits and licenses for fees and pimps and jailed the little children when they ran away from their abusers.

Under dictatorship

Something had to be done. No one dared to speak out and take action to stop this evil perpetuated by the iron fist rule of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. Merly Ramirez did. She understood her mission was to bring God’s Kingdom of justice and love to the poorest of the poor even if it meant defying the authorities that allowed evil to proliferate unchecked.

Merly was a bright, hardworking college graduate from Bicol. She graduated in business management and could have found a well-paying job in the business world of Metro Manila. Instead she chose to take on the difficult mission of helping the most exploited and vulnerable in society without expectation of any great material reward. Alex Hermoso, a sociology graduate, soon joined us and a few years later Alex and Merly married.

Wandering for wanderers

Our first task as a mission team was to help young people aged 17 to 23 get off the streets and out of prison. In addition, we helped them escape the sinister death squad that was shooting and torturing young people in Olongapo all through the 1980s. They were neither pushers nor rebels, just jobless young people confused and alienated by a society of vice and violence.

Self-sustainable project

As part of her mission, Merly set up a Fair Trade skills training program for them producing wicker furniture at the Preda Center as they recovered through therapy and affirmation. Today many are successful business people and professionals. In 1982, we exposed the syndicate that was selling children to sex perverts and pedophiles at the U.S. base and to sex tourists that flocked to the city. The local officials were angry with us and they frightened off customers from Merly’s self-help project. We could not support ourselves and faced closure.

PREDA Fair Trade

Undaunted, Merly retrained the young people to make new products and found new buyers in Europe. The project was a great success. Her pioneering efforts paid off and today the Preda Fair Trade projects have spread to many villages throughout the Philippines alleviating poverty and keeping families together. Earnings from the sales were returned to the producers as development aid and they thrived and prospered. This success also brought more income to the Preda social services that were rescuing the children and youth directed by her husband Alex. We were then able to help many more victims of sexual abuse and provide them with protection, therapy and education. Merly was by now the senior administrator and general manager of Preda.

The determination and courage of Merly never to give up in the face of threats and harassments inspired us to start a Preda campaign against the sex industry and the continuation of the U.S. military bases. We trusted in the power of God to protect and help us. When we faltered her faith carried us through difficult times. We worked out a plan to convert the bases into economic estates. Thousands of Filipinos would need dignified work if we succeeded in closing the bases.

Anti-bases coalition

Merly kept us campaigning, gave us advice and encouragement. In 1986, the anti-bases coalition came together in a common cause and finally persuaded the Philippine Senate to vote against retaining the bases. It was a historic victory. After almost 100 years they finally closed on November 22, 1992, and the proposed industrial parks were set up soon after. Merly played a significant supporting role to bring about that success, never to be forgotten. Today there are more than fifty thousand Filipinos working at Subic and as many at Clark, the former U.S. airbase in Angeles City, Pampanga.

In favor of poor farmers

Merly widened the Fair Trade project to include the exporting of dried mangoes. She gave interest-free loans to cooperatives and small farmers and paid the highest prevailing prices for their mangoes. The project brought countless advantages to poor farmers and a price-fixing cartel collapsed when demand exceeded supply.

Her dedicated life

At the same time she brought up and educated her three intelligent children who are pursuing professions and equally committed to serving the needy. All these stunning achievements were made possible because Merly Ramirez Hermoso said NO to evil and took up a mission for Christ. She dedicated her life to challenge and change injustice wherever she found it, and helped bring about historic change in the Philippines.

Merly persevered for 28 years; she was a true companion in mission. On January 15, 2002, she suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage and died two weeks later. Her passing is a terrible loss and grief to us all. Her mission is our mission and it goes on. Her life was well lived for others, her spirit is still with us and will endure forever.